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MPs nearly forced into cheap seats


Peter Jean and Ross Peake

Cabinet Papers: 1984-1985

Growing pains ... The new Parliament House under construction in 1984. Industrial strife and lack of skilled labour ...

Growing pains ... The new Parliament House under construction in 1984. Industrial strife and lack of skilled labour hampered progress. Photo: The Canberra Times


Cost overruns and other problems threatened to delay the opening of the New Parliament House beyond the Bicentennial year and to force MPs to accept cheaper than previously planned furniture, the 1984 and 1985 cabinet papers show.

Industrial problems, including a 14-week closure of the New Parliament House when building workers went on strike seeking higher pay and severance entitlements, became a major headache for the Parliament House Construction Authority [PHCA].

The strike set work back by an estimated six months and a shortage of suitable construction workers also delayed progress.

By November 1985, the New Parliament House budget had blown out from $439 million in September 1983 to $567 million for building and from $109 million to $149 million for non-building items.

In February 1985, Territories Minister Gordon Scholes warned against radically reducing expenditure on the project

''The interior fitout is crucial in determining the ultimate character of the building,'' Mr Scholes said.

''While PHCA will continue to examine ways to minimise the overrun, it is concerned that if savings are pursued too vigorously this may degrade the quality of finishes to the point where the major spaces lose their sense of dignity and appropriate ambience.''

Costs had been exacerbated by unanticipated rock excavation and difficulty getting staff from interstate.

''The furniture budget is under pressure and is being refined following an extensive survey of the Australian furniture manufacturing industry and the desire to meet the requirements of local manufacturers,'' Mr Scholes wrote.

''The actions necessary to return to budget could lead to a significant reduction in the electronic facilities available to Senators/Members and to a standard of furniture below that considered appropriate for Parliament House.''

In May 1985, the construction budget had been reduced by $15.9 million for 1985-86, slowing down expenditure and limiting the letting of new contracts.

Cabinet was told: ''Such action would probably delay completion beyond the planned 26 January 1988. The extent of the delay could be significant (possibly beyond 1988 altogether) due to the large number of interrelated contracts.''

The slowdown would have the benefit of avoiding ''possible union exploitation of the completion deadline''.

In February 1985, 750 people were working on the construction of New Parliament House, well short of the 1200 that would eventually be needed.

Working times were increased to nine hours per day with work every other Saturday. Additional accommodation was also being sought to try to lure workers from areas of high unemployment interstate.

Cabinet agreed in 1985 the Provisional Parliament House be ''kept intact'' after the new parliament buildings were opened and that no modifications be undertaken until a conservation study was completed.

An annexe to the Provisional Parliament was authorised to house new members when the size of Parliament was extended.

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