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Urban Planning : Billion-Dollar, High-Tech City Down Under? : The government OKs start-up funds for a controversial project.

August 02, 1991|BOB DROGIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CANBERRA, Australia — The country that gave the world such tongue-twister towns as Wagga Wagga, Bongolongong and Dog On Tucker Box is now ready to build the Multi Function Polis.

The federal government this week announced a $9.5-million start-up grant for MFP, a planned billion-dollar city of high-tech industries, research centers and 50,000 people on what is now a toxic waste dump and swamp outside Adelaide, capital of South Australia.

"This will be a high-tech city to take Australia into the 21st Century," said Chris Chappell, a spokeswoman for the MFP task force in Adelaide. She called it a "key to transforming Australia's economy."

In 20 years, if all goes according to plan, the futuristic metropolis will contain Mediterranean-style villages, a new university and public and private research and development centers for information technology and telecommunications, environmental management and education and training.

Chappell said the city is loosely modeled on North Carolina's Research Triangle.

"We want to create a hothouse of ideas," she said. "Then you put a marketing edge on it."

That may not be easy. Debate has raged for four years over the site, the purpose and, not least, the project's name. Both the idea and the somewhat obtuse title came from a Japanese trade minister who visited Canberra in 1987.

"He thought prior to visiting Australia, he needed to bring a gift," said a Japanese diplomat here who asked not to be identified. "So he made up this idea. It was very abstract. But the name is not so auspicious. No one understands it."

Many have trouble just pronouncing it.

"Everyone who's been associated with the project has said, 'O God, we've got to change the name,' " said Sandra Eccles, an aide to John Button, Australia's minister of industry, technology and commerce, who announced the government grant.

But whatever it is called, no one in the private sector, so far, has agreed to invest in the project. Japan's international trade and industry minister, Eiichi Nakao, indicated that tax concessions or subsidies may be necessary before Japanese companies commit cash.

One reason for the reluctance is that Japanese government and commercial interest fell sharply after critics here denounced the initial MFP proposal in anti-Japanese and even racist terms.

During last year's federal elections, for example, Liberal Party leader Andrew Peacock opposed the MFP, complaining that it would create "a Japanese enclave."

The prime minister, Bob Hawke, accused Peacock of trying to "tap into the worst elements . . . in Australian thinking."

"There was a bit of a backlash," conceded Chappell. "I think we have to do a good bit to dissipate anti-Japanese paranoia."

The Japanese diplomat blamed what he called the "great xenophobia" on "a fear of overwhelming Japanese investment" in the 1980s, when cash-rich Japanese bought up Australian hotels, golf courses and tourist resorts. The investment rate has since fallen.

The future of the MFP is unclear. The government grant will create a corporation to oversee the initial development, and fund a marketing campaign to attract investors.

But skeptics say the MFP is more likely to become a white elephant.

"It's a trendy little thing that has got everyone totally confused," said Bill Kelty, secretary of the powerful Australian Council of Trade Unions.

Futuristic Metropolis

Liberal Party leader Andrew Peacock opposed the MFP, complaining it would create "a Japanese eclave."

The prime minister, Bob Hawke, accused Peacock of trying to "tap into the worst elements... in Australian thinking."

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