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Thursday, 4 December 1986
Page: 3437

Senator MacGIBBON(10.53) —On 27 November the Minister for Veterans' Affairs (Senator Gietzelt) replied to a question from Senator Colston relating to the waste of public funds, particularly with reference to the report of Mr Ken Jones on the Australian War Memorial. The Minister, in the second paragraph of his reply, stated:

But the most damning of the items of waste of public expenditure at the Australian War Memorial was the construction of the staircase. We hear nothing from the Opposition about that. I stress that both Mr Jones and the National Capital Development Commission lay the blame for this waste of some $1m squarely with the Director who, on a whim, had the already constructed staircase torn down and rebuilt.

The interpretation of that answer is unambiguous. The interpretation is that the construction of the staircase cost $1m and that it cost that amount at the whim of the Director. That interpretation is reinforced in the rest of the paragraph, in which the Minister stated:

In case there are any doubts about the culpability of the Director in this, for the information of honourable senators I table a copy of the letter from the NCDC's Commissioner, Mr Powell, to the then Chairman of the Australian War Memorial Council, Admiral Synnot, dated 22 November 1984 . . .

That reinforces the claim of the Minister that the construction of the staircase cost $1m and that that was done at the whim of the Director. Indeed, that matter was reported in most of the Australian papers from around the country that I saw the next day, 28 November. Some of them even have headlines such as `$1m waste at the whim of a Director'. I had read the Jones report, on which the Minister based his argument, and it stirred my memory because what he said was not my recollection of it. I went back to the Jones report and at item 2 on page 12, under the heading `Parliamentary Question-The Eastern Staircase, Matters for Consideration', in the middle of paragraph 4.24 there is the statement:

In answer to the Minister's question about assessment of the safety of the staircase, the Director said that this judgment had been made by the Council following an inspection of the area after its meeting of 12 November 1984.

I repeat: The Director said the judgment had been made by the Council, not by him.

If we turn to the next item in the Jones report, Item 3, `The Eastern Staircase and NCDC', on page 15 at paragraph 4.40 the same charge is repeated. In a letter to the National Capital Development Commission dated 13 November 1984 the Australian War Memorial Building Project Co-ordinator advised that the Council of the Australian War Memorial had directed that the stairs be demolished and rebuilt under Memorial control. Further on paragraph 4.40 states:

Minutes of the Gallery Committee meeting of 26 February 1985 indicated that NCDC relinquished the task and that the Department of Housing and Construction had undertaken to rebuild the staircase at a cost of $36,000. Subsequent records show that the total cost paid by the AWM to the Department of Housing and Construction was $46,000.

The Jones report puts an entirely different interpretation on this from the interpretation that the Minister put on it in public. The next day, 28 November, I asked a question to give the Minister an opportunity to correct his mistake. I did that in good faith. But the Minister maintained that his interpretation was correct. I had no option but to ask the Minister whether he was aware of the letters that covered the time both before and after the letter to Mr Powell, the NCDC Commissioner, from the then Chairman of the Australian War Memorial Council, Admiral Sir Anthony Synnot. He has not come forward in a week with those letters and he has not cleared up the mistake that he made. I have no option now but to read those letters. In a letter dated 1 November 1984 from the Chairman, Admiral Synnot, to Mr Powell, the Chairman stated:

The issues surrounding the Eastern Stairs have been a matter of contention for over twelve months now. It is requested that action to fulfil the requirements of the Memorial, as the client, be now taken as a matter of some urgency.

In terms of public safety and convenience, the stairs provided on the eastern side are inadequate. Comparisons between original and existing stair widths have previously been made together with our need for adequate communicating links between floor levels. These issues are of such importance that the stairs, in the present configuration, can not be accepted. To complete the stairs in accordance with reference B would be unwarranted and a waste of public money; indeed it would be quite contrary to Memorial requirements.

Council requires that the Eastern Stairway be demolished and re built to a functional design as reflected in the preliminary drawings prepared by Bates, Smart and McCutcheon earlier this year and agreed by the Memorial. It is understood that the cost of this work would not exceed $30,000.

In planning this activity I would ask that you take into account our impending Christmas visitor traffic and I seek your support to have this and the other outstanding work completed as a matter of urgency.

That was the letter, not from the Director but from the Chairman, to Mr Powell, the Commissioner of the NCDC, which caused the letter of 26 November to be written by Mr Powell, from which the Minister quoted. After Mr Powell's letter came to the Council the Chairman of the Council again wrote back. He said:

I note the points made in your letter of 22 November 1984 concerning Stage 1. Because I do not discuss them in detail, it does not mean that I agree with them.

It should be borne in mind that the Council is responsible for matters of policy, and the Director is responsible for managing the affairs of the Memorial in accordance with the general directions of Council.

At the briefings by you and your staff, matters have been addressed in the broad and not in detail. The Council (or Executive Committee of Council) has made broad decisions. The Director and his staff have been responsible for the detail involved in implementing these broad decisions.

Changes to the plans which were presented to Council in 1982, became inevitable for various reasons. Initially the War Memorial, due to staff shortages, had no full-time person to study the plans in detail; there was a change in Director who some months later managed to get a full-time officer for these works. Detailed study of the plans by the new Director and his new staff officer were necessarily late. In respect of the front entrance/foyer, public opinion was clearly against the original concept.

The changes required have been made to ensure that the Memorial provides substantially increased facilities for the public, not only in terms of visitor comfort and safety, but also in our approach to exhibitions and exhibition technique. We see it as our responsibility to meet the needs of the public as far as is practicable.

In respect to overall costs we are not in a position to know the details. It would appear, however, that many of the changes sought by the War Memorial, causing extra work for your design staff and some frustration no doubt, should have reduced rather than increased total costs. For instance the greatly reduced work involved in the front entrance/foyer, and the dropping of the requirements for a kitchen off the temporary exhibitions area, for the lift to be re-sited, and for a sloping cinema floor must have reduced total costs.

Council views on the Eastern Stairs are set out in my letter to you of 1 November 1984.

I also hope that the next stages, involving the new buildings, can be handled in a more efficient manner than both our organisations have managed to achieve thus far. To this end I hope you and your staff will consult closely with the Director and his staff on all matters of detail.

Those two letters and the Jones report show very clearly two things: First, the decision to modify or rebuild the eastern staircase was a decision taken by the Council of the War Memorial, not by the Director and least of all at the whim of the Director. Secondly, the cost of those modifications was not $1m, as presented by the Minister, but of the order of $36,000 originally, later blowing out to $40,000 or $46,000. I rest my case.