It could be Melbourne’s best kept secret: about 15 MCG’s worth of open space in the heart of inner suburbia.
Most people wouldn’t even know they could stroll right in – past the Caulfield Racecourse gates and into a public reserve set aside more than a century ago for the community’s benefit, not just for the city’s racing elite.
But the fact that many don’t know is almost deliberate: the consequence of decisions made by a secretive group of trustees heavily influenced by one of Victoria’s most powerful sporting bodies – the Melbourne Racing Club – which manages the site predominantly to serve its own interests.
“It’s a tragic waste of space,” says Don Dunstan, the past president of the Glen Eira Residents’ Association, who lives nearby.
“There’s a lake, a boardwalk, but the only people who know about it are the local people who have been around long enough to know that the gates open at a marked time. The reserve has been there for 150 years but the way it’s run has been a mess ever since.”
Situated in a municipality that happens to have the least open space in Melbourne, the Caulfield Racecourse Reserve was originally gazetted for three purposes: parkland, public recreation and horseracing.
However, management of the site has been so skewed that the Andrews government has been forced to intervene by setting up a working group to look at “options” for its future management – and it won’t rule out disbanding the trustees if longstanding problems can’t be resolved.
Much of those problems stem from the composition of the Caulfield Racecourse Reserve Trust, which is made up 15 members: including Melbourne Racing Club chair Mike Symons and vice chair Peter Le Grand; former ALP national president Greg Sword; federal court judge Shane Marshall; and Ethnic Communities Council deputy chair Marion Lau.
The issue is that the Trust is the landlord of the reserve and the Melbourne Racing Club is its tenant, but six of the Trustees also happen to be MRC nominees (a further six are nominated by the government and three others represent the Glen Eira council).
As a result, the personal and professional interests of members tend to clash with their obligations as Crown land managers and decisions on how the area could best be utilised are often left unresolved or in dispute.
As one well-placed source put it last week: “You’ve got six MRC guys in the group who just need to convince two others to vote with them, and once that happens, you’ve got the trustees effectively run by the Club. It’s obvious that the current structure doesn’t work.”
Such problems were highlighted in a scathing Auditor-General’s report released in September 2014 which found “significant deficiencies” in the management of the reserve, conflicts of interest, lack of accountability, and minimal oversight by the state government.
“There is no doubt that the reserve is a significant public asset and one of Australia’s premier racing tracks, hosting high-profile races such as the Caulfield Cup and bringing in significant revenue for the state,” the Auditor-General wrote, “however, it is not clear that the needs of the community have been appropriately balanced against the needs of racing.”
According to that report, 37 out of the reserve’s 54 hectares was being used by the MRC for racing and training “without clear legal entitlement or transparent arrangements in place that recognise the financial benefit to the club.”
A further 11 hectares was leased to the MRC – including the grandstand, and the Neerim Road and Western stables. But only six hectares was identified as space the public could potentially use – if they managed to navigate their way past the poor signage and unwelcoming access points.
With Melbourne’s population booming, the need for more open space is acute, particularly in a densely populated area such as the City of Glen Eira, which has more than 144,000 residents.
“There were about 400 kids last winter who didn’t play sport in Glen Eira because we couldn’t find a space for them to play,” says councillor Jim Magee, a former Trustee who wants the government to dismiss the current group in favour of a more accountable structure, and to give greater management authority to the council.
North Caulfield Maccabi Junior Football Club Kevin Milstein says he would like the centre of the racecourse turned into a multi-sportsfield that local clubs could share. His club, for instance, has about 550 kids who usually play at Caulfield Park during football season, but teams have to travel to Kingston Heath or Albert Park for training in the off-season because “there’s absolutely nowhere in Glen Eira that we can go.”
To utilise parkland inside the racecourse involves knowing that the gates will automatically unlock at 9.30am (once training has ended) and then walking through an uninviting tunnel and across the tracks that have hosted some of racing’s biggest events: the Caulfield Cup; the Blue Diamond Stakes; the Caulfield Guineas.
Local Liberal MP David Southwick, who has been calling on the government to act for months, says the solution to solving Glen Eira’s “open space headache” is a no-brainer for Daniel Andrews: simply open up the racecourse and establish a number of sporting grounds to give the community a reason to be there.
But adding to the reserve’s woes was an ongoing dispute between the landlord and tenant. For more than 20 years, MRC has paid an annual rent of around $95,000, which is adjusted for inflation. However, hostilities erupted when the club – which last year posted earnings of $21 million before tax – reportedly sought to reduce its rent to $100 a year, insisting that was a fair amount when you took into account the cost of maintaining the reserve.
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