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Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works
Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority - Transformation of Reef HQ Aquarium

BLAKISTON, Ms Melissa, Assistant Director ReefHQ Capital Works, Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority [by audio link]

CONNER, Mrs Natalie, Chief Operating Officer, Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority [by audio link]

NUCIFORA, Mr Fred, Director Reef Education and Engagement, Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority [by audio link]

O'CONNOR, Ms Christine, Assistant Director Reef HQ Business Operations, Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority [by audio link]

Committ ee met at 11:00

CHAIR ( Mr Rick Wilson ): Welcome. I now declare open this public hearing of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works' inquiry into the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority transformation of Reef HQ Aquarium. In accordance with the committee's resolution, this hearing will be broadcast on the parliament's website and the official transcript of proceedings will be published on the parliament's website. I also remind members of the media who may be present and listening on the web of the need to fairly and accurately report the proceedings of the committee. I now ask the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority to make an opening statement before we proceed to questions.

Mrs Conner : I would like to begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land that I am on today, the Gurambilburra Wulgurukaba and Bindal people. I acknowledge their elders past, present and emerging. I also acknowledge the traditional owners of the lands on which each of you are teleconferencing in from today and pay my respects to their elders past, present and emerging.

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority has been providing world-leading marine park management since 1975. Our management is guided by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act and the best available science to protect values, reduce threats and improve the current and long-term outlook for the Reef and the communities that depend on it. The Reef authority complements its regulatory tools through a strong focus on education across its program areas, consistent with its education functions under the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act. The authority's education programs at Reef HQ provide a highly effective mechanism for influencing community perceptions about the Reef to a broad audience of local, regional, national and international visitors. Reef HQ opened in 1987 and is the world's largest living coral reef aquarium. The original vision for the facility was to create the Great Barrier Reef on land, making the Reef accessible and affordable, whilst at the same time spreading the Reef conservation message and gaining public support for the protection of the real thing.

Reef HQ is the Australian government's national education centre for the Great Barrier Reef and is recognised nationally and internationally as a centre of excellence in environmental education. Reef HQ is wholly owned by the Australian government. The land it is situated on is leased from the Port of Townsville until 2061. Through Reef HQ visitors have the opportunity to engage with the Reef, better understand the management in place to protect and conserve it and learn about actions all individuals can take to help the Reef.

The Reef authority last presented to this committee in May 2020 in response to the government providing $26.9 million in funding for critical safety work. When built in 1987 Reef HQ had an expected life of between 25 and 50 years. After 34 years in a harsh tropical climate physical deterioration had reached the point where serious risks were emerging and supporting infrastructure was in many ways not compliant with current Australian standards. The ageing and increasingly unreliable structure and systems continued to impact on the Australian government's capacity to safely and effectively provide education and informational services at Reef HQ Aquarium. The critical safety works were supported by a 2019 asset management plan, which identified how the aggressive tropical environment and the inherent stresses that result from holding in excess of four million litres of sea water had directly impacted on the structural integrity of the facility, with the building assessed as being in an overall marginal condition. Those works have since commenced and address some of the more pressing safety issues, mainly in relation to electricity and structural walls.

The current proposed works arose out of $40 million funding provided by the Australian government under the Townsville City Deal. The proposed works will add to the current funded $40.1 million program of capital works to transform Reef HQ, the world's largest living coral reef aquarium, into Australia's national centre of excellence for tropical coral reef education, making it a premium international tourism destination as COVID-19 restrictions ease. Funding totalling $80.1 million will now be used to transform Reef HQ Aquarium. It will allow us to deliver immersive experiences and revitalise exhibits, including educational activities, hands-on experiences, onsite diving programs, scientific demonstrations and the use of interactive technology. There is great alignment between this project and the key objectives of the Townsville City Deal of revitalising the waterfront priority development area, where Reef HQ is situated. Within this strategically important research and tourism precinct, Reef HQ is ideally placed to be the epicentre of a world-leading marine science precinct showcasing Townsville's reputation as a world leader in marine science research and education. Whilst Reef HQ is under renovation, this catalyst construction project will provide continued social and economic benefits to the local Townsville community through opportunities for local contractors, which is increasingly important as communities recover from the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic.

Reef HQ is an important part of the Townsville community and contributes to the region's tourism and economy. Since its opening in 1987, Reef HQ welcomed more than four million visitors and, annually, 5,000 people through online reef education programs around the world. We have 15,000 local members, which is about eight per cent of Townsville's population, and the Reef HQ Volunteers Association has about 120 members.

I'd like to thank you, the committee, for your consideration of these proposed works, which enable Reef HQ to expand its important education function into the future.

CHAIR: On behalf of the committee I want to thank you and your team for the very comprehensive presentation that you have given us previously. We will now move to questions.

With the revamping of the centre, could you describe the volume of programs or the types of programs that you'll be able to deliver that you can't deliver now?

Mrs Conner : Yes, Chair. I'll hand over to Mr Fred Nucifora to cover that.

Mr Nucifora : As Mrs Conner has said, this once-in-a-generation investment in Reef HQ Aquarium will establish it as a global destination of excellence for tropical coral reef education. The programs that it will enable now are formal education programs, ranging from the early years of education right through to senior secondary and tertiary education; a greater focus on, and expansion of, edu-tourism programs, particularly focused on the United States of America and emerging markets in South-East Asia, such as Singapore and, potentially, India, which has a similar system to the United States in edu-tourism. So the facility would certainly set itself up, or set the northern part of Australia up, to receive lots of those groups.

The other piece to that work is also in corporate social responsibility programs, focused on both government-to-government and government-to-business programs, which enables businesses to come and see the sustainability efforts the Australian government is making in its efforts to protect the Great Barrier Reef as a World Heritage Area but also in its operations of the facility of Reef HQ, and then also bring in government representations from around the world into that centre of excellence to learn both ways—us learn from them and them learn from us—and how we are managing the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and World Heritage Area.

The other piece that's critically important in the expansion of Reef HQ is the career pathway and vocational education and training component. Reef HQ is a multifaceted facility, having within its operations everything from business, marketing, education, aquaculture, engineering, veterinary science. All of those critical and significant business unit components are career pathway opportunities that can be offered to emerging researchers, early career researchers and young people—particularly First Nations people—that are looking for a career pathway both in marine science and natural resource management or in the broader tourism industry specifically.

CHAIR: Thank you very much. I have many further questions. I will go to the deputy chair, Mr Zappia, first, then to other committee members, and come back to me in good time.

Mr ZAPPIA: Thank you for your opening statement. I understand the CPSU have asked questions about the staffing levels within the centre and their view that there should be a higher number of permanent staff there. Can you advise whether there have been any further discussions on that and, if so, what the outcome of the discussions has been.

Mrs Conner : Certainly. The CPSU are an important stakeholder of the authority, and we regularly engage with them. In terms of the staffing profile needed for the aquarium, it's a little too early to tell at this stage. At this stage we are looking to determine what our offering will be, and, to be honest, what our design will be. Those key inputs will then determine what our staffing profile and what our needs are, and we're hoping to have that information available to us in about March 2022, when the design stage is completed.

Mr ZAPPIA: By the way, I raised that question because I have been to the headquarters there, and it's a wonderful national facility—there is no doubt about that—and I think it serves a terrific purpose. I wouldn't want us to invest a lot of money in a facility which can't be fully utilised because of lack of staff or a shortage of staff. That's my interest in it.

For places like James Cook University and other science based centres in and around the reef, I assume there is no overlap of the work that each of them do. Is there some interaction between each of the facilities in Queensland?

Mrs Conner : That's an excellent question. There's certainly no overlap. In fact, we have a considerable amount of connection with them. The Australian Institute of Marine Science, particularly, and James Cook University are working with us on this particular design project to see how they can link into the Reef HQ Aquarium as a hub for themselves as well. The Australian Institute of Marine Science has a wonderful facility called the SeaSim, which the committee may be well aware of, and certainly the Australian Institute of Marine Science is very keen to have a SeaSim representation within our facility, which we would be really keen to have as well. They are located almost an hour out of Townsville, so it's very difficult for them to showcase their brilliance. We're very keen to have them assist us with increasing the education offering at Reef HQ, and likewise with James Cook University. They are a key partner of ours. We work with them on a number of projects and we're really keen to have them connected to Reef HQ.

M r ZAPPIA: Thank you for that. I've also been to the Australian Institute of Marine Science, and I agree with you, they do some great work as well, so it's good to hear that you work in collaboration with them.

CHAIR: Mr Pasin, do you have any questions?

Mr PASIN: Yes. My questions go to the operational costs of the facility. I presume the long-term aim of the facility is to be operationally cost neutral, in the sense of revenues meeting operational costs. Do these improvements reduce the operational costs at the facility?

Mrs Conner : That's also a really good question. Absolutely. The facility itself, when it was operational, had ageing infrastructure and ageing equipment. With ageing comes higher expenses, certainly in terms of maintenance, as well as electricity usage. By replacing a lot of our moving parts, so to speak, with new, modern, contemporary equipment, it not only increases our electrical efficiency; it dramatically reduces our maintenance and asset management costs. Having the opportunity to put in brand-new, technically better equipment also allows us to have a stronger science, technology, engineering and maths education offering. So, when we bring people back of house for additional tours, we're able to talk about the latest technology available, and that obviously is a really good opportunity for us to be able to do that.

Mr PASIN: As I understand it, your facility was operating at an operational deficit exceeding $1 million. Can you assist me with the measures by which this capital investment will assist in addressing that operational deficit and whether you intend to address revenues in other ways?

Mrs Conner : Yes. In terms of the current deficit, there are a number of factors in play. To make sure that we have the very best advice to base our business strategy on, we've engaged Ernst & Young, who have given us a full precis of the opportunities that might be available to us to increase our revenue opportunities. Where the deficit comes from is, firstly, obviously, the ability for us to charge a certain entry fee and to offer products. With an ageing facility, we didn't feel that it was possible for us to have an entry fee that was similar to other commercial facilities. When we upgrade this facility, we will be in a position to do that. The actual amount that we will charge will be dependent on market testing and on getting some specific price sensitivity data so that we make sure that we are pricing our offering at the right amount. But, on top of that pricing point, we also are looking to expand our exhibit offerings—potentially up to double what we currently have—by using more of the facility than we currently do. We currently use only about 25 per cent of the facility for front-of-house or revenue-generating opportunities, and we hope to expand that considerably. With that, people, when they come in to see Reef HQ, should stay longer. That means that not only are they getting a better education offering but they may also choose to take up some of the additional offerings that we may have available—other back-of-house tours, for example. With that, combined with the greater attraction of a new facility, we should be able to—hopefully; at this stage our projections are indicating that we could—double the number of people in the facility. By having extra exhibit space we're also able to have more space for visitors to come and wander through our education facility.

Mr PASIN: Does your modelling project the facility achieving profitability once these capital works are undertaken, noting that you are, presumably, in one of the privileged positions where you don't need to meet the cost of capital? You're really just meeting your operational expenses.

Mrs Conner : It's quite early days for us in this space. We've just had Ernst & Young provide us with the first assessment of what we have termed our blue sky thinking. Most certainly, they are projecting that we would definitely break even, and then some. However, we are still in the design stage of the project. So what we can actually offer in the future and what our price point will be are still not firm. We have every indication and every confidence that we will have a facility that is, at minimum, breaking even, but, hopefully, profitable in the future.

Ms OWENS: On the profit side of things, you guys do some things that a commercial operator might not do, like engage with the Indigenous communities, offer apprenticeships and all sorts of thing that may not contribute to profit but contribute in other ways. Can you outline what they are.

Mrs Conner : Certainly. We consider our business offering to be multifaceted. Some things are what we would like to do simply because they are part of our act and, for a want of a better word, our mantra. Those employment pathways are one of those things. They are unlikely to cover costs, and we're more than fine with that. Within our act we have a requirement to educate people on the Great Barrier Reef. We offset some of those community service obligations with other activities that will help balance that. I might just throw again to Mr Fred Nucifora, who will be able to talk to you a bit more specifically about the offerings that we would be looking to provide.

Mr Nucifora : It's an excellent question. The Australian government having a facility like this in Townsville in North Queensland does present a range of opportunities to the community that aren't necessarily revenue generating. One example is opportunities for career pathways for young people through the facility. In its educational context, the facility also supports teachers in the development of their educational materials, both here in Townsville in Queensland and across Australia, through the delivery of professional development opportunities for teachers. That is delivered through our virtual outreach education program, where we can help teachers develop educational content that enables them to meet the national curriculum requirements of teaching about the environment and, particularly, the Great Barrier Reef. The other important piece of the work is working closely with our state and federal based tourism organisations—Tourism and Events Queensland here in Queensland and Tourism Australia. Having the world's largest living coral reef aquarium here and an ability to take that living coral reef anywhere on the planet using our outreach educational technology, we support Australia's position internationally and also encourage people to come and visit Australia, Queensland and the Great Barrier Reef. None of those things draw revenue specifically for the facility, but we certainly support Townsville, Queensland and Australia through our operations.

Ms OWENS: I have a couple of questions on that career path issue. Obviously, the building is really important, but equally so are your skill levels and relationships with the community and your staff—particularly in the Indigenous area, where you're doing so much work. Can you outline to me how, during this process of transition, you're going to keep those relationships viable not only with your volunteers and the staff but also in terms of your Indigenous engagement?

Mr Nucifora : That's an excellent follow-up question. The Marine Park Authority has established an Indigenous Reef Advisory Committee, made up of members from across the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, stretching from the Torres Strait Islands in the north down to the southern section of the park. We seek advice through the Indigenous Reef Advisory Committee on the actions that the authority is taking as part of its business, including the revitalisation and reimagining of Reef HQ Aquarium. That committee provided us with advice that we were to establish and maintain great connections with the traditional owners of the land on which Reef HQ is built—the Gurambilbarra Wulgurukaba people.

The funding that has already come to us has provided an excellent amount of money to go towards a co-design process with the Gurambilbarra Wulgurukaba traditional owners. That working group has been established and we've had two successful workshops to date, working with the traditional owner representatives. There have been really positive conversations about how cultural heritage can be represented most appropriately at Reef HQ Aquarium and showcased both to the people who visit the aquarium and to the world more broadly with our outreach education program. More importantly, it's about what relationship could look like into the future. We will continue to maintain a relationship with that working group, which is made up of representatives from the five apical families that are represented here in Townsville and also more broadly from across the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, through our Indigenous Reef Advisory Committee.

Ms OWENS: Parramatta, where I come from, is landlocked, but if there's anything to do with the marine environment, the Coral Sea, drilling in the Bight, super trawlers or marine parks, the people come out in numbers for that matter more than anything else. It's really quite interesting. I get hundreds of emails overnight if anything's threatened. I'm just letting you know.

Mr Nucifora : That's what our outreach education program enables—a connection between young people all around Australia and across the world in a peer-to-peer relationship. What we've done many times before is connect young people from here in Townsville to young people in America, England and across Australia to discuss relevant issues—they may be related to the state of the water quality of the Hudson compared to the state of the water quality here in the Ross River in Townsville. So we could certainly bring together young people from Parramatta and connect them to kids in Townsville to talk about our oceans and how we can best look after them.

Ms OWENS: Thanks, I'll probably take you up on that.

CHAIR: Not being as well travelled as the deputy chair, I've been to Townsville but not to the Reef HQ. Regarding the Wonderland complex which is being demolished, what was the previous purpose of that building? Given that it's a fairly prime piece of waterfront real estate, other than opening up the front entrance of the Reef HQ Aquarium, what are the plans for that piece of land?

Mrs Conner : That piece of land is also Port of Townsville land and it's under of deed of grant in trust, a DOGIT. The Queensland government would be the final decision-maker on what that piece of land would look like. Reef HQ and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority are in the process of demolishing the building to be able to open up our front doors. We also have a five-year lease over the land to use it as a holding site for our construction. We were in negotiations with the Port of Townsville as to whether or not we might require a movement of the existing easement—which went through that building, when it was standing—to give us access to our front door, to something maybe more permanent. But it's not something that the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority has any real say over, although we would have opinions—as would Townsville City Council and a lot of other stakeholders—on what should be on that block when we're finished with it.

CHAIR: Going back to slide 14 of your presentation, what is the building to the left of the Wonderland complex?

Mrs Conner : That's the Museum of Tropical Queensland—again, a state government owned facility.

CHAIR: So the Wonderland complex is state government owned; it's not controlled or owned by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority?

Mrs Conner : No. It was a bicentennial project, and it was owned by an incorporated body when it was first constructed, as an integrated development. So the ownership of the facility reverted back to the state government when the incorporated body ceased to exist. That was some years ago now; I don't know the exact date, off the top of my head. We've been able to use the facility as our entrance point, but it has started to become quite dilapidated. I believe that when it was operational it was a cultural heritage centre.

CHAIR: You've got no plans or aspirations to acquire that site and expand your current footprint?

Mrs Conner : One always has aspirations. We have an easement that allows us to get access to our front door. As you can see in slide 14, with that building removed we need to reinstate an entry. So our main issue is negotiating with the Port of Townsville on whether our easement remains, so we can construct our entry area on an easement, or whether our lease is stretched over that space. They are negotiations that we've been having for some time, so at this stage there's nothing set.

CHAIR: Thanks.

Mr ZAPPIA: I might ask another question about staff. Is securing and keeping suitably qualified staff a difficulty for the reef?

Mrs Conner : We're in a regional city. I think in Australia at the moment there's a shortage of skilled labour. In a regional city such as Townsville, we have to be more innovative with how we find staff and make sure that our recruitment techniques are reaching our future staff. There are always shortages in construction and some of the technical trades. That always impacts on any facility in a regional context. In terms of the science side of things, the wonderful thing that we're offering through Reef HQ, through partners such as JCU and the Australian Institute of Marine Science, is having access to a pathway and access to a far bigger branding opportunity. That in itself attracts the very best staff. A lot of our staff at the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority have PhDs and have come from all over the world just to work in Townsville.

Mr ZAPPIA: Thank you for that.

CHAIR: As there are no further questions, I thank the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority for your attendance today and for presenting a very comprehensive overview of your project. You will be sent a copy of the transcript and you may request corrections to any transcription errors. I now declare this hearing closed.

Commit tee adjourned at 11:35