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Finance and Public Administration Legislation Committee
21/05/2018
Estimates
PRIME MINISTER AND CABINET PORTFOLIO
Office of the Official Secretary to the Governor-General

Office of the Official Secretary to the Governor-General

[21:58]

CHAIR: Now we will move to the Office of the Official Secretary to the Governor-General. I welcome Mr Mark Fraser, Official Secretary to the Governor-General, and Mr Paul Singer, Deputy Official Secretary to the Governor-General. Do you wish to make an opening statement?

Mr Fraser : Thank you, Chair. The Governor-General has now been in his role for a little over four years and is expected to conclude his term in March 2019. Their Excellencies have now spent 37 per cent of their program in rural, regional and remote Australia, including visiting 189 different locations on 526 separate trips. They are now approaching 3,300 official engagements to date and have welcomed over 170,000 guests to both properties. In fact, on Saturday just gone, Their Excellencies hosted an open day at Admiralty House which over 3,600 people attended. Later this week Their Excellencies will make a three-day state visit to Vietnam.

With respect to Australian honours and awards, we continue working on an ambitious project to streamline and digitise the entire process, including launching a new electronic nomination form in January this year. Since the new form was introduced we have seen a 71 per cent increase in the total number of nominations received. I am also very pleased to report that, as a result of a concerted campaign to increase the number of nominations for women, the number of nominations received this year to date for women is up 63 per cent on the average of the last five years. At the same time, nominations for men are also up by around 14 per cent over that five-year average. So as a share of total nominations we have seen a 25 per cent improvement this year in the number of nominations for women, now approaching 40 per cent. Of course, there is still a lot of work to be done and we need the community to keep up its momentum in nominating. It will also take some time to see the outcomes from those nominations, but we are doing our best to manage the influx that we've received. We're also working hard to shorten the timetable from nomination to outcome to around 12 months, but that's a big ask at present with the enormous influx of nominations we have received.

My colleagues and I were delighted that over the past several months we were able to host the committee on visits to Admiralty House in Sydney and Government House in Canberra and to brief you on our property works program and other matters. We have no questions on notice outstanding. I look forward to answering the committee's questions.

CHAIR: Thank you, Mr Fraser. I would like to begin where you left off, which is to thank you and your team for hosting the committee on those two visits to the official residences, and also to place on the record our gratitude for your careful stewardship of the significant heritage assets they represent for our country. I particularly want to focus my questions on the Admiralty House visit that Senator Kitching, Senator Smith and I attended. We all appreciated you briefing us on the potential heritage issue that you are managing. This might be a good opportunity for you to share that with other members of the committee, and then I might ask some follow-up questions. So perhaps a brief outline of that heritage issue at Admiralty House.

Mr Fraser : Certainly. The office continues to manage this long-standing issue in relation to the Admiralty House marine barracks complex and the powder magazine, known as the Kirribilli Point Battery. Given structural damage that's occurring to that area, caused by tree root intrusion from a mature, self-seeded Moreton Bay fig tree on that point, this issue has been under active management for 30 years. There have been numerous reviews and studies into that. It is a very significant precinct that we are looking to protect. In fact the fortifications date from 1855, from the Crimean War period. They are two of the remaining fortifications in Sydney Harbour of that era, the other being Fort Denison.

The advice we've received, which I have shared with the committee not only in the briefing but subsequently in writing, is extensive advice, including from eight specialists in the field, including heritage architects, landscape architects, structural engineers, arborists, tree stability specialists and quantity surveyors. The advice is that although the tree is of significant importance in its own right, ultimately, to protect the Marine Barracks precinct from the significant damage that's being created, the tree will have to go in order to protect the supreme heritage values of the precinct.

CHAIR: Thank you, Mr Fraser. Am I right in remembering that the consistent advice you have received from arborists and others is that there is no way of preserving the barracks without removing the tree?

Mr Fraser : That's correct. In essence, we have tried for years for solutions to keep the tree, which is of great aesthetic beauty and importance to the landscape. It is a self-seeded tree—it is not native to that location. Ultimately our responsibilities, as reported from the expert advice under the EPBC Act, is that we have to look after the heritage values of that area. There is a risk of catastrophic damage being caused to that building at any time. That can be from root protrusion, from a splitting of the bedrock, the tree falling, not to mention the structural damage that it's currently causing.

CHAIR: For the benefit of the committee, gradually the building is being pushed away from its foundations due to the growth of the roots of the tree.

Mr Fraser : That's right. The estimation is that it has been 15 centimetres in total since the impact of the tree has become prominent. We've been monitoring for some time with laser sensors. The wall is moving two to three millimetres per year at the moment. The latest advice we have is that it may maintain its structural integrity for up to seven years, but it's anyone's guess, and there could be catastrophic failure at any time. As such, I think we have reached the tipping point in terms of managing the associated risks as well as we could until this point, and now is the time to act. We propose to do so in the coming financial year.

CHAIR: Thank you for mentioning that. Obviously none of us would be forgiven if such a significant heritage precinct was damaged because of inaction. Your view is that the time is imminent that action is required.

Mr Fraser : That's right, Senator.

CHAIR: As you mentioned, the tree was self-seeded—it wasn't planted for any ceremonial purpose or by a foreign visiting dignity or anything like that.

Mr Fraser : No.

CHAIR: Is it your view that the tree can and should be replaced by another more suitable tree?

Mr Fraser : Yes. The advice we have from our heritage and landscape architects is that we replant with a mature planting in or around that area, something that won't cause that sort of structural damage in the future, probably something like a Sydney red gum, which is native to Sydney harbour.

CHAIR: Senator Kitching, I think you might have questions on this.

Senator KITCHING: Thank you very much, Mr Fraser, and thank you for having us to Admiralty House and Yarralumla. I also want ask about what we saw at Admiralty House. You might have covered this, Chair. What is the time frame? It's moving a few inches a year, is that it?

Mr Fraser : Our latest advice is two to three millimetres a year at the moment. That can change. It can be seasonal, with damp weather or particularly hot weather which could create certain expansion. There is evidence that in around 2003 one of the retaining wall bricks was actually dislodged entirely. There is a risk because we don't know the underground topography there, although there is bedrock underneath the root system, whether the roots have intruded to such an extent to create fissures which could create a landslide if there happens to be wet weather or a weather incident. So there is significant risk of a catastrophic failure on the part of the tree. That could not only wipe out the marine barracks but the entire point precinct. You will recall that we also looked at the gunpowder room there, which is a significant heritage asset as well.

Senator KITCHING: I want to ask about that and about the barracks. There is possibly a plan that those barracks could become an educational centre, which would be quite handy. It is a very good location for schoolchildren to disembark from the harbour and go through that way. You have had some costings—

Mr Fraser : We haven't had any costings done, but it has been a long-held dream of mine and colleagues at the office. We receive over 20,000 school students a year to Government House in Canberra. They get to meet the Governor-General and learn about civics and our system of government. We are unable to do that in Sydney because of the access to the site and not having appropriate facilities. One idea for the marine barracks area, which is not currently in active utilisation, would be to turn that into a visitor management centre, some kind of little exhibition space or space where students could be briefed and learn about the history of Sydney Harbour and the role of the Governor-General. My estimation, though, is that, in order to be able to bring students in regularly, it would be a significant investment on the part of the government if they chose to do that.

Senator KITCHING: I am planning to raise that in Defence estimates, because obviously it has a heritage value for Defence. I want to ask about the room where gunpowder was originally stored. We saw that you had cut the roots in order for you to access that. That's also in imminent danger of being permanently affected.

Mr Fraser : Yes. You can see that, whilst the structural integrity and part of the domed roof in the gunpowder store are intact, where there are joins we have massive protruding roots that are several inches thick pushing the walls apart. So there could be significant, irreparable damage unless we acted very soon.

Senator KITCHING: I will finish there, other than to say that I think it would be quite irresponsible if work wasn't done to save that part of the point. I will pursue that in Defence estimates as well, next week.

CHAIR: Are the funds necessary to complete this work able to be absorbed within the appropriation for the Governor-General or do further funds need to be sought?

Mr Fraser : It's something we would need to address and look at very carefully. We are funded at the moment approximately $2.6 million per annum for property works associated with Government House in Canberra and Admiralty House in Sydney. It's hard to estimate exactly what it would cost to remove the tree and undertake the restoration work, but I anticipate something in the order of around $500,000. We would look carefully to see whether we can reprioritise existing works, to see whether we can accommodate it within our existing appropriation next year and, if not, to talk to government about alternative ways of funding those works.

CHAIR: I'm sure the committee will look forward to more updates on this as it progresses.

Mr Fraser : Thank you for your support.

Senator SMITH: On the same topic—and this was a question I asked when we did the tour, and thank you very much for the hospitality that was extended to us—you say the tree is self-seeded, so the tree itself has no historical or heritage value. By that I mean that it has not been planted by a previous Governor-General or visitor to our country. The tree itself began and has emerged—because it's a very, very large tree—as a result of a seed from another tree.

Mr Fraser : Yes.

Senator SMITH: So it's not a planting as such.

Mr Fraser : That is correct, although it's taken on its own natural beauty. Aesthetically, from the harbour, it's an important part of the estate. Everyone, including their excellencies, of course, will be very sorry to see it go.

Senator SMITH: So it has not been planted by a historical figure.

Mr Fraser : No, it hasn't.

Senator SMITH: It has no heritage connection to the site.

Mr Fraser : That's right.

Senator PATRICK: I have a slightly different line of questions. Have the current Governor-General and/or his office participated in any national counterterrorism exercises during his term?

Mr Fraser : No, he has not.

Senator PATRICK: I note similar questions were asked back in February 2005, so that was probably not something that you're familiar with. This relates to the Governor-General's role as commander-in-chief of the Defence Force and the command structure arrangements when there is a requirement to call out Australia's armed forces in respect of domestic security arrangements. Particularly noting the Governor-General's previous career, I just wondered if that command chain had ever been exercised, particularly noting the current terrorism environment that we are operating in.

Mr Fraser : Thank you for the question. The Governor-General is briefed on those arrangements, as is the office. I have a copy of certain classified briefings that relate to arrangements that my office is apprised of—the Governor-General—in terms of contingency planning on behalf of the government. About call-out powers and things, sometimes these are matters the Governor-General is briefed on or are matters that come to Executive Council for consideration, but he hasn't participated in any exercising of those powers.

Senator PATRICK: I'd point out that back in 2005-06 the Governor-General and/or someone from his office were involved in actual exercises, where they went to command areas and so forth. That was the nature of the questions. I guess I'll follow some of these questions up with PM&C and Defence. Thank you.

Senator SMITH: Mr Fraser, did the Governor-General watch the royal wedding on Saturday evening?

Mr Fraser : I think he was certainly aware of the coverage. I'm not sure whether he stayed up, like many of my colleagues did, to watch the wedding, but he sent a message on behalf of all Australians to the royal couple, and that has been receipted by their office. Of course, he's delighted to see the wedding go off as well as it did.

Senator SMITH: Are there any plans for Australians to see Prince Harry and Meghan in the near future?

Mr Fraser : I couldn't speculate about that, but, they of course, as the Governor-General has indicated, will always be welcome and warmly received in Australia should they choose to travel here.

Senator SMITH: Great. The next question was going to be, 'Did the Governor-General have a favourite part of the royal wedding?' but unless, from conversation with His Excellency, you can reveal—

Mr Fraser : Not that he's expressed to me, no.

Senator SMITH: On a more serious note, June this year marks the 65th anniversary of the coronation of the Queen. How does the Governor-General intend to mark the occasion? Has there been any correspondence between the government and the Governor-General in regard to this significant, historic, unprecedented milestone?

Mr Fraser : The Governor-General is in regular correspondence with Her Majesty to mark various occasions. Her birthday recently in April was one such occasion. I imagine the Governor-General would mark this occasion similarly by writing to Her Majesty and promoting and sending a message, like he has done on other occasions, but there has been no correspondence between the government and the Governor-General on this matter.

Senator SMITH: Has there been any suggestion that the government might inquire of the Governor-General what might be an appropriate and fitting way to mark the occasion?

Mr Fraser : I'm not aware of any such discussions at this stage.

Senator SMITH: Okay. Thanks very much.

Senator KITCHING: Mr Fraser, in Budget Paper No. 2, on page 167, there's an additional $1.4 million of funding. Is that for capital expenditure, or is it all for operations?

Mr Fraser : It's all operational expenditure. It really relates to the increased operational tempo that the office has experienced in honours, as I mentioned in my opening statement. There's been a significant uplift in the order of 42 per cent this year alone across the Order of Australia honours system and an increase of around 30 per cent in the Governor-General's outreach and engagement over the last 12 months. They're the primary drivers, and there are other areas across our operations where we have increased tempo and we needed some supplementation to address those challenges.

Senator KITCHING: So that's the digitisation for the office we saw, where the work was done on those honours and awards programs?

Mr Fraser : Yes.

Senator KITCHING: So the digitisation will actually help those programs?

Mr Fraser : Absolutely. It will indeed and it will enable us to address the backlog and the increasing number of nominations we're receiving in the Order of Australia, and the additional outreach and engagement and some other internal programs—security, cybersecurity and the like.

Senator KITCHING: You have already spoken, in your opening statement, about the greater number of nominations for women. Firstly, having an electronic form—that alone has increased the number of nominations for women?

Mr Fraser : It has indeed, yes. This year, since we introduced the electronic nomination form, we've had a 71 per cent increase in nominations since January of this year. That's a significant uplift. Being able to navigate the old manual form and fill out all the relevant information was clearly a barrier to people accessing the system. It's been streamlined and digitised, and that's been part of an investment program on the part of the office.

And in the campaign to improve the number of nominations from women, there have been numerous steps taken, including a social media campaign by the Governor-General and Lady Cosgrove, distributing thousands of postcards where people can nominate on a civil postcard format, writing letters to patronage organisations—Top Fortune 500 companies in Australia, state governors around Australia—speeches the Governor-General has made and, as a result of all those steps and working with PMCA and others on similar initiatives, there has been a 63 per cent increase in the number of nominations received for women this year to date over the average of the last five years.

Senator KITCHING: So you received more than 42,000 items of correspondence; included in that number is 2,121 nominations for Australian Bravery Declarations. What are the other 40,000? I mean, are they pertaining to awards, to nominations for honours and awards as well?

Mr Fraser : The vast majority of correspondence we have does relate to the honours and awards system—referee reports, sound reforms, associated documentation. We also do a significant number of anniversary cards in our office, where we distribute for wedding anniversaries and 100th birthdays and the like on behalf of the Governor-General and Her Majesty the Queen. That is a significant part of our correspondence management as well.

Senator KITCHING: I now move to contact with the executive government. Outside of meetings of the executive council, are any arrangements in place for regular or, perhaps, irregular or out-of-the-ordinary meetings with members of the executive government?

Mr Fraser : The Governor-General meets regularly with the Prime Minister. They generally choose to have a breakfast meeting. They meet approximately every month or six weeks, just the two of them—the Governor-General and Prime Minister. It is a regular meeting, not unlike Her Majesty has with her Prime Minister in the United Kingdom. Those meetings occur regularly. The Governor-General also meets regularly with members of parliament on social occasions, activities and charitable events as he moves about the country.

Senator KITCHING: So they are on a more social basis, not a formal meeting?

Mr Fraser : No, there would be very few other formal meetings that I could recall.

Senator KITCHING: I think I'm coming to a close, Chair,. I might put the rest on notice.

CHAIR: Yes, we are indeed pressed for time. Thank you very much, Mr Fraser and Mr Singer, for your evidence tonight. The committee will now move to the Australian National Audit Office.