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Parliament House Construction Authority

ERROL SILVER: The Minister for Employment, Education and Training under attack on many fronts, and highlights of legislation debated in both Houses last week. But first, Friday the 31st of August, a significant day marking the end of what has been an intriguing organisation, the Parliament House Construction Authority. Executive Director of the authority, Mr Ian Fowler.

IAN FOWLER: It's a nostalgic period for many of the authority staff. Many people have been with the project since its inception. I myself was the competition registrar so I started before there was a design, before there was any sort of concept. It's a period of time that we all knew would come but when it actually comes upon you, it's still somewhat of a surprise. The project though, I think, has given many people an opportunity to show their skills and I'm talking not just about the authority now, but obviously the architects and the construction managers and of course, the individuals who actually did the building. It's all very well for management to do the planning. At the end of the day, it's the people who have the skill to put it together that really deserve the praise.

JENNY HUTCHISON: There were of course, many thousands of people involved in the project but the authority itself had only a relatively small number of staff.

IAN FOWLER: Yes, we made a decision right at the outset that we would only be a small organisation. We knew that this time would come when the authority would close, so we made a decision that we would remain small. It went to a larger number than we anticipated. Ultimately it was about 80 people but when you consider that there were something like 150 architects in the architects' organisation, the same number of engineers, and perhaps 300 people looking after the construction management, then we did stay fairly small.

JENNY HUTCHISON: The fast track system. In retrospect, was it worth it?

IAN FOWLER: It was always going to be worth it if you wanted to complete by 1988. I think that a building of this nature needs a target and you couldn't possibly get a better target than 1988, the bicentenary. So from that point of view, it certainly was worth it. It did impose additional costs because you're designing and constructing at the same time and inevitably there are mistakes because of that. But at the end of the day, if your target is time, then fast track is the way to do it.

ERROL SILVER: The authority has not only been disbanded nine months earlier than expected, in the past two years, it's also saved the taxpayer a lot of money by pursuing contractors on construction defects.

IAN FOWLER: We think somewhere in excess of $10 million will be saved against the project budget and that's largely because we've taken a fairly tough, but we think fair attitude to the resolution of contracts. For example, this year we've resolved contracts to the value of $10 million where the contractors were looking for $43 million. So I think it's that kind of approach that helps us save some money.

JENNY HUTCHISON: The authority has left behind a great deal of documentation, in fact, probably more than has normally been accumulated, but also that most fascinating document titled `Project Parliament: the Management Experience'. This is an extraordinarily candid document.

IAN FOWLER: We approached it to be candid and we felt we could do that for two main reasons. The primary one was that we think we did a very good job. We think that the building on the hill on time and within budget, means that we did a good job, and if you've got the confidence to say that, then you can afford to be self critical. The other thing is that, of course we're not an ongoing organisation, we're not looking for new work and therefore we don't have that kind of reputation to protect. So we felt that if the authority, having spent $1,000 million of the taxpayers' money, had an obligation to leave something behind as a statement of our experiences. We believe that we should have taken much more time to plan to building. When the Authority's Act was put in place in March of 1979, within four days of that, we were running a major competition. Now, that really isn't a very sensible way to approach a project of this size, particularly when the authority had no procedures in place. The architect was unknown, and ultimately a construction manager was a company that had never operated together before. So we think that given another opportunity, we would probably have taken as much as a year to try to get all those procedures in place and organise ourselves better.

JENNY HUTCHISON: What about the situation of having politicians as clients?

IAN FOWLER: Well that was a particularly interesting process because we did have a joint standing committee of the Parliament and that committee was established I think in 1975. The Parliament by the nature of this organisation, had many, many changes and of course people coming on with an interest in the project would like to have things reviewed. Often those reviews were at times when we were pouring concrete and the opportunity had long since passed.

JENNY HUTCHISON: And what about the experience with contractors and other members of the construction industry?

IAN FOWLER: The authority took an approach right at the outset to say we wouldn't have one main contractor. The project was far too big for that. We believe that in order to give as many organisations an opportunity, we would split the building into quite a lot of small pieces, which we did. And as I said earlier, we had over 2,700 contracts. Now that had a number of advantages in that we were able to contain the work of an individual and also we were able to avoid disputes between individuals. However, it meant that some very small companies sought to be involved in projects that really were far outside their capability and as a result, they had tremendous difficulties and the public tendering process required us to take the lowest tender, unless we had good reason not to. And often that meant taking someone who you didn't really have a great deal of confidence in and unfortunately, a number of contractors lost money because of that.

JENNY HUTCHISON: For you personally, Mr Fowler, you've been involved with the Parliament House construction project for something like 15 years.

IAN FOWLER: That's correct.

JENNY HUTCHISON: What now?

IAN FOWLER: Well the thing that we always found, being an authority, was that our consultants always seemed to get all the good jobs, so I am going to go off and be a consultant.

ERROL SILVER: Mr Ian Fowler, Chief Executive Officer of the Parliament House Construction Authority which marked its demise by veiling a plaque and tying a ribbon.