Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
Joint Standing Committee on the National Capital and External Territories
11/06/2013
Provision of amenity within the Parliamentary Triangle

JACKSON, Mr Barry, Assistant Secretary, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade

SAWCZAK, Mr Peter, Director, Corporate Management Division, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade

[14:15]

CHAIR: I welcome representatives from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Although the committee does not require you to give evidence under oath, I advise you that these hearings are formal proceedings of the parliament and warrant the same respect as 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 today will be recorded by Hansard and attracts parliamentary privilege. I invite you to make an opening statement to the committee.

Mr Jackson : We have prepared our comments directly in relation to the terms of reference from the committee, dealing firstly with the change in nature of the working environment in the Parliamentary Triangle. The department notes that in recent years the land in close proximity to the head office of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade—the RG Casey Building in particular—has been developed, bringing more workers into the area. We believe this trend will continue.

This development has not been matched with a corresponding increase in parking facilities. Car parks that were on the previously undeveloped land have been removed. Pressure on parking availability for workers in the area and visitors to this department, other offices and the national institutions has had a severe impact on the working environment in the area—both for workers and visitors. It has impacted negatively on the ready access by visitors to the institutions. Increased office and commercial development in the area will exacerbate this problem unless viable transport solutions can be identified, particularly in providing for a car park.

The department is also concerned regarding the lack of detail around how the pay parking regime will be implemented and the impact of the current parking arrangements that the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has with the Department of Finance and Deregulation on the vacant land on Brisbane Avenue. A lack of detail is increasing an already high level of staff anxiety with respect to parking generally.

Moving on to the second part of the terms of reference, with regard to the adequacy of the retail services in the Parliamentary Triangle, we note that retail services in the area could be enhanced to improve locally available facilities for workers. This includes banking and post office services, casual food outlets and possibly gymnasium facilities. However, it seems probable that workers will continue to require much more than could reasonably be provided commercially in the Parliamentary Triangle and its environs without fundamentally changing the environment of the area itself.

Successful commercial activity would, almost by definition, result in increased numbers wishing to visit and park there. Even substantially developed retail facilities would not, in any case, solve the basic problem of car parking. There is an urgent need for more car parking services in the Parliamentary Triangle and adjoining areas, especially in Barton. This issue is consistently raised by DFAT staff in consultations on workplace relations issues and at the secretary's regular staff forums. For many staff members use of a car is a necessity, especially for the purposes of dropping off children at school as well as managing personal administrative issues at lunchtime and in the absence of adequate facilities within easy walking distance. In addition DFAT staff often work outside normal office hours to enable them to communicate in a timely way with the department's world-wide network of posts. Public transport is infrequent at these times and is not a viable option. Connections to Barton remain limited, despite requests by DFAT to increase their number and frequency.

A modal shift away from cars as the principal form of transport for persons working in the Parkes-Barton area will not occur in the foreseeable future for the reasons outlined above. However, solutions to the car parking issue are critically required to avoid increasing the degradation of this nationally significant area. Where new pay-parking options are introduced DFAT's expectation would be that cost would be commensurate with the low level of services and amenities offered in the parliamentary area.

In summary, the substantial increase in government and commercial employment in the area has put extreme pressure on individual car parking for workers. Decreasing availability of car parking is the main amenity issue identified by DFAT staff. Public transport does not provide a workable alternative for staff responsible for young, school age children or for attending to personal matters at lunchtime, given the scarcity of amenities in the area. Improved service amenities, including formerly available postal, banking and food outlets, should be restored for the benefit of people working in the area. However, for significant developed commercial activity to be successful on its own terms it would probably result in increased demand for even greater public access to the area. Thank you.

CHAIR: You outline the unusual hours that some DFAT staff work. On that basis I expect some are probably needing to walk some distance from the office at odd hours because parking is not available close to the building. Is that correct?

Mr Jackson : That is correct.

CHAIR: Is there a sense that pay parking might mean less incentive for other workers to encroach on areas near DFAT?

Mr Jackson : At this point in time the department has an arrangement in place with the Department of Finance and Deregulation regarding a sizeable parcel of land on Brisbane Avenue. We have close to 443 cars park on that site. The majority of staff can park there in hours of work outside the norm. If that facility was taken back by finance, as they can do at a month's notice, then there is concern that parking would be made available on a first-come basis with pay parking. That leads to some uncertainty about the advice we can give our staff or for forward planning for the management of our staff.

CHAIR: How would you like to see that arrangement secured for the future?

Mr Jackson : The preference we have is to maintain the status quo. We do recognise that there is a need for greater formality around our arrangements because, as I said, it is on a month by month basis. Quite rightly, the finance department is unable to give us any greater clarity because they do not know exactly what the requirements for this will be.

CHAIR: Do you have a sense of how large the demand is for after-hours parking close to DFAT? How many workers would have that need?

Mr Jackson : The volume will vary in relation to the nature of the after-hours work and the sort of work that is going on in the department. Certainly the car park, as it stands at the moment, is full by 8.30 in the morning. Prior to the extensive work we did in conjunction with the ACT government, people were parking on mounds and anything else. It was quite a worrisome problem for the department with regard to potential injury of staff. Equally, when there is a global crisis and the crisis centre is activated, then there is a high level of staff that come in after hours. The nature of the work that is done through different time zones means that at any point in time there is a reasonable volume of staff who occupy it. When the department is operating in normal hours it does not afford anywhere near the necessary level of car parking that we require.

Mr CREAN: I found it hard to hear all of that; the line kept breaking up. Forgive me if I am going over the same territory, but how many free car parks do you have there at DFAT?

Mr Jackson : Within the department, we have car parking provided in the Brisbane Avenue car park, which has 443 car spaces. As part of the RG Casey lease, we also have in the order of 330 car parking spaces that are actually within the RG Casey Building. Around 120 of those are allocated to SES officers, who have parking as part of their employment conditions, and there are 292 spaces available for non-SES officers. So there are 292 plus 443, which is 735 spaces.

Mr CREAN: And the 443 is at the department of finance site, is it?

Mr Jackson : That is correct.

Mr CREAN: Have they indicated their intention to take that for development?

Mr Jackson : They have not at this point in time. We have had a number of discussions with them over the years to greater formalise our arrangements. The original deal was put in place some 13 years ago, and is on a month by month basis at a rental level that was actually struck 13 years ago.

Mr CREAN: The department bears that rental level, does it—DFAT pays the rental to Finance?

Mr Jackson : That is correct, yes.

Mr CREAN: Is car parking on a first come first served basis?

Mr Jackson : It is first come first served. We have a boom gate arrangement whereby you require a DFAT issued pass to access the space.

Mr CREAN: How much demand is unmet? Have you got any sense of that?

Mr Jackson : It is a very difficult question to answer. Based on the level of illegal parking and other parking that is in the area, I would estimate probably in the order of 300 to 400 car parking space.

Mr CREAN: There has been talk in earlier submissions about the opportunity and the interest around the Barton area. Do you monitor that? Do you have input into that? Do you seek to identify the needs of your employees for what sort of services they want in the area?

Mr Jackson : We most certainly do monitor that. We are aware of recent developments by the Doma Group and proposed developments by the Doma Group to increase the level of amenity. That has had the flipside of them closing some car parking that was available to staff. That has impacted negatively on our staff. With regard to input, we have the same ability to comment on any development plans as does anyone—whether they be government or individual—and we are aware of some development applications that are currently before the ACT government on that basis.

Mr CREAN: Are you able to prioritise the needs of your employees?

Mr Jackson : That is an avenue that we have not gone down fully. We are cautious of doing that and creating a tiered structure of eligibility for parking. Should a mother dropping a young child off for child care have greater preference than an elderly person who cannot walk distances? That would be a very challenging path to go down.

Mr CREAN: Put parking aside for the moment, because that is another issue because of the circumstances in which the decision has been taken to introduce paid parking. The purpose of this inquiry, as you know, is to identify what the amenity implications are and the adequacy of services in the context of the changing environment. Can you give us an indication as to what your employees consider them to be?

Mr Jackson : As per my opening statement, the main focus that staff were looking for was increased access to, for want of a better phrase, convenient-stop operations—a drycleaner, a convenience store and those ad hoc services that, while available in Manuka, are not available in the Parliamentary Triangle per se.

Mr CREAN: Are those priorities being conveyed to developers there? What is their response?

Mr Jackson : We have had a level of engagement with the landowners in that area. They have asked us our views on what should or should not be included. That was by way of informal communication and we have not been asked to provide any written submissions to local developers, or the likes of that. Certainly, the former secretary of the department was quite vocal and has written on a number of occasions to various inquiries with regard to the broader area of amenity. But it is probably fair to say that whilst car parking may be separate to the more general issue of amenity, it is by no doubt the largest concern within the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Mr CREAN: Has there been any thinking take place, given the decision that was announced in the budget, to negotiate provisions for paid parking?

Mr Jackson : As I said, the department, in its mind, already pays for parking through the lease that we have with the Department of Finance and Deregulation. We already have the lease obligations of that, plus the FBT obligations of that. So at this point in time, the department does have a healthy investment in paid parking for its staff. Should we lose an amenity such as Brisbane Avenue, and a private developer purchases that land from Finance, that changes the arrangements. That is of concern.

Coming back to some other comments, we do not fully have visibility on how the pay parking will be implemented, and that is a concern for us.

Senator HUMPHRIES: I just have a couple of questions. You have described, fairly eloquently, the problems that you are confronting with this. If you had your druthers, would you rather that this concept of paid parking was not introduced in the areas affecting employees of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade?

Mr Jackson : Speaking on behalf of this department, they have made it very clear that they would prefer that not to occur.

Senator HUMPHRIES: Having stood outside DFAT during previous election campaigns and spoken to workers I know that you speak very much for the employees of the department, but I suppose you are not giving us an official departmental position, are you, when you say that?

Mr Jackson : At this point, no.

Senator HUMPHRIES: No; okay. The NCA has said that it already has a flexible enough planning system for some of the services to be built that people have said they miss in the triangle, but that the market is not there for those things to happen. Do you think that there is a problem with expectations having been built? That people will drive their cars to work and then if they want groceries or hairdressing or other things they will divert themselves, either on the way to work or on the way home, to get those things, and so there is an expectation that they would not be using whatever facilities are already there in the triangle? There are some; there are limited facilities for some things, of course. Or do you think that people really do not see what could be available to them? That they are not aware that there are things in the triangle that they could be using to save themselves having to drive their cars in to work? They could go and do some basic shopping and leave the car at home and therefore use the bus instead.

Mr Jackson : I think different people have different expectations. Again, the nature of someone coming to work who would have to divert to do some grocery shopping on the way—particularly at the more cost-effective establishments; buying at a chain supermarket as opposed to a local grocery shop—has some impacts. That would then impact on the time they could get to work if they also had to go via a childcare centre, albeit one within the department itself. That then comes back to the overarching issue whereby they then have nowhere to park their car.

It is a chicken-and-egg issue. It is a very challenging one. There are challenges that this committee faces in putting that together, but it is very emotive. People have very strong views, and disparate views, with regard to how it should occur.

Ms BRODTMANN: Having been someone who has done the white-knuckle ride—I wrote in the Chronicle this week of being a DFAT employee and getting there before 8.30—I know exactly what they are experiencing. I just want to pick up your suggestion that if there was a mini-mart developed in the Barton area there would not really be much interest after office hours. Also, you were concerned that during those office hours it would enhance the traffic there.

I do not want, in a way, to refute it but when I look at what could be my vision for the parliamentary zone—for Acton, Barton and Russell—it is, essentially, Brindabella Park. You have a mini-mart there that has been done in a very tasteful way. Terry Snow has ensured that, in the way he has developed it. We do not have gaudy, flashing lights and the whole thing. It is all very discreet and tasteful. There is a hairdresser, banks, gyms and a range of other facilities there. That is what I think is needed. Brindabella Park does not get a lot of passing trade, so I do believe that these businesses can be viable over the long term without that sort of passing trade that you get at Woden, Tuggeranong or even Civic.

Brindabella is very much a case in point. To some extent Brindabella Park is competing with what is going on at the airport in terms of Costco and all those other facilities out at that place. So I just wanted to pick up on the fact that I do not agree with you that a convenience store or those other retail-type experiences would in any way see extra traffic pressures in the parliamentary zone in Barton, Acton and other areas.

You made mention of the fact that paid parking seems to be the primary concern of DFAT people, but what is it that they are saying about the amenity in the area, in terms of the feedback you are getting? They made mention of banks and post offices. What other services are they looking for? We have seen the CPSU come up with their member surveys and their results. I just wanted to get a sense of DFAT's experiences.

Mr Jackson : We have not undertaken a detailed survey of staff. We certainly would have like to, and if there had been sufficient time between us being advised of this hearing and when submissions, both written and oral, were required, the department would probably have engaged with the staff management area to create a higher level of visibility into the department. Certainly at the moment, when it comes to key communication devices, such as the workplace relations committee and the secretary forum—which is an open forum—the questions always come back to parking, whether it be paid parking or parking generally. We have not had a lot of issues raised with regard to banks and the likes of that.

Picking up on your previous point, I agree that Terry Snow has done a great job out a Brindabella Park. He does have a bit of an ability in that he can control most of the area through the airport and through Brindabella. It is, to a degree, a destination. You made the point that there is no passing traffic but there is a fairly high captive audience out there. I suppose one of the nuances, as we were saying at the start, is that whilst we would welcome a degree of convenience stores and other things, we do not necessarily want to turn the parliamentary triangle into a destination, where people go, in the same way as they go to Woden to do shopping, because you—

Ms BRODTMANN: No. I do not think—

Mr Jackson : There are also the heritage issues around the Parliamentary Triangle and other planning issues. Certainly they can be changed, but there is a belief that the area itself has its own character. I am certainly not suggesting that you are thinking of turning the Parliamentary Triangle into a Woden, but that is extrapolating the concept to a further degree.

CHAIR: Thank you for giving evidence and assisting the committee today. If there is any additional information you would like to provide, please get it to us by Friday 14 June. If we have any further questions, we will send those through in writing.