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Joint Standing Committee on the National Capital and External Territories
National Capital Authority

PENN, Ms Shelley, Chair, National Capital Authority

RAKE, Mr Gary, Chief Executive, National Capital Authority

Committee met at 12:15.

CHAIR ( Senator Pratt ): I now open this biannual hearing with the National Capital Authority. I ask that a committee member move that media be allowed to film the proceedings today, in accordance with the rules set down for committees, which includes not taking footage or still images of papers or laptops.

Mr SIMPKINS: So moved.

CHAIR: I welcome everyone here today. As we know, the biannual hearing with the NCA is an important part of our committee's work, because it gives us an opportunity to engage with the authority on matters of importance to the national capital. I would like to place on record the committee's appreciation to the National Capital Authority for its cooperation and assistance throughout this year. The executive officer, Gary Rake, has always been available to us to provide briefings and information; he has kept us up to date. This morning, the Minister for Regional Australia, Regional Development and Local Government, Simon Crean, asked this committee to conduct as inquiry into the management of the diplomatic estate in Canberra. I know that this subject is of interest to sections of the Canberra community and the diplomatic corps.

There will be more information about this inquiry on the committee's website this afternoon, but I can now say that we will be receiving submissions in coming weeks and will commence formal hearings in the new year. I note that the committee has been asked to report on 30 March. That being said, this is a biannual hearing on the broad issues effecting the NCA. We may traverse those and perhaps other issues as well.

Although the committee does not require you to give evidence under oath, I advise that these hearings are formal proceedings of parliament and warrant the same respect as proceedings of the respective houses. The giving of false or misleading evidence is a serious matter and may be regarded as a contempt of parliament. The evidence given today will be recorded by Hansard and attracts parliamentary privilege. I note that we have got limited time today, but I invite you both, if you want, to make very brief opening statements. I do know the committee has a number of questions. Thank you.

Ms Penn : Thank you, first of all, for the opportunity to present to the committee and to address any questions that the committee members might wish to raise with us. In opening, I did intend to report briefly and to provide you with a snapshot of our work over the last five months since we saw you; however, given time constraints, what I propose to do is set that aside. The annual report was tabled in October. There is a lot of detail in there. I urge you to read it. There are copies here. I invite you to open up to questions. In relation to the inquiry, we were made aware of that this morning. I am going to ask Mr Rake to speak briefly to that, but we will be happy to answers questions as well.

Mr Rake : I do not have a general opening statement, although this morning we were advised that the committee would be considering whether to hold an inquiry. We were provided a copy of the minister's letter, which included a draft set of terms of reference. I wonder whether the committee has already resolved the terms of reference. I would like to ask, even if that resolution has been passed, whether the committee would consider an additional term that would consider the extent to which Australia's foreign affairs considerations guide the development and management of diplomatic missions in Canberra.

CHAIR: Thank you. I am sure that is something that we can be mindful of. I will commence with an initial question. This might fit into some of the overall work that the NCA has been doing. You will be aware of the report that this committee did, Etched in stone, on monuments and other commemorative sites. We are interested in any progress that may have been made in implementing those recommendations and the response to those suggestions made by this committee.

Ms Penn : Initially, we were waiting for a response to that report. We have certainly read the report and we are very mindful of the recommendations. Without a government response, we are not implementing anything in particular. But we are conscious of those recommendations in any work that we do that is related to the report.

CHAIR: I appreciate that you cannot comment as to what advice you provided to government, but I assume that you are involved in making progress on those questions.

Mr Rake : We are. When the report was released, the board of the NCA considered the recommendations, and we included in a public record of our meeting minutes that we endorsed the vast majority of those recommendations. To the extent that we are asked for advice, even before the government response, we will take very careful account of those recommendations. We have had proponents come to us with ideas for new memorials and we have referred them to your committee's report and suggested that they read very carefully the proposed improvements in the process. Where we have had some specific requests for, particularly, site extensions for existing proposals, we have noted that there is a very clear recommendation in your report that no extension be granted until we have a new process and that they be assessed against that. We have held off on calling for any additional CNMC meeting to consider those extensions. We have deferred asking—

CHAIR: Notwithstanding the fact that the government has not yet responded formally, clearly those matters must, in some way, have started to influence your decision making.

Mr Rake : And very positively.

Ms Penn : They have. They have been very helpful.

Ms BRODTMANN: You are currently conducting a community consultation with Canberrans, primarily in the inner south, on the Stirling Ridge-Attunga issue. The deadline for that is 14 December. I know that in the back of your brochure that you handed out at the consultation at Yarralumla you gave a time line or steps for it. Can you give us an idea about how your submission process will fit with the deadlines for this inquiry?

Mr Rake : We have a public consultation underway and submissions close on 14 December. We would let that process continue and prepare a consultation report in time to make it available as evidence for the committee's inquiry. I think it is fair to say that the board of the NCA would hold off any further consideration of draft amendment 78, pending the inquiry.

Dr LEIGH: I want to get an update, if I could, on the Scrivener Dam project. How is it going in terms of time lines and budget?

Ms Penn : It is going well from our perspective given the fact that it is not an ideal situation to have been an issue in the first instance. It is actually getting better and better in the sense that we have been homing in very sharply on our timing and budget. Our budget is looking much more positive than originally forecast. We are very confident about that budget now and also our timing for the works, which we hope to have complete in the next 12 and a bit months. We are feeling very happy about that. We also feel quite positive that we have been able to manage impacts on the whole quite well as the work to date has gone on. We therefore feel reasonably confident about that in the coming period during construction.

Dr LEIGH: Bowen Place is the other project that is very much in my mind. What is the timing looking like for the Bowen Place crossing?

Mr Rake : It remains unaltered from our last public statement, which would be a commencement of major physical works in early 2014, probably with completion by the end of the calendar year 2014. We will be trying to do some interim works between now and the start of the major works. Improving the safety of the crossing that is currently there will involve moving it about 100 metres. That will achieve two things. It will improve safety immediately and it will also give us the construction detour that we need while we build the main project. We hope that those works will be tabled for parliamentary approval either later this evening or tomorrow morning. That will be the final step in the approval process. It will give us the greatest level of certainty and approval that project has ever had. The current forecast still remains within budget. It is deliverable.

Dr LEIGH: That is great. My final question, if I may: I put out a call on Twitter for questions that I should ask you. Paul Harders said that I should ask why the NCA is not more committed to lakeside projects that make the lakeside fun and social. He said that Melbourne Southbank should be a model, which I am sure Ms Penn would have views on. What are your views on Mr Harders' question?

Ms Penn : I would have a view in relation to Southbank. I would not support that as something that I think the Lake Burley Griffin foreshore should aspire to. It is fantastic as it is. Southbank is part of Melbourne and that is quite a different thing. The context is different. That does not mean that there should not be fun activities and a sense of the lake as a fabulous place for people to enjoy—to be a lively, engaging place. That is something that we do support. In fact on a number of occasions we have looked at how we could facilitate structures that are completely consistent with the National Capital Plan and yet allow impromptu events—stalls for food or whatever it happens to be that encourages those kinds of views. I could not say that we have a strategy that is laid out as to how to make that happen, although perhaps Gary is going to tell me that we do! It is something that we think is important.

Mr Rake : There are two identified areas around Lake Burley Griffin for quite intense medium- and high-density close development. Kingston foreshore is almost complete, and the harbour there should open by about February of 2013. There are plans actively underway to make that a pretty active and vibrant place. The National Capital Plan allows for development of West Basin in the longer term, which will bring the city towards the lake. That plan requires a very generous, well-designed and active public domain. It is not to privatise the lake shore; that is not something that we would support. But it will bring that 24-hour life down towards that part of the lake.

Then elsewhere we are able to maintain a balance where we have quieter, more naturalistic areas towards the western area of the lake and around Central Basin. Both on the southern shore and the northern shore we have the opportunity for temporary events. They can range from Floriade in Commonwealth Park to special events in Commonwealth Place and Reconciliation Place.

Events that use the lake: the next one is quite a new event and, hopefully, a major one. On 8 December, the Burley Griffin Regatta will be on Central Basin with major entertainment in Commonwealth Park and Rond Terrace. An idiot who also fills the role of chief executive may be splashing around on the water and falling off a boat.

Dr LEIGH: Thank you.

Ms BRODTMANN: Back to the submission. Can you just outline what major themes are emerging so far through the public consultation process? You might just want to separate the Attunga issues from the Stirling Ridge issues?

Ms Penn : I will actually defer to Gary on the detail of submissions received to date. I certainly have not seen all the submissions received to date. They will obviously come to the authority as a whole and we will read them very carefully.

But I have followed some of them; I have certainly followed Twitter, articles and letters to editors and so on. There is clearly concern by a number of people about the impacts on their use of open space. There appear to be concerns around environmental qualities; that is something that we can answer. There are key things that emerging, which I would just identify. I think there are also concerns, and I will ask Gary to talk to them in a more detailed way, about the proposed use of diplomatic estates specifically and other impacts like traffic and so on.

Mr Rake : We have three amendments in the public domain. There is the removal of all reference to the immigration bridge. We have only had one submission on so far, someone who has said, 'Please keep it, it is good for pedestrian connections'. There is Yarramundi grasslands; no submissions as yet—we anticipate that that one will be reasonably supported. There are some concerns being expressed around environmental values and the compatibility of development for a future Prime Minister's Lodge on Attunga Point. We will take those into account as they come forward. Interestingly, some alternative ideas for the PM's Lodge or for a future Lodge do involve moving it back to the top of Stirling Ridge, which we believe has far greater environmental problems.

Ms BRODTMANN: Have there been any suggestions to move it there?

Mr Rake : Yes. There was a letter to the editor yesterday or today from Jack Kershaw.

Ms BRODTMANN: Oh, yes.

Mr Rake : One of the historians, Graeme Barrow, who has written extensively on the history of the current Lodge, has suggested that Attunga Point should not be considered and that the top of Stirling Ridge is still the site to retain. We do not believe that that is environmentally responsible or viable.

Within the main element, the diplomatic use, we are getting a range of issues. Environmental issues are still being raised. We believe we have analysed those carefully, but we will keep looking for new issues in submissions. Bushfire has been raised, and it falls into a similar category. There is stuff that I would call the practicalities—parking, transport management, lighting, form of development, building heights. Those are still matters of great interest, particularly to the local community, and it is probably the area, if we were proceeding through the amendment, that we would be looking for the most discussion and the most potential for future change. There are a lot of things that can be done in laying out an urban development plan to address those very real day-to-day concerns.

There is another theme and it goes to the heart of the suggestion I made about an additional term of reference, and that is people questioning the need for further diplomatic land at all. It has to be said that some of the comments that are being made I find difficult to accept and particularly if they are being made by people who are not willing to be publicly identified or have their names attached to their comments. I have been accused of sitting at a public meeting two weeks ago and telling 80 residents that I was not interested in their opinions. That is simply not true. I believe the statement they are referring to is one where I said public consultation is not simply about collecting a yes or no vote; we are looking for issues. One really powerful issue can kill a proposal—stop it dead in its tracks; and a large number of no votes without a substantive issue will not necessarily alter the course of a proposal.

Some of the views that have been put privately to us are from people who are not attaching their names to them. One person who is prominent in the campaign against this proposal said that they have 'checked Australia's trading relationships and the top 50 countries with whom Australia deals are already represented in the national capital, and we do not need to establish formal relationships with any others'.

Ms BRODTMANN: I really do not see any value in reading out comments from people who will not identify themselves.

Mr Rake : Our process means that—

Ms BRODTMANN: Do you actually acknowledge those and count them as public submissions?

Mr Rake : We take account of those.

Ms BRODTMANN: You are very broad-minded.

Mr Rake : We will identify those but it makes it very hard. A tweet was sent out—I do not know the name of the person that runs the account—highlighting parking issues that already exist in Yarralumla. The insinuation was that this is the sort of thing we could expect with more diplomatic missions. The photo that was sent out was of cars parked outside the mosque for Friday morning prayers. In the context of other views that have been put to us privately, it makes for a pretty unsavoury debate.

Ms BRODTMANN: I have one more question. A number of years ago the ANAO did a report on the leasing arrangements for the diplomatic estate, and I understand just from our private conversations before this hearing that it has taken a while for that to actually roll out. In that was the suggestion that there was no sort of plan in terms of the management of the diplomatic enclave or the diplomatic estate throughout Canberra. When was the last time that people in this community—the NCA, DFAT and others—took a close look at how the diplomatic estate is managed in Canberra?

Mr Rake : In terms of the planning land management, I cannot recall a last time. So it sits pretty squarely within the terms of reference of the inquiry that you have agreed. The ANAO report focused largely on the administration of the leases and primarily on the pricing. We do not provide missions with land free of charge. There are one of three options. They can essentially buy it, rent it or do a swap where they give us something of equal suitability in their home nation. The ANAO highlighted that there were some disparities in those pricing arrangements.

The work of the interdepartmental committee that looked at leasing arrangements has completed its work. It has given recommendations to Minister Crean, and I understand that that is working through as a recommended new government policy position. It would not impede changes that may flow from the vast majority of your terms of reference here. Really, the major likely change would be if the Commonwealth were not involved in issuing the leases, in which the case the Commonwealth's own pricing policy would not apply. So I do not think it is inconsistent at all with the inquiry.

Senator HUMPHRIES: I was also going to ask questions about the proposed diplomatic estate of Stirling Ridge, but we are going to return to that issue, in a sense, through our other inquiry. Could you supply on notice what the endangered or threatened species of flora are, on Stirling Ridge, at present?

Mr Rake : Yes, I can. They are also highlighted at length in the initial site assessment that we conducted, which is published on our website and is in the public domain, but I will also provide it directly to the committee.

Senator HUMPHRIES: Great, that would be handy. Thank you very much. Could you comment on the extent to which introduced species might be planted in what I assume would be quite large gardens or open spaces around diplomatic missions, built on that site reserved for missions, at Stirling Ridge? What measures are proposed to be put in place by the NCA to prevent those species from introducing themselves into the open space on Stirling Ridge?

Mr Rake : At the public meeting, Tuesday week ago, we were asked a similar question. Our powers are expensive enough that we could prescribe down to species level the plants that are allowed to be planted in the diplomatic gardens. As a result of the consultation process, if the amendment were going ahead—and noting my earlier comments—we could prescribe that all landscaping be of native species or species that have a known low environmental weed habit. We could have a list that simply banned particular species. We could adopt the ACT government policy on invasive weeds, both those that are banned and those that are recommended against and we could ban them all.

Senator HUMPHRIES: That is what my question is: are you going to do that or is it simply an option you will explore?

Mr Rake : It is an option we would support. It is not in the current amendment but it was raised a fortnight ago at public consultation. We responded very favourably and at that point said, 'That sounds like the sort of thing we could put into the actual amendment if we were to agree to it and propose it.' We are able to do that also with the nature of fencing and lighting and on-street parking, which do not have the same environmental problems but they do cause concerns for adjacent residents in the existing diplomatic areas.

Ms Penn : That is a good example of the benefit of community consultation, if the amendment were to proceed and obviously that will be pending the inquiry. It is not just those sorts of factors about limiting negative impacts of introduced species but also the design of the whole thing, the layout and detailed planning, that needs to be highly considerate of those factors as well as of local adjoining residents and so on. They are things that we as an authority, as the agency, are trying to make sure happens in anything that we have an influence on.

Senator HUMPHRIES: Where does the proposal that Canberra be listed on the national heritage register stand at the moment and what is the NCA's position on that proposed listing?

Ms Penn : We do not have a role in making that decision. It is the Australian Heritage Council that will make that decision; however, we are strongly supportive of it. We think it would be a good thing. It would give greater clarity about some of the aspects of why Canberra is significant and which parts of it are particularly significant. There are other layers of significance that we would overlay in terms of national capital significance; however, the heritage significance is a key part of that.

Senator HUMPHRIES: So where does it stand at the moment? Is there a proponent for the listing?

Mr Rake : There is a proponent and the Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities has been consulting on a proposal on behalf of the Australian Heritage Council. We anticipate that they will prepare advice and give it to their minister in the near future. They had publicly announced they were working towards the end of 2012 to have completed their analysis so that if the listing were to proceed it could occur in Canberra's centenary year. We have been involved in discussions at officer level to make sure that we seize opportunities to improve the regulatory environment if that listing proceeds. The main way to do that would be to bring together the cultural heritage aspects of the EPBC assessment process and the National Capital Plan into one. That regulation would be done in the National Capital Plan, so we could standardise public consultation, development rules and heritage clearances. We have built a prototype of the regulatory framework and we have used it on the amendment for section 5 Campbell, the corner of Anzac Parade and Constitution Avenue, so that a development proposal that is consistent with the National Capital Plan will also be consistent with protecting and maintaining the cultural heritage values of that site. They would not need a separate EPBC referral for cultural heritage values.

Senator HUMPHRIES: That being the case, how will listing on the national heritage register actually add to the protection of Canberra?

Mr Rake : At the moment it would include protection for areas that are not covered under the National Capital Plan that do have on-first-assessment national heritage values.

Senator HUMPHRIES: Can you give me an example of that?

Mr Rake : The alignment of streets in some of the Griffin designed suburbs. At the moment, those streets do not have protection under federal legislation and so, if they are deemed to have national heritage values, they currently do not have protection. We would be able to come up with a fairly simple regulatory regime that protects the alignment of the streets and the road reserve but does not impede development on either side and does not impede development on private blocks. A clear example would be if you wanted to resurface the road, rebuild the kerbs but keep the same alignment and the same width and still have a double-alley row of trees on either side, if that was the original character, you could self-assess and proceed with that work. If you wanted to cut a new road diagonally through a formal square grid of streets, that would require assessment. It would not necessarily preclude it but it would require assessment.

Senator HUMPHRIES: Okay. I understand the listing refers to the protection of views and vistas. That is not a matter that is necessarily clear in the National Capital Plan. The nature of the plan is, obviously, that certain vistas are effectively protected by the nature of the plan. What does that actually mean in terms of listing? I am thinking, for example, of the recent construction of the building at Acton, Nishi, which has obscured the vista, the view, from the Academy of Science. Would an issue like that be given rise to by virtue of national heritage listing, which is not presently given rise to by the terms of the National Capital Plan?

Ms Penn : It depends on the statement of significance that would accompany a national heritage listing, where what is significant would be articulated quite clearly. I presume that would be a very complex statement of significance because it is quite a broad and varied landscape that would be listed. So there would be instances where a view would be protected, I am sure, and that would be defined. But I do not know the detail of what that is.

Senator HUMPHRIES: So is that going to be defined in the listing that is going forward to the register, or is that going to be defined after it is placed on the register?

Ms Penn : As part of a national heritage listing there is normally a statement of significance which tells you what it is about the place that is significant, and that gives guidance. Gary gave an example of a street alignment. What he was referring to there were elements that we would presume would be considered significant—that is, the alignment, possibly a setback and possibly some rows of trees but probably not the nature of the architecture along that. There may be instances where that is relevant, but the statement of significance is part of a listing. It is, really, the content of the listing.

Mr Rake : The way we would attempt to operationalise that and turn it into a regulatory environment is to take the statement of significance and prepare an amendment to the National Capital Plan that, for example, prescribed maximum height and put-up ratios on sites that are in particular view corridors. So that would give reasonable certainty to industry, so that they would know that if they come up with a proposal that works within that building envelope they would be clear of cultural heritage issues under that national listing.

Senator HUMPHRIES: We are talking about listing Canberra. What do we actually mean by that? Do we mean the whole city, from the tip of Gungahlin to the bottom of Tharwa? Or do we mean something else?

Ms Penn : No. There is a curtilage that is defined, which is available on the Australian Heritage Council website. We could describe the detail of that to some extent, if you want us to.

Mr Rake : Two separate nominations were made for inclusion. One is the Australian Capital Territory, border to border, north, south, east and west, and the other is one that aligns largely with the designated areas. If you think about the current designated areas and the street alignments of the older Griffin suburbs, you are pretty close to the footprint of the proposed national heritage listing.

Senator HUMPHRIES: Can you tell the committee whether there is likely to be a cost impact for any proposed building or development within the areas subject to this listing by virtue of this area being placed on the national heritage register?

Mr Rake : The regulatory environment as we forecast it changing should actually lower the cost. It would mean that proponents of a development would only have to go through one assessment and decision-making process, and that would be the process within the National Capital Plan. The Nishi building, for example, even though it is on a piece of land that is not within a national heritage listed area, had to go through a reasonably extensive and, I suspect, expensive process to assess the impact on the adjacent values at the Academy of Science, the Shine Dome. So we think this process will clarify for industry and will clarify for those people who are interested in the heritage of the national capital. We genuinely think it is a win-win situation.

Ms Penn : And, in relation to impacts on any particular development's cost of design or construction, I would have thought that if it leads to more sensitive design then that is a good thing, and that should not necessarily carry a cost, because we should be getting the best design and the most responsive designs to their context anyway. That is what we should be striving for and seeking. If you have clever designers, it should not actually cost you more.

CHAIR: I would like to thank you, Ms Penn and Mr Rake, for coming to participate in this hearing today. Clearly we will have more business to engage with you in the new year, to be followed up shortly after that by another one of these biannual hearings. Thank you both very much.

Ms Penn : Thank you, Chair; thanks, committee.

Mr Rake : Thank you.

Committee adjourned at 12:46