Coronavirus slows momentum of $498m War Memorial extension project – and should allow another look

Heritage Guardians campaign diary follows the story from early 2019 of the campaign against the Memorial project

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Update 21 April 2020: The Riot Act on extended consultation period (more below). Quotes War Memorial official, Wayne Hitches, on timing. Hitches separately has advised that the Memorial’s preliminary documentation will be submitted to the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment during May.

Updated 20 April 2020: Doug Dingwall writes in Canberra Times about extension of consultation period mentioned below.

Updated 17 April 2020: Two unrelated straws in the wind, though both have a coronavirus connection. First, there has been advice from the Heritage people at the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment that, with the agreement of the War Memorial, there will be 20 business days (rather than ten) for public comment on the Memorial’s preliminary documentation on its project. Heritage has not, however, received notification of when this documentation will be submitted. Keep an eye out here under proposal 2019/8574.

Secondly, if the Parliament comes back for a session in May and possibly later, as has been suggested, we may then see a parliamentary referral of the Memorial project to the Public Works Committee – that is, we will not have to wait till August, as hinted below – although, as we understand it, the Heritage consideration will have to be completed before the PWC gets involved.

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The coronavirus and measures associated with it have had lots of consequences for all of us and for our governments. To take just one case, the $498m extensions to the Australian War Memorial were to follow this timeline:

2018     Development project announced by the Prime Minister, Hon. Scott Morrison MP

2019     Early works begin

2020     Anzac Hall site preparations begin

2021     Southern entrance works begin

2022     Southern entrance external works complete

2023     Anzac Hall and glazed link open, southern entrance opens, C.E.W. Bean Building and Research Centre open

2024     Main building lower refurbishments and galleries begin

2025     Main building upper refurbishments begin

2027     Project complete.

‘Early works’ includes the car park – and that is well under way – but there has been slippage in Heritage approval (still the subject of an ‘iterative process’ between the Memorial and the Heritage folk at the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment, further delayed by the difficulties of working in the face of the virus: see our campaign diary, entry for 8 April).

There will probably be further slippage in the next step, the referral of the project to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works (PWC). The then Director of the Memorial, Brendan Nelson, expected the PWC to start looking at the project in April – that is, about now – but the PWC inquiry is normally triggered by a resolution of the Parliament moved by the responsible Minister (currently the Assistant Minister for Regional Development and Territories, Nola Marino) and the Parliament is not now expected to sit until August. (Rarely, referrals come from the Executive Council. For referrals procedure, see PWC Procedure Manual, paras 1.42-46.)

The delay might help the Memorial become better acquainted with its own project – the documentation put to Heritage had to be varied to add three components of the project that had been left out of the original paperwork – but it should also allow government to look again at the project as a whole. At least one would think this should be the case.

The Greens arts spokesperson, Senator Sarah Hanson-Young, said at the weekend that

governments needed to reassess their priorities in times of crisis. She said the War Memorial expansion and Captain Cook celebrations were “clearly not priorities at this time”.

“The money should be redirected to community arts and cultural projects that will employ artists, support communities and help the economy recover,” she said, naming the Australia Council as a deserving recipient.

It is difficult to believe that the preparation of the now October Budget will not include a call to portfolios for spending offsets; a saving of $498m over seven years is not negligible. The money saved could be put, for instance, towards paying for additional intensive care unit beds to deal with coronavirus. These beds cost around $4000 per patient-bed day to operate, plus capital costs. Even the notional calendar 2020 spend on the War Memorial project – say $40m to judge from the forward estimates (DVA Portfolio Budget Statements 2019-20, p. 92) – would deliver a lot of ICU beds.

David Stephens

13 April 2020 updated

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