“Making It Happen”: Deciphering Government Branding in Light of the Sydney Building Boom

Nicholas Richardson

Abstract


Introduction 

Sydney, Australia has experienced a sustained period of building and infrastructure development. There are hundreds of kilometres of bitumen and rail currently being laid. There are significant building projects in large central sites such as Darling Harbour and Barangaroo on the famous Harbour foreshore. The period of development has offered an unprecedented opportunity for the New South Wales (NSW) State Government to arrest the attention of the Sydney public through kilometres of construction hoarding. This opportunity has not been missed, with the public display of a new logo, complete with pithy slogan, on and around all manner of government projects and activities since September 2015. 

NSW is “making it happen” according to the logo being displayed. At first glance it is a proactive, simple and concise slogan that, according to the NSW Government brand guidelines, has a wide remit to be used for projects that relate to construction, economic growth, improved services, and major events. However, when viewed through the lens of public, expert, and media research into Sydney infrastructure development it can also be read as a message derived from reactive politics. 

This paper elucidates turning points in the history of the last decade of infrastructure building in NSW through qualitative primary research into media, public, and practice led discourse. Ultimately, through the prism of Colin Hay’s investigation into political disengagement, I question whether the current build-at-any-cost mentality and its mantra “making it happen” is in the long-term interest of the NSW constituency or the short-term interest of a political party or whether, more broadly, it reflects a crisis of identity for today’s political class. 

The Non-Launch of the New Logo

An ABC Sydney tweet 

Image 1: An ABC Sydney Tweet. Image credit: ABC Sydney. 

There is scant evidence of a specific launch of the logo. Michael Koziol states that to call it an unveiling, “might be a misnomer, given the stealth with which the design has started to make appearances on banners, barriers [see: Image 1, above] and briefing papers” (online). The logo has a wide range of applications. The NSW Government brand guidelines specify that the logo be used “on all projects, programs and announcements that focus on economic growth and confidence in investing in NSW” as well as “infrastructure for the future and smarter services” (30). The section of the guidelines relating to the “making it happen” logo begins with a full-colour, full-page photograph of the Barangaroo building development on Sydney Harbour—complete with nine towering cranes clearly visible across the project/page. The guidelines specifically mention infrastructure, housing projects, and major developments upfront in the section denoted to appropriate logo applications (31). This is a logo that the government clearly intends to use around its major projects to highlight the amount of building currently underway in NSW.

In the first week of the logo’s release journalist Elle Hunt asks an unnamed government spokesperson for a definition of “it” in “making it happen.” The spokesperson states, “just a buzz around the state in terms of economic growth and infrastructure […] the premier [the now retired Mike Baird] has used the phrase several times this week in media conferences and it feels like we are making it happen.” Words like “buzz,” “feels like” and the ubiquitous “it” echo the infamous courtroom scene summation of Dennis Denuto from the 1997 Australian film The Castle that have deeply penetrated the Australian psyche and lexicon. Denuto (played by actor Tiriel Mora) is acting as a solicitor for Darryl Kerrigan (Michael Caton) in fighting the compulsory acquisition of the Kerrigan family property. In concluding an address to the court, Denuto states, “In summing up, it’s the constitution, it’s Mabo, it’s justice, it’s law, it’s the Vibe and, no that’s it, it’s the vibe. I rest my case.” 

All fun and irony (the reason for the house acquisition that inspired Denuto’s now famous speech was an airport infrastructure expansion project) aside, we can assume from the brand guidelines as well as the Hunt article that the intended meaning of “making it happen” is fluid and diffuse rather than fixed and specific. With this article I question why the government would choose to express this diffuse message to the public?

Purpose, Scope, Method and Research

To explore this question I intertwine empirical research with a close critique of Colin Hay’s thesis on the problematisation of political decision-making—specifically the proliferation of certain tenets of public choice theory. My empirical research is a study of news media, public, and expert discourse and its impact on the success or otherwise of major rail infrastructure projects in Sydney. One case study project, initially announced as the North West Rail Line (NWR) and recently rebadged as the Sydney Metro Northwest (see: http://www.sydneymetro.info/northwest/project-overview), is at the forefront of the infrastructure building that the government is looking to highlight with “making it happen.” A comparison case study is the failed Sydney City Metro (SCM) project that preceded the NWR as the major Sydney rail infrastructure endeavour. 

I have written in greater detail on the scope of this research elsewhere (see: Richardson, “Curatorial”; “Upheaval”; “Hinterland”). In short, my empirical secondary research involved a study of print news media from 2010 to 2016 spanning Sydney’s two daily papers the Sydney Morning Herald (SMH) and the Daily Telegraph (TELE). My qualitative research was conducted in 2013. The public qualitative research consisted of a survey, interviews, and focus groups involving 149 participants from across Sydney. The primary expert research consisted of 30 qualitative interviews with experts from politics, the news media and communications practice, as well as project delivery professions such as architecture and planning, project management, engineering, project finance and legal. Respondents were drawn from both the public and private sectors. 

My analysis of this research is undertaken in a manner similar to what Virginia Braun and Victoria Clarke term a “thematic discourse analysis” (81). The intention is to examine “the ways in which events, realities, meanings and experiences and so on are the effects of a range of discourses operating within society.” A “theme” captures “something important about the data in relation to the research question,” and represents, “some level of patterned response or meaning within the data set.” Thematic analysis therefore, “involves the searching across a data set—be that a number of interviews or focus groups, or a range of texts—to find repeated patterns of meaning” (80-86).

Governing Sydney: A Legacy of Inability, Broken Promises, and Failure 

The SCM was abandoned in February 2010. The project’s abandonment had long been foreshadowed in the news media (Anonymous, Future). In the days preceding and following the announcement, news media articles focussed almost exclusively on the ineptitude and wastefulness of a government that would again fail to deliver transport it had promised and invested in (Cratchley; Teutsch & Benns; Anonymous, Taxation). Immediately following the decision, the peak industry body, Infrastructure Partnerships Australia, asserted, “this decision shreds the credibility of the government in delivering projects and will likely make it much harder to attract investment and skills to deliver new infrastructure” (Anonymous, Taxation). 

The reported ineptitude of the then Labor Government of NSW and the industry fallout surrounding the decision were clearly established as the main news media angles. My print media research found coverage to be overwhelmingly and consistently negative. 70% of the articles studied were negatively inclined. Furthermore, approximately one-quarter featured statements pertaining directly to government paralysis and inability to deliver infrastructure.

My public, expert, and media research revealed a number of “repeated patterns of meaning,” which Braun and Clarke describe as themes (86). There are three themes that are particularly pertinent to my investigation here. To describe the first theme I have used the statement, an inability of government to successfully deliver projects. The theme is closely tied to the two other interrelated themes—for one I use the statement, a legacy of failure to implement projects successfully—for the other I use a cycle of broken promises to describe the mounting number of announcements on projects that government then fails to deliver. Some of the more relevant comments, on this matter, collected throughout my research appear below.

A former Sydney radio announcer, now a major project community consultation advisor, asserts that a “legacy issue” exists with regards to the poor performance of government over time. Through the SCM failure, which she asserts was “a perfectly sound idea,” the NSW Government came to represent “lost opportunities” resulting in a “massive erosion of public trust.” This sentiment was broadly mirrored across the public and industry expert research I conducted. For example, a public respondent states, “repeated public transport failures through the past 20 years has lowered my belief in future projects being successful.” And, a former director general of NSW planning asserts that because of the repeated project failures culminating in the demise of the SCM, “everybody is now so cynical”.

Today under the “making it happen” banner, the major Sydney rail transport project investment is to the northwest of Sydney. There was a change of government in 2011 and the NWR was a key election promise for the incoming Premier at the time, Barry O’Farrell. The NWR project, (now renamed Sydney Metro Northwest as well as extended with new stages through the city to Sydney’s Southwest) remains ongoing and in many respects it appears that Sydney may have turned a corner with major infrastructure construction finally underway. 

Paradoxically though, the NWR project received far less support than the SCM from the majority of the 30 experts I interviewed. The most common theme from expert respondents (including a number working on the project) is that it is not the most urgent transport priority for Sydney but was instead a political decision. As a communications manager for a large Australian infrastructure provider states: “The NWR was an election promise, it wasn’t a decision based on whether the public wanted that rail link or not”. And, the aforementioned former director general of NSW planning mirrors this sentiment when she contends that the NWR is not a priority and “totally political”.

My research findings strongly indicate that the failure of the SCM is in fact a vitally important catalyst for the implementation of the NWR. In other words, I assert that the formulation of the NWR has been influenced by the dominant themes that portray the abilities of government in a negative light—themes strengthened and amplified due to the failure of the SCM. Therefore, I assert that the NWR symbolises a desperate government determined to reverse these themes even if it means adopting a build at any cost mentality. As a respondent who specialises in infrastructure finance for one of Australia’s largest banks, states: “I think in politics there are certain promises that people attempt to keep and I think Barry O’Farrell has made it very clear that he is going to make sure those [NWR] tunnel boring machines are on the ground. So that’s going to happen rain, hail or shine”. 

Hating Politics 

My empirical research clearly elucidates the three themes I term an inability of government to successfully deliver projects, a legacy of failure and a cycle of broken promises. These intertwining themes are firmly embedded and strengthening. They also portray government in a negative light. I assert that the NWR, as a determined attempt to reverse these themes (irrespective of the cost), indicates a government at best reactive in its decision making and at worst desperate to reverse public and media perception.

The negativity facing the NSW government seems extreme. However, in the context of Colin Hay’s work, the situation is perhaps more inevitable than surprising. In Why We Hate Politics (2007), Hay charts the history of public disengagement with western politics. He does this largely by arguing the considerable influence of problematic key tenets of public choice theory that permeate the discourse of most western democracies, including Australia. They are tenets that normalise depoliticisation and cast a lengthy shadow over the behaviour and motivations of politicians and bureaucrats. 

Public choice can be defined as the economic study of nonmarket decision-making, or, simply the application of economics to political science. The basic behavioral postulate of public choice, as for economics, is that man is an egoistic, rational, utility maximizer. (Mueller 395)

Originating from rational choice theory generally and spurred by Kenneth Arrow’s investigations into rational choice and social policy more specifically, the basic premise of public choice is a privileging of individual values above rational collective choice in social policy development (Arrow; Dunleavy; Hauptman; Mueller). Hay asserts that public choice evolved as a theory throughout the 1960s and 70s in order to conceptualise a more market-orientated alternative to the influential theory of welfare economics. Both were formulated in response to a need for intervention and regulation of markets to correct their “natural tendency to failure” (95). In many ways public choice was a reaction to the “idealized depiction of the state” that welfare economics was seen to be propagating. Instead a “more sanguine and realistic view of the […] imperfect state, it was argued, would lead to a rather safer set of inferences about the need for state intervention” (96). 

Hay asserts that in effect by challenging the motivations of elected officials and public servants, public choice theory “assumed the worst”, branding all parties self-interested and declaring the state inefficient and ineffective in the delivery of public goods (96). Although, as Hay admits, public choice advocates perhaps provided “a healthy cynicism about both the motivations and the capabilities of politicians and public officials,” the theory was overly simplistic, overstated and unproven. Furthermore, when market woes became real rather than theoretical with crippling stagflation in the 1970s, public choice readily identify “villains” at the heart of the problem and the media and public leapt on it (Hay 109). An academic theory was thrust into mainstream discourse. Two results key to the investigations of this paper were 1) a perception of politics “synonymous with the blind pursuit of individual self interest” and 2) the demystification of the “public service ethos” (Hay 108-12). Hay concludes that instead the long-term result has been a conception of politicians and the bureaucracy that is “increasingly synonymous with duplicity, greed, corruption, interference and inefficiency” (160).

Deciphering “Making It Happen” 

More than three decades on, echoes of public choice theory abound in my empirical research into NSW infrastructure building. In particular they are clearly evident in the three themes I term an inability of government to successfully deliver projects, a legacy of failure and a cycle of broken promises. Within this context, what then can we decipher from the pithy, ubiquitous slogan on a government logo? Of course, in one sense “making it happen” could be interpreted as a further attempt to reverse these three themes. The brand guidelines provide the following description of the logo: “the tone is confident, progressive, friendly, trustworthy, active, consistent, getting on with the job, achieving deadlines—“making it happen” (30). Indeed, this description seems the antithesis of perceptions of government identified in my primary research as well as the dogma of public choice theory. 

There is certainly expert evidence that one of the centrepieces of the government’s push to demonstrate that it is “making it happen”, the NWR, is a flawed project that represents a political decision. Therefore, it is hard not to be cynical and consider the government self-interested and shortsighted in its approach to building and development. If we were to adopt this view then it would be tempting to dismiss the new logo as political, reactive, and entirely self-serving. 

Further, with the worrying evidence of a ‘build at any cost’ mentality that may lead to wasted taxpayer funds and developments that future generations may judge harshly. As the principal of an national architectural practice states:

politicians feel they have to get something done and getting something done is more important than the quality of what might be done because producing something of quality takes time […] it needs to have the support of a lot of people—it needs to be well thought through […] if you want to leap into some trite solution for something just to get something done, at the end of the day you’ll probably end up with something that doesn’t suit the taxpayers very well at all but that’s just the way politics is.

In this context, the logo and its mantra could come to represent irreparable long-term damage to Sydney. 

That said, what if the cynics (this author included) tried to silence the public choice rhetoric that has become so ingrained? What if we reflect for a moment on the effects of our criticism – namely, the further perpetuation and deeper embedding of the cycle of broken promises, the legacy of failure and ineptitude? As Hay states, “if we look hard enough, we are likely to find plenty of behaviour consistent with such pessimistic assumptions. Moreover, the more we look the more we will reinforce that increasingly intuitive tendency” (160). What if we instead consider that by continuing to adopt the mantra of a political cynic, we are in effect perpetuating an overly simplistic, unsubstantiated theory that has cleverly affected us so profoundly? 

When confronted by the hundreds of kilometres of construction hoarding across Sydney, I am struck by the flippancy of “making it happen.” The vast expanse of hoarding itself symbolises that things are evidently “happening.” However, my research suggests these things could be other things with potential to deliver better public benefits. There is a conundrum here though—publicly expressing pessimism weakens further the utility of politicians and the bureaucracy and exacerbates the problems. Such is the self-fulfilling nature of public choice. 

Conclusion

Hay argues that rather than expecting politics and politicians to change, it is our expectations of what government can achieve that we need to modify. Hay asserts that although there is overwhelming evidence that we hate politics more now than at any stage in the past, he does not believe that, “today’s breed of politicians are any more sinful than their predecessors.” Instead he contends that it is more likely that “we have simply got into the habit of viewing them, and their conduct, in such terms” (160). The ramifications of such thinking ultimately, according to Hay, means a breakdown in “trust” that greatly hampers the “co-operation,” so important to politics (161). He implores us to remember “that politics can be more than the pursuit of individual utility, and that the depiction of politics in such terms is both a distortion and a denial of the capacity for public deliberation and the provision of collective goods” (162). 

What then if we give the NSW Government the benefit of the doubt and believe that the current building boom (including the decision to build the NWR) was not entirely self-serving but a line drawn in the sand with the determination to tackle a problem that is far greater than just that of Sydney’s transport or any other single policy or project problem—the ongoing issue of the spiralling reputation and identity of government decision-makers and perhaps even democracy generally as public choice ideals proliferate in western democracies like that of Australia’s most populous state. As a partner in a national architectural and planning practice states: 

I think in NSW in particular there has been such an under investment in infrastructure and so few of the promises have been kept […]. Who cares if NWR is right or not? If they actually build it they’ll be the first government in 25 years to do anything.

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Keywords


public choice theory; brand; logo; political communications; policy development



Copyright (c) 2017 Nicholas Richardson

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