Why you’re unlikely to find the truth at a press conference

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Not so long ago I wrote to you about what I think is one of the best things about living in Melbourne.

That week, more than 100,000 people packed into the MCG to form Ed Sheeran’s largest-ever crowd. Across town, the bassy rock of the Red Hot Chili Peppers had been booming in Marvel Stadium. We were still recovering from the best-attended Australian Open so far, the Grand Prix was on the horizon and, after sending my newsletter to all of you and putting the newspaper to bed on the Friday, I headed over to AAMI Park for a Super Rugby double-header. Although our Melbourne Rebels went down narrowly to the Hurricanes that day, they showed a lot of fight in a thrilling match.

I genuinely believe our state’s big events, and the propensity of its residents to turn up to them, sets us apart from any other place in Australia.

The current state government and world-class minds running our biggest sport and music events deserve plenty of credit for cultivating that unique social attribute.

Unfortunately, as the saying goes, trust takes years to build, seconds to break and forever to repair.

And so the sudden cancellation of the 2026 Commonwealth Games contract landed this week like a brick through an imported double-glazed smart window.

The premier, accompanied by the Minister for Commonwealth Games Delivery Jacinta Allan and Minister for Commonwealth Games Legacy Harriet Shing, delivers the news at a press conference on Tuesday.Credit: The Age

The day after the Victorian government’s decision to cancel the event due to cost blowouts, The Age’s editorial argued that the way the cancellation was handled represented a “colossal embarrassment” for the state.

“Globally, it pitches Victoria as a state that does not follow through on major commitments, one that cannot afford to develop, manage and sustain long-term multibillion-dollar projects. It also raises questions about the Andrews government’s trustworthiness, transparency and integrity in dealing with partners.”

This publication was highly critical of the way the decision was handled and communicated, however we ultimately supported the move to cancel the event. We did so because of the widely recognised need to reduce spending on big projects to limit the state’s ballooning debt, an issue we have been writing about for years now – although Victorian taxpayers are still on the hook for a multibillion-dollar bill to cover project work and compensation after backing out of the Games contract.

“If the extraordinary cost blowout as stated by the government is close to accurate, then the decision to cancel was the right one,” the editorial read. “To continue to pursue a high-cost decentralised model for the Commonwealth Games, when Victorians have already been saddled with an intergenerational debt burden, would have been reckless.”

I don’t want to use this letter to dissect the Games decision. We’ve done so forensically through our reporting already and if I was to properly explore the myriad issues involved, this note would become long enough to make Tolstoy blush. Instead, I suggest you familiarise yourself with the excellent reporting of Chip Le Grand who this morning revealed precisely how the cost of the event had blown out to the extent cited by the government. Greg Baum, Michael Gleeson and Roy Masters, meanwhile, have been examining the reaction within Australia’s sports industry and what it means for the future of the now homeless event.

Keep an eye on our homepage and newspapers in the coming days for more details on how the state government arrived at this decision and what it means for Victoria and the future of the Commonwealth Games. There is more of this story to be revealed and we will continue to investigate the circumstances of the decision. Clearly errors were made, whether in accounting or judgement, and the people who made those errors should be accountable for them.

The Age continues to pursue and advocate for accountability, transparency and integrity in government. It is a hugely important part of our role to hold elected officials to high standards in this regard, on your behalf. We do so because you have told us you want us to do that. In my view, there is no worthier investment of your subscription.

We have done so through the state election, federal election, the pandemic, numerous corruption inquiries and through our examination of government programs, such as Liam Mannix’s recent investigation into the federal government’s medical research funding program.

On the question of the Commonwealth Games, however, accountability and transparency have been in short supply.

Press conferences have been held, but answers have been few and far between. The “dead bat” responses of government spokespeople have blocked scores of legitimate questions about the Games, such as when the government became aware of cost blowouts, the size of any compensation deal for the cancelled contract and who was responsible for rejecting Games authorities’ suggestion to cut costs by centralising the event in Melbourne rather than staging it across multiple regional hubs.

After more than a year of telling Victorians how great this event would be for the regional centres of Ballarat, Bendigo, Geelong, Shepparton and Gippsland, the government could surely spend an hour or two explaining how it all fell apart. Victorians should know who is responsible for those failings and what has been done to ensure mistakes won’t be repeated. Don’t expect that information to be freely shared at a press conference.

It is a misconception that the staging of frequent press conferences means the organisation holding them is practising transparency and accountability. In fact they are designed to provide a platform for politicians and others to spruik the talking points they want to spruik, while maximising the number of cameras and microphones pointed at them while they do it.

Both the government and the opposition in Victoria – and federally – are addicted to these staged events. Most ministers favour them while eschewing detailed interviews where reporters can explore the context behind decisions and interrogate detail with successive questions.

I am not arguing for the end of political press conferences – only for more willingness from politicians to provide information – and our reporters will continue to participate. But these events are becoming less and less valuable to our journalism. Our reporters are encouraged to probe further, knowing they are unlikely to receive answers with substance at these events. They find people willing to explain to the public what is going on behind the scenes. These people speak to us with a level of bravery they shouldn’t need to muster; public servants and junior politicians are gagged from speaking publicly more regularly now than I have seen at any point during my career.

Speaking to these people is how we share with you the truth about how we are governed. But we have to go looking for it. Truth is seldom found at a press conference.

Patrick Elligett sends an exclusive newsletter to subscribers each week. Sign up to receive his Note from the Editor.

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