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Joint Standing Committee on the National Capital and External Territories - 11/06/2013 - Provision of amenity within the Parliamentary Triangle

DURANT, Professor Graham, Director, Questacon National Science and Technology Centre

FINUCANE, Mr Bernard, Manager, People, Property and Services, Questacon National Science and Technology Centre

FROUD, Mr Alan, Deputy Director, National Gallery of Australia

PERCEVAL, Mr David, Chief Financial Officer, National Gallery of Australia

[14:42]

CHAIR: I would now like to welcome representatives from Questacon and the National Gallery of Australia. Although we do not require you to give evidence under oath, I advise you that these hearings are formal proceedings of parliament and warrant the same respect as proceedings of the respective houses. Giving of false or misleading evidence is a serious matter and may be regarded as a contempt of the parliament. The evidence given today will be recorded by Hansard and attract parliamentary privilege. I would like to invite a representative from each of Questacon and the National Gallery to make an opening statement.

Prof. Durant : I want to say a couple of things very briefly. Firstly, it is a real privilege to work in the Parliamentary Zone and, although there are certain amenities that are lacking, there are many amenities that are there. I think it should be acknowledged that it is a lovely place to work and that there are very few places where you can take a walk around the lake and see 20 species of birds in your lunch time. There are a few things that we do need to acknowledge.

From Questacon's perspective, our principle has been that access to the national institutions should be straight forward and easy for our visitors. It is that which has been driving us to make sure that there is a good experience for our visitors when they travel to visit the national institutions, and I believe that applies to all the other national institutions. That fundamental ease of access to the national institutions is the first thing we have to consider.

Secondly, we have to also look after our staff and volunteers. Questacon has a large number of casual staff and aged volunteers and we do need to make sure there are adequate facilities for them so that they can continue to work effectively.

CHAIR: I would like to ask the National Gallery if they have a statement they would like to make.

Mr Froud : Yes, thank you. I would like to confirm that the points made by Professor Durant are similarly held by the National Gallery. In fact, you may well have been reading from my script, Graham, because I had written down: No. 1 is our visitors and No. 2 is our staffing and volunteers. We do need, of course, the ability for staff and volunteers to be able to arrive for work in a timely manner and remain at work for the hours that we require, in order for the public to be granted access to the facility.

The point that we have made in the brief submission that has been provided certainly supports the provision of improved amenities within the triangle. We do believe that, particularly if we are looking at introducing paid parking into the triangle. The point I would make is, regardless of that or a position on whether paid parking is pursued or not, we believe there are some amenities that are missing from the Parliamentary Zone and we believe there is a good case to address those issues, regardless.

We make the point about banks and about a post office or sub-agency of that. I think a hairdresser, a barber, a drycleaner—those sorts of amenities and services—are ones that people who either work or visit the Parliamentary Zone could well be interested in benefiting from having access to. We believe that those sorts of amenities ought to be included within the Parliamentary Zone. We think that cafes, restaurants and the like seem to be reasonably well provided. The number of institutions and office buildings that we have with cafeterias that are publicly accessible, particularly on week days, provide for that element of service provision. It is those other services which, at the moment, people have to often travel outside for—they bring their cars so they can travel to the Civic centre or the shopping complexes or nearby shops in the suburbs in order to gain access to those sorts of services.

CHAIR: Thank you very much. I will commence by asking both of you a question. Clearly, you would appreciate the special character of the Parliamentary Triangle, in particular. What do you think about the provision of that additional amenity—banks and post offices—and doing it in a way that maintains the visibility of those national institutions, which have been the primary definers of the space, and those national icons within the precinct? We would not want a McDonalds popping up but by the same token while you have banks et cetera there you would need the profile of those things to be consistent with the visibility of the national icons and not for it to look like a shopping precinct.

Prof. Durant : Perhaps if I may go first, Chair: the Parliamentary Zone of the national capital is a very special place. We have to recognise that it is very much a work in progress and, over the next 50 to 100 years, other institutions will be added to that space as funds allow. We have to protect the character of it for visitors—the people of Australia and our international visitors—so any addition of amenity has to be done in a very sensitive way and in a way that really protects the very thing that is so special about the Parliamentary Zone. There are opportunities to do things, particularly if structured car parks or new facilities around the margins of the Parliamentary Zone are being built. It is not difficult to imagine sensitive developments to provide the amenities that people are seeking, but I think if it were done in the way that you indicate, with the golden arches, that would be wholly wrong for the area. Indeed, I have occasionally teased some of my departmental colleagues about having to achieve sponsorship to meet some of our mission. You can threaten people with some inappropriate advertising and it tends to focus the mind on what we should be focusing on, which is our content and making sure that we deliver the best quality experience to visitors.

Mr Froud : I would agree. While I do not necessarily profess to be a town planner or to speak with any authority on where specifically and in what form these amenities might be incorporated into appropriate buildings, I do feel that, with sensitivity and an appropriate consideration of the substantial and significant buildings that exist within the Parliamentary Zone, any building would have to be an appropriate citizen in the precinct, as I would see it—but I would leave it to others how that would actually be delivered. Certainly, with the advent of any particular structures associated with public amenity like car parking and so on, that would seem to be an obvious opportunity. I would think, also, of the possibility of grouping the service amenities in one location. They would need to be, presumably, reasonably centrally located in order to be accessed by pedestrians—so if people were taking public transport to and from the Parliamentary Zone they would expect to be able to get to the amenities either by using the public transport facilities operating within the site or to access those services on foot. That would be another planning consideration, but I have not got a precise solution.

CHAIR: Thank you. Can I ask you both, in relation to parking for visitors, about the extent to which you believe the free provision of parking means that people who are not there to visit institutions are encroaching on that? Also, what benefits might accrue from paid parking? I note that Questacon's submission talks about the fact that some people who are volunteering or doing short shifts currently need to walk quite a long way.

Prof. Durant : The issue of access to the workplace for staff and volunteers is important and when we have a lot of a fairly modestly paid, lower-grade staff who are casuals—a lot of our front office staff are often students who are getting work or others who do not have high wages—any impost on their budgets is clearly challenging and difficult. So we would like to see easy access to all of our facilities. Our elderly volunteer force clearly needs to be able to get close to the building. We are looking for some parking solutions that allow that easy access so we can continue to deliver our mission of behalf of the Australian people and the Australian government.

Our casual staff and volunteers are a critical part of what we offer our visitors and so we really want to make sure that they are able to get to work and work effectively without having to walk an extra 15 to 20 minutes at the start and end of each shift. We are open from the early morning right through to the late evening and we often have school groups in until nine o'clock or 10 o'clock at night. We require casual staff to work irregular hours to enable us to meet that demand from the regional schools.

Mr Froud : From the gallery's point of view, I would agree. Whilst it is absolutely critical that we have people—staff and volunteers—in order to open our building and operate it, clearly our primary objective is looking at access for visitors, many of whom have travelled some distances to come to exhibitions at the National Gallery and who are not particularly familiar with the surrounds. So it is a frustration particularly at the moment on weekdays when there is very limited parking that can be accessed by our visitors. There is clearly an opportunity. Should paid parking be introduced, clearly there may be a benefit for visitors, who are our primary consideration. But there clearly will also be challenges for our staff and volunteers in that context as well with the additional cost that that will impose which does concern us. However, we are conscious of the potential for a change such as this to cause some changes in behaviour, particularly if improved public transport servicing for the zone can be achieved. I think that could go some way towards achieving a better outcome for everyone.

Also, we have been very active in encouraging staff to cycle to work, with the provision of additional amenities and services within our building for people who choose to do so. I do not see an absolute panacea anywhere. It is about a balance. It is about encouraging behaviours to change particularly so that visitors to the national institutions can be adequately catered for.

Senator HUMPHRIES: I notice that you mentioned just then, Mr Froud, that you encourage people to cycle to work. Can either of you tell me what proportion of your workforce currently drive their cars to work? A guestimate will do.

Mr Finucane : Under 10 per cent at Questacon cycle and about another five per cent would take the bus. For volunteers, it is a higher percentage. It depends on their mobility, given their age as well.

Senator HUMPHRIES: So a minimum of 85 per cent are using their cars?

Mr Finucane : Yes.

Mr Froud : I have just consulted with my colleague very quickly. We have not actually surveyed that in recent times, but I would guess that to be around 80 to 85 per cent.

Senator HUMPHRIES: The NCA has pointed out that there are not really any planning impediments to the sorts of facilities you have spoken about in your submissions being there already. The problem, they argue, is essentially demand. It might be met in the future but at the moment apparently no commercial provider has seen the ability or the need to take up an option. I assume that neither of you are suggesting that there should be any kind of public subsidy to pay for all these facilities to be made available where the market would not demand them otherwise?

Prof. Durant : No. The only thing I would say is that if public funds were available one thing that I think is missing from the Parliamentary Zone is some visitor orientation. There have been discussions on and off over the years that a point of arrival for visitors to the Parliamentary Zone where they can receive their orientation could be something that could be linked to a parking structure. A sense of arrival for tourists and getting that initial orientation in particular is something that is quite important. The converse viewpoint is that you let people explore. It is a rich place to explore, so you enter the Parliamentary Zone at various locations, pick up your own route, explore in different ways and get to the different institutions via different means.

Senator HUMPHRIES: Speaking on behalf of your staff, if they had the choice between maintaining access to free parking and paying for parking but getting better services, which do you think they would prefer?

Prof. Durant : Gosh!

Mr CREAN: What would you prefer, Gary?

Senator HUMPHRIES: It is not a leading question; I am asking—

Mr CREAN: It sounds like it!

Prof. Durant : I have enjoyed having free parking for the time I have been director of Questacon and I think that would be true of many people. It has been a privilege and we realise that it is not the same situation for everybody in their workplace. We have had that opportunity and, certainly, for most of the time I have been director of Questacon, 10 years, there has been abundant free parking adjacent to the institution. It is only in the last couple of years that the problem has changed. That has led us down the route that we are going down now, where pay parking is coming and we have to find ways of dealing with it.

Mr Finucane : Senator Humphries question, I guess, would fall into two parts: those who are public-facing staff and those who are enabling staff. The enabling staff, I would imagine, would lean more towards free accessible parking, but those who are facing the public and, without exaggeration, see the tears of frustration with parents, have to deal with visitor feedback and see their shows unoccupied and their memberships dropping would strongly push for some solution to the current inability for visitors to get parking. That would affect their response to that question.

Mr Froud : From the point of view of the Gallery, clearly, given those two alternatives, I do not think there would be any doubt that the majority of staff would prefer the status quo—they would prefer unpaid parking. But I agree with Mr Finucane's comment. For those staff who are actually involved at the front of house or answering letters of complaint et cetera around the inability of visitors to be able to have an enjoyable experience attending our institutions, that certainly may temper some of their own views. So we certainly do have a challenge and a problem that we have to try and find a solution to, because at the moment it is not working for everyone.

Ms BRODTMANN: When we initiated this inquiry, from my perspective I was keen to explore the needs of people working in the area of the Parliamentary Triangle. I was interested to see in the Questacon submission and hear in your discussions on the NGA audience that visitors are also seeking improved amenity. Is it coming up in exit surveys or visitor surveys that you are doing that people find it a bit of an amenity wasteland?

Prof. Durant : Talking to people anecdotally, we hear stories at different times from different people and friends and colleagues comment. Visitors come from a variety of different backgrounds. Let me give you an example. It may not be the best example, but I met somebody the other day who was looking for somewhere to buy a cigarette in the Parliamentary Zone. It is nothing that we would condone, but it was a visitor to the national capital who needed a cigarette and did not know where to go. I had not a clue where I could have suggested, other than to head to Kingston, Manuka or Civic. That is perhaps not the best of examples, but it is a real example of a real issue for one particular visitor—a small shop where you can buy things of that type. There are certainly needs that visitors have. I think the overriding need though is access to the national institutions. Having loaded up a car with children and travelled one or two hours, you want to have a good sense of arrival. I think that is the compelling need for visitors.

Orientation around the Parliamentary Zone has been addressed in part by the maps that have appeared in recent years. Prior to that it was actually quite difficult for a visitor to know what was where in the Parliamentary Zone—things that we perhaps take for granted. Looking through the eyes of a visitor, you can see that there are some challenges.

Mr Froud : In terms of our exit surveys our focus is around some of our own operational issues. I do not know that we have necessarily surveyed responses around existing amenities or what amenities they would wish to be added. Anecdotally, the sense I have is that it is considered to be an area where there are scarce and limited services or an area where you would not expect to find much in the way of services.

Prof. Durant : One thing that our visitors are telling us is that when they come to a car park that is full it is very hard for them to find the other car parks in the Parliamentary Zone. If you have driven from Wagga and you arrive in Canberra and cannot get to the car park you are headed for, you have to spend a fair bit of time hunting around to find a space. I think that is something that we should consider because the importance of tourism to the ACT economy is very significant. We should be making it a lot easier for our visitors to have an enjoyable experience.

CHAIR: So clearly visitors would not be surprised to be asked to pay for parking but they probably are somewhat surprised to not be able to find a park close to where they intend to visit.

Prof. Durant : Yes, I think that is a fair observation.

Mr Finucane : Questacon visitors have said in their written feedback forms that they would be prepared to pay $20 and up for parking rather than drive and not be able to enter the building.

CHAIR: I imagine that if you have a lot of children that would definitely be the case. Thank you for assisting the committee today. If you have any additional information that you would like to provide, please get it to us by Friday, 14 June. If we have any further questions we will send them through to you accordingly. Thank you very much.

Mr Froud : Thank you.

Prof. Durant : Thank you.

Proceedings suspended from 15:07 to 15:17