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Inquiry granted to probe ACT's embassies management

Date

Chris Johnson

Member for Canberra Gai Brodtmann has succeeded in initiating a wide-reaching inquiry into the management of diplomatic estates in the ACT.

The Labor backbencher sought and secured agreement from the National Capital and External Territories Committee, of which she is a member, for the inquiry to be launched.

It comes at the height of controversy over plans to build nine new embassies on a controversial site at Stirling Park.

A group of vocal Yarralumla residents has expressed outrage at the proposal.

The new enquiry has specific terms of reference that go to the roles of the National Capital Authority, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the ACT Government and other agencies.

They also include the forecast demand and supply of land, the suitability of current property types, other considerations to meet the different needs of diplomatic missions, and options for locations of future diplomatic estates.

"I'm delighted the committee has agreed to hold this inquiry. I understand this is the first time an inquiry of this nature has been conducted," Ms Brodtmann said.

"As a national capital, we must be able to respond to the changing needs of the diplomatic community, but as a city we must have in place plans that meet the needs of the Canberra community.

"We need to explore a broader range of options that take into account today's Canberra, not the Canberra of the 1950s." But at a public hearing of the committee, the NCA's chief executive Gary Rake asked for an additional term of reference to be added.

"It would consider the extent to which Australia's foreign affairs considerations guide the development and management of diplomatic missions in Canberra," Mr Rake said.

He informed the committee that one local resident told the NCA that the top 50 countries with whom Australia trades already had an embassy in Canberra. '

'The view of this resident was that the relationship with the remaining countries was so insignificant that they did not warrant such a prominent site," he said.

"Another has stated that they appreciated the need for the national capital to provide reasonably good sites for embassies and high commissions – but is not sure that the sites for countries not yet represented need to be quite as good as the one in question."

Mr Rake also said he had heard private complaints and comments during the consultation period about foreign nations and various religions that "verge on vilification".

But he accepted that the new inquiry will delay plans for the proposed Stirling Ridge development. The Yarralumla group's spokesman Peter McGhie said the inquiry's terms of reference looked good.

"They are broad ranging and comprehensive and should lead to a policy which retains the beauty of the natural landscape around the lake but will also identify innovative ways to provide appropriate facilities for the few remaining countries which may seek to establish chanceries and residences in the national capital," he said.

The committee must report to Regional Development and Local Government Minister Simon Crean by March 30 next year.

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