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local government: low farce & high drama

keith gallasch: version 1.0, the table of knowledge


David Williams, Yana Taylor, The Table of Knowledge David Williams, Yana Taylor, The Table of Knowledge
photo Heidrun Löhr
I RECENTLY MET WITH DAVID WILLIAMS OF VERSION 1.0, THE SYDNEY-BASED PERFORMANCE COMPANY THAT HAS BEEN SUCCESSFULLY TOURING FAR AND WIDE WITH THEIR INNOVATIVE AND OFTEN PROVOCATIVE CREATIONS, TO DISCUSS A NEW WORK, THE TABLE OF KNOWLEDGE. IT’S ABOUT WOLLONGONG, A REGIONAL CITY IN NEW SOUTH WALES, AND PREMIERING THERE FOR THE ENTERPRISING MERRIGONG THEATRE. THE WORK FOCUSES ON LOCAL GOVERNMENT CORRUPTION, A TIMELY SUBJECT AS MORE AND MORE CITIZENS BECOME ALERT TO THE CHALLENGES FOR AND NOT A FEW FAILURES OF THEIR TOWN COUNCILS. THE TITLE OF THE PERFORMANCE REFERS TO THE PLASTIC TABLE OUTSIDE A KEBAB SHOP IN NORTH WOLLONGONG WHERE COUNCILLORS, STAFF AND DEVELOPERS MET AT 6AM OVER COFFEE—”BETWEEN THEM THEY KNEW WHAT WAS GOING ON, WHO WAS DOING WHAT.”

Williams recalls that, “When we were making Deeply Offensive and Utterly Untrue (2007; about the Australian Wheat Board scandal) we were keeping attuned to other scandals that were breaking.” But, after the subsequent election, Williams quips, “we thought, what is version 1.0 going to do now that Howard’s not around? A couple of months after we finished Deeply Offensive, the first news stories started breaking about the Independent Commission Against Corruption’s [ICAC] investigation into Wollongong Council. They started hearings in early 2008. The reason it got national press coverage was that a female development officer by the name of Beth Morgan slept with multiple developers whose applications she was assessing for approval. She also accepted a range of gifts including large amounts of cash from several of those developers. What the investigation uncovered, however, was more than one dodgy planner. Commissioner Jerald Cripps said it was the first time an investigation had found corrupt behaviours at five tiers of management within a local government organisation.”

The Council at the time, says Williams, “thought development would be the saviour of Wollongong. ‘Now that coal and steel are winding down, we will build a beautiful Wollongong—or actually we’ll just build a bigger Wollongong. Forget beauty. Building will provide employment. It will provide space for people to come and live in all these apartment buildings. They’ll want to buy things; they’ll need services etc.’ There were several planning officers who had inappropriately close relationships with developers.”

I ask Williams how the relationship with Merrigong Theatre Company in Wollongong came about. “In 2008 I attended the Performing Arts Market and at the opening barbecue had a conversation with Simon Hinton and Anne-Louise Rentell from Merrigong. The version 1.0 artists thought the scandal was interesting and that there might be a show in it, possibly a very funny show. Merrigong also wanted to do a show about it but weren’t at that stage convinced that a devised documentary piece was the way to do it—they had a play in mind—but over the next year or so came around to the idea.

“So last year, we did six weeks of work on it, a couple of those weeks in Wollongong. We read the transcripts of the enquiry, got a sense of the ICAC ‘beast’—very different from the Cole Enquiry, the Royal Commission into the AWB scandal. That entailed a different kind of legal proceedings in which AWB deployed very high-powered lawyers and nobody answered any questions. The ICAC by contrast has special powers. In a way it’s set up a bit like a star chamber. It’s a crime to lie to ICAC and also you can’t refuse to answer a question and ‘I don’t know’ is considered a refusal. The Cole Enquiry is full of ‘I can’t recall that’ and ‘I can’t remember.’ whereas in the ICAC enquiry you are compelled to answer the question even if by doing so you will incriminate yourself. The flipside of this is that there is a declaration that witnesses can make at the beginning that they want it recorded that they’ve objected to all questions and therefore their answers can’t be used against them in legal proceedings. But surely they’re used on an evidentiary basis. All the questions have to be asked again in a court, as they do for royal commissions.”

The other thing version 1.0 found interesting was “that witnesses are not allowed to know in advance what information ICAC has against them. So it’s a much more economical enquiry. They call a witness and ask them a very truncated series of questions. They had these people under surveillance and they would just bring out footage that no one had any idea existed. A councillor might be asked if he was in such and such a place at a certain time; he denies it; a photo is produced of him at that place, at that time. ‘Is that you?’ ‘Yes that’s me.’ ‘I remind you that it’s a crime to lie to ICAC. Did you have a meeting with these people on this day?’ ‘Yes, it appears that I did.’ ‘Okay. Next witness.’ So this is remarkable evidentiary economy.”

Alan Flower, Kym Vercoe, Yana Taylor, The Table of Knowledge Alan Flower, Kym Vercoe, Yana Taylor, The Table of Knowledge
photo Heidrun Löhr
Williams was also fascinated with how “things get very loopy. In Operation Atlas, Wollongong City Council offices were raided by ICAC officers in December of 2006. All the staff had to leave the building and weren’t told why. The ICAC confiscated all the computers from the planning department, interviewed Beth Morgan and spoke to Council General Manager Rod Oxley [who is running for Mayor in the forthcoming elections. Eds]. And then they went away and no one heard anything until the ICAC proceedings started in February 2008. So there was a huge culture of paranoia throughout 2007. And then into that culture of paranoia came two con men who posed as ICAC officers and managed to extort about $300,000 out of several of the people involved in the various ‘dodgy’ planning schemes. But they do so at the time when everyone is under surveillance. So a lot of the evidence at ICAC was actually derived from these con men.

“The descriptions of the meetings with the con men are very film noir: ‘I got a call late one night to come to this car park. It was raining. There were two men in the car. He introduced himself as Ray. The other guy looked like a hit man. ‘This is Jazz—short for Jerry.’”

Williams explains that, as with other version 1.0 productions, “we had to become experts—or in our case pseudo experts in Company Law. There’s a necessity in this case to understand things like what’s an LEP? —Local Environmental Plan; what is Section 94? It’s a contribution from a developer to council for cultural purposes—arts centres and such are funded under Section 94 contributions. Is it corrupt behaviour if a Planning Officer who is a close personal friend of the developer receives a gift of a watch worth $9,000 and in the same period is approving a Section 94 contribution reduction in exchange for construction of a car-park—a single storey car-park, just a block of land with asphalt on it, in exchange for a reduction in a Section 94 contribution of $250,000? Is that technically corrupt or explicitly corrupt or is there any kind of reasonable doubt? ‘The gift had nothing to do with it; he was my friend and knew I was depressed.’ ‘Why were you depressed?’ ‘Because there was a sexual harassment charge against me!’”

Version 1.0 had to ask themselves, “What are the stakes in local government corruption? We had to wrestle with that for a while. Aren’t all local governments like this? Doesn’t this happen all the time? Should local governments just be businesses or corporations, service providers without a democratic function? Is it just a funny, silly show about a sex scandal with some con men turning up? But through the process of making it we became really interested in the way local governments operate. All politics is local in the end. The primary tier of government that most citizens relate to is their local government. A lot of the issues that were raised in the Wollongong scandal do affect other governments. There were very clear relationships between this local government and the then NSW State Labor Government. And so we have struggled with the specificity of the material but have come round to the idea that its specificity allows us to think about what kind of relationship we want to have with the places that we live and the governments that run the places that we live. And citizens don’t often think about that. Corruption scandals are always things that happen somewhere else.”

I ask Williams what shape The Table of Knowledge is taking. “In terms of finding an aesthetic framework for the work”, he says, “it will be a show that has a family resemblance to Deeply Offensive and Utterly Untrue. We’ve also got very interested in mapping and planning, Google Maps and Google Earth and trying to put things in context. When you’re talking about a building and a corrupt process for approving a building it’s pretty abstract. The show as it stands at the moment circles around three buildings, but two primarily. With one of them the Local Environmental Plan specified a maximum building height of 11 metres and the building proposed was between 45-48 metres in height! It’s monstrously exceeding all of the regulations. It’s in a mixed residential and commercial area; it’s on the highway coming into Wollongong but this huge building was constructed without any real interest in the way the local people would relate to it.”

The Table of Knowledge will premiere in the Bruce Gordon Theatre, the smaller of the two theatres at Merrigong. Williams points out that “it’s a 200-seater—about the size of a town meeting so we intend using the audience as a kind of civic meeting and involve them in some truncated elements of the planning approval process. We’ll divide the audience into committees using the geography of the seating bank. The show will also be interrupted several times. We may raid our own show. In the development showing we served ourselves with a writ. People loved that.

“So it’ll be a fun show and there is a human tragedy element to it. Beth Morgan finds out on the stand about Frank Vella, the developer she had the longest relationship with—and she absolutely thought this was love. She’s married with a small child; he’s married with a couple of kids too. She thought with the other guys, maybe I should have declared those gifts but Frank gave me things because he loved me. She finds out on the stand that during the period he had relationships with several other women. They break up just before the hearing begins and she has to admit that on the stand. So there’s also some quite emotional stuff. As with all these ‘Enquiries’ shows it’s hard to sift through material and try and translate it into performance that’s exciting and interesting and makes sense. Most of the material we draw on is from the ICAC hearings. So much like Deeply Offensive we will move in and out of the enquiry.”

As for the motif suggested by the work’s title, Williams explains, “One thing we can’t do onstage is to have lots of people round the table. We just don’t have the numbers. So we’ll have virtual people. In our green screen environment we can add people to the table who look a little bit like us in different outfits. So we’ve been playing around with that.”

From starting out as a show for and about Wollongong, The Table of Knowledge is now lined up for a tour to 12 venues in 2013. As for anticipating local response in Wollongong, Williams suggests seeing the show early in the season “before the injunctions arrive. It’ll be interesting performing it during the council elections. The show opens on Wednesday August 31 and the council election is on the Saturday September 3. We’re not campaigning for a particular candidate and not against any candidate.”


The Table of Knowledge, version 1.0 and Merrigong Theatre Company, Gordon Theatre, Illawarra Performing Arts Centre, Wollongong, Aug 30-Sept 11

RealTime issue #104 Aug-Sept 2011 pg. 14

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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