The state government's move from Governor Stirling Tower has ruffled a few feathers, but it makes sense in the longer term.
IT is 27 years since the Labor premier, Brian Burke, moved the seat of executive government from the then Superannuation Building, now the May Holman Centre, to the new office block at 197 St Georges Terrace, now the Governor Stirling Tower.
The rationale for the move was that the new office was closer to the action, both in the CBD and at Parliament House, and that an attractive leasing deal had been negotiated.
Visitors to the premier’s floor were greeted by a decor of a blend of Donnybrook stone and traditional Western Australian jarrah. When Liberal premier, Richard Court, came to power nine years later, jarrah became the dominant building material in his office.
Now the premier’s office is again on the move. This time, forced by the end of the government’s lease at Governor Stirling Tower in mid next year. The owners want to gut the building and update the wiring and other services, which tenants today demand as standard.
The move requires a major relocation of the 1,150 public servants in the 25 agencies based in the tower. Many will move to new offices at 140 William Street, but the bulk, 600, will transfer to Dumas House in West Perth on the corner of Kings Park Road and Havelock Street.
Thirteen ministers will also be in Dumas House, which is to get a facelift costing at least $60 million. But it is the premier’s new office, to be located at the rundown Hale House, directly opposite Parliament House, which has attracted – and will continue to attract – the most attention.
The opposition has already slammed the move, seizing on the estimated cost of $17 million “plus planning, design and other fees” to bring the 97-year-old building up to standard for the premier, his staff, and a refurbished cabinet room. It condemned the design fees for the office of $768,000 as a “scandalous waste of money”.
Colin Barnett is underwhelmed by the existing cabinet room and its stark furnishings of steel-framed desks, reminiscent of a school classroom. He believes the decor should better reflect the aspirations of a wealthy resource-rich state, and do the job for decades to come. The premier has also undertaken to construct three new office blocks in the Parliament House precinct as part of a plan to centralise key sections of the government’s administration.
The strategy has not come out of the blue. In fact it has been around since 1955 when the Stephenson-Hepburn Report set down the blueprint for development of the metropolitan area.
“Due to accidents of history, government buildings in Perth are widely scattered and movement from one government department to another is difficult,” the report said. “It is as inconvenient for the government official as it is for the public. Close personal contact between official departments is an essential requisite of efficiency.”
The report recommended that sites in the city centre “should gradually be vacated by departments”, which would be housed in new buildings in the Parliament House precinct.
“Here there is ample space for greatly extended government services in a position which has everything to commend it. Nearly all the land is held by the state, and it is perfectly placed in relation to Parliament House, the seat of government.”
The Property Council, which represents owners of city office blocks, is less than happy. The government is a good tenant that doesn’t default on a lease.
But according to a former Liberal finance minister, Max Evans – a chartered accountant by profession – it’s a much better deal for taxpayers if the government owns the buildings in which its departments, agencies and ministers are housed.
“State governments don’t pay income tax, and if you don’t pay income tax you should not pay rent,” Mr Evans says. “Rent is a business expense and therefore a tax deduction, but only for the private sector.
“The government is better off using that money to pay off its own buildings, rather than paying rent to someone else. In fact we could have bought the Governor Stirling Tower in 1995 for a price of no more than $95 million, but the Treasury recommended against it.
“The building recently changed hands for around $150 million. Just think of the rent the government could have saved in the past 17 years. It now would have owned a great asset, and the premier probably wouldn’t be forced to move.”
More changes could be afoot in the Parliament House area if the premier has his way. Mr Barnett has spoken in general terms of extra office facilities, possibly to the south of the existing building, to accommodate parliamentary services scattered through nearby buildings. He’s also indicated he’s partial to eventually capping the freeway between parliament and the city.
And in the process, Parliament House itself should be made more user friendly. Thousands of schoolchildren, tourists and other visitors are escorted through the building each year. But there is nowhere for the public to sit and enjoy a cup of coffee or a sandwich, and even searching for toilets can be a challenge.
Mr Barnett’s plan is ambitious, and could easily be derailed. For example, Dumas House was to be the first of five similar buildings for public servants in the 1960s but, according to Max Evans, the plan was scuttled because people did not like public servants “looking down” on them.
Continued strong budget surpluses would make funding the new plan easier. When the offices are paid off in 10 years or so, there’s more money left over for other purposes. It works in other states, and it should work here.
Carbon tax showdown
THE moment of truth is fast approaching for the federal government’s planned new carbon tax. But although Prime Minister Julia Gillard hasn’t been rushed with support in her attempts to sell the plan, there’s a small ray of comfort for her in a new WA poll.
A survey of 300 Perth residents of voting age last month found that opposition to the tax may not be as entrenched as some lobby groups suggest.
Patterson Market Research asked whether “Australia should, or should not, have a price on carbon at some stage?”
A majority, 58 per cent, said they backed a price being placed on carbon. Support was strongest among Greens voters with 86 per cent approving the idea. Next came Labor on 74 per cent, while only 44 per cent of Liberals said they agreed with the move.
Thirty-five per cent of respondents rejected a carbon price altogether. Not surprisingly, the opposition was strongest among Liberal supporters. Forty-nine per cent of Liberals said “no” to the idea, compared with 20 per cent of Labor voters, and only 14 per cent of the Greens.
Obviously a key factor in the carbon tax debate is timing. Many voters say Australia should act, but only when our major trading partners move as well.