Marshall’s secret Formula: E-racing pitch kept under wraps

The Marshall Government has refused to release any correspondence or briefing documents relating to a bid to bring Formula E racing to Adelaide – despite ruling out such an event taking place.

Mar 10, 2021, updated Mar 10, 2021
The Formula E Grand Prix in Santiago, Chile. Photo: EPA / Alberto Valdes

The Formula E Grand Prix in Santiago, Chile. Photo: EPA / Alberto Valdes

It comes as crossbench senator Rex Patrick raises concerns about troubling secrecy from the state government, which has similarly refused to hand over documents on several other matters, including keeping a report into the viability of water supplies to Coober Pedy residents under wraps.

Several Freedom of Information requests submitted by Patrick in recent weeks have been knocked back by state government agencies – with the senator pursuing avenues of appeal through the Ombudsman and the SA Civil and Administrative Tribunal [SACAT].

Patrick has sought access to correspondence or briefing documents related to a campaign to get the international, electric-car motorsport Formula E series into Adelaide – potentially as a ready-made replacement for the Superloop Adelaide 500 supercars event that the Marshall Government canned last year.

At the time, Premier Steven Marshall revealed that the Government and Adelaide City Council had invested in preparing a business case for Formula E, but declared Adelaide’s streetcar circuit was “very unlikely” to be revived in any form.

“The future of a streetcar racing funded by the taxpayers of South Australia in this COVID environment is completely unviable,” he said.

“I haven’t seen the business case but I think it’s going to fall into a pretty similar category to what we’re talking about [with the supercars], because… the very high infrastructure costs associated with establishing a street circuit and the very significantly diminished number of people that can attend make these types of events very difficult at this time.”

Nonetheless, discussions between the event’s proponents and the Government are being closely guarded, with Patrick “refused access in full to all documents relevant” to his application under Freedom of Information laws.

A Government spokesperson today reiterated that the event was a no-go, telling InDaily: “Together with the City of Adelaide, the SATC has investigated the feasibility of bringing Formula E to Adelaide [and] it has been determined it is not financially viable to bring the event to Adelaide at present.”

But details of the business case remain confidential.

A letter sent to Patrick late last month by new Premier’s Department boss Nick Reade, in his capacity as the agency’s Principal FOI Officer, said two documents matching his request criteria “consist of information that has a commercial value to the South Australian Tourism Commission, as well as consisting of its business, commercial and financial affairs”.

“If disclosed, the value of that information would erode SATC’s competitiveness in carrying on these activities, both in these and future arrangements with other parties,” he said.

“The SATC operates in a highly competitive tourism market. The ability to undertake confidential negotiations with organisations to secure events aimed at growing awareness of and visitation to South Australia is one of the ways the SATC is able to maximise its competitiveness.”

He said SA “competes against other states, territories, nations and private sector organisations to bring events and attractions”, which were “strategically targeted and bid for based on a calculated return on investment”.

“The goal is almost always to derive a return on investment for the state of South Australia,” he said.

“It is therefore crucial [that] when the SATC explores commercial arrangements with third parties it can be relied upon to keep commercially-sensitive information confidential, as well as maintaining the confidentiality of its own negotiating position.

“Sporting bodies and major event organisers in general do not expect their commercially and financially sensitive information to be disclosed to the public.”

Despite the Government effectively ruling out the Formula E street-race, Reade said there was “a confidentiality clause in operation between the two parties concerned and I am of the view that disclosure of this information would found an action for breach of that confidence”.

“If the SATC cannot guarantee confidentiality, it is reasonable to expect the national and international bodies and corporations may be reluctant to deal with the SATC in future projects,” he said.

“This would seriously diminish the SATC’s ability to secure new events that deliver strong economic and job outcomes for South Australians.”

Reade insisted that “should this information be released, the SATC would suffer commercial loss that would hinder its ability to negotiate similar agreements in the future”.

That’s despite Marshall effectively ruling out similar future agreements when he declared the Adelaide 500 finished.

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Patrick told InDaily: “When the Government has reportedly decided not to back a Formula E event, it’s pretty disingenuous of them to then suggest that releasing the study will give other states a competitive advantage over SA.”

“It seems to me that the Premier and the Commission have plenty of courage to say, ‘no, it doesn’t stack up’, but then seem to exhibit cowardliness when it comes to explaining how it arrived at such a conclusion,” he said.

A similar submission by Patrick to the SATC was likewise shot down, with the senator now preparing to appeal the decision to the state ombudsman.

“The SATC has a statutory obligation to identify tourism opportunities for the state, including opportunities for events such as Formula E – as such, South Australians have a right to scrutinise and check the Commission’s findings in relation to feasibility of such an event,” he said.

“The feasibility study is likely to explore very SA-specific aspects of holding a Formula E race [such as] identifying locations for holding the event, gauging public support for the event, determining whether there are infrastructure, technical or logistical barriers to running the race and establishing whether the business case stacks up.

“These are things that cannot properly be held from the South Australian public.”

A spokesperson for Marshall today insisted: “This Government is committed to transparency.”

“In fact, the Government currently has stronger FOI legislation before the Parliament,” they said.

“Ccommercially sensitive information however is not released, as is normal practice.”

They said the SATC “continues to explore events which attract visitors to Adelaide and support our local economy, while at the same time ensuring return on investment”.

Patrick is challenging a range of other knock-backs by the Government on issues he insists are in the public interest – including a government-commissioned report by SA Water into the viability of and potential solutions for water supply at Coober Pedy.

The outback town’s council runs its own treatment plant, with residents paying three times the price Adelaide consumers pay for the essential service.

Local Government minister Vickie Chapman told the ABC last year subsidising the regional hub might not be viable.

But the Government has refused to release the SA Water report under FOI, with Patrick pursuing the ruling through SACAT.

“This report was commissioned to establish the state of Coober Pedy’s water infrastructure… it was paid for from the public purse and is ultimately for public purpose,” he said.

“There can be no reasonable argument for the state to withhold this report from the people of Coober Pedy.

“We are not talking about missile release codes or submarine blueprints – this is simply about the water works of an SA township.”

Patrick argued the Government’s responses to FOI requests made a mockery of the Liberals’ claim to open and transparent government, saying “these battles should not be necessary”.

“The public are entitled to enquire into what the Government is doing and participate in debate and discussion as they see fit,” he said.

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