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Convention centre gets budget funding boost

It's our capital in the 21st century.

Canberra's proposed convention centre will receive a $1.5 million boost in Tuesday's ACT budget as Chief Minister Katy Gallagher and Treasurer Andrew Barr call for expressions of interest to get the project to investment-ready stage.

Central to the government's vision for a transformed Canberra CBD with better access to Lake Burley Griffin, the Australia Forum convention centre will be in an under-used part of City Hill. The land is now part of a city carpark, facing Parkes Way.

Likely to attract criticism from the Liberal opposition, the funding will pay for a comprehensive business case for the project and is linked to $8 million more to be spent in the budget's out years as funding partners are secured.

The reference design and business case will be completed by the end of the 2014-15 financial year as procurement arrangements are completed for economic and commercial analysis. 

Mr Barr said he had been forced to change the ACT budget after the convention centre failed to win funding support from the federal government.  He said  it could be completed through a public-private-partnership model or as a government-owned capital project. 

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"This was one of a number of changes we had to make to our budget in order to respond to the federal budget and this will allow the project to continue," he said. 

If built by the government, Mr Barr said, the centre's management and operation could be outsourced to the private sector. 

"What we'd be looking for in the Australia Forum is a national-level institution, which puts it in the realm of $400 million.

"If it was any other city in the country with 400,000 people, you would build a much smaller centre but we are the national capital, hence the need for national involvement." 

Last month the Canberra Liberals called for $10 million in the budget to get the project underway. 

"We've still got time to go back to the Commonwealth," Mr Barr said.  "We intend to do that, basically at every chance we get and they've got two more budgets in this term including an election budget."

Canberra Convention Bureau chief executive Robyn Hendry said the centre could lead to a tripling of spending in the territory's conference and business events sector. 

She said it could bring high-level business and government meetings, including international events, to Canberra.  "Certainly there is a long way to go in terms of getting this particular proposal investment ready."

A scoping study for the Australia Forum was commissioned by the Canberra Business Council and the government. 

Ms Hendry said the convention centre could see Canberra reach spending levels in line with those of Adelaide and as the sector worldwide grows each year. 

Ms Gallagher met Prime Minister Tony Abbott on Monday, promising to outline public concerns about the hit to Canberra from last month's federal budget.

Speaking  beforethe meeting, the first one-one-one for the pair since Mr Abbott's election victory in September, Ms Gallagher called for the Commonwealth to take seriously funding requests from the ACT. 

She spoke of regional concerns and reminded Mr Abbott that Canberra was "the natural home" of the public service. 

"I’d rather just get that position clear now because I think it will change the way we have to respond to the economic challenges over the next 12 months," she said.

 "I do respect the right of elected governments to implement the changes that they think are necessary and they will be judged on those at the next election and in the Senate when the bills are debated." 

Ms Gallagher also called for a federal assistance package, in line with those offered to car-making regions such as Geelong and South Australia after large-scale private employers withdrew.

"The best thing the Commonwealth can do for this city is to keep their centre of operations here. We don’t want to see agencies disappearing to different places across Australia," she said.