Federal Politics

Budget cuts don't dent the government's Utopia-esque penchant for office plants

Tony is exasperated. The Bird of Paradise has tipped him over the edge.

"It's freezing in here!" the National Building Authority chief shouts at his hapless assistant, Katie. (The temperature has been lowered to help a newly installed jungle of taxpayer-funded plants acclimatise).

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How much does the government spend on office plants?

Labor Senator Joe Ludwig accuses the Coalition of an office plant budget blowout, but both sides of politics have racked up substantial nursery bills.

Katie: "But we're starting to get new growth! The Aspidistra is about to flower!"

The scene is from the ABC's comedy series Utopia but a new analysis shows it may be a case of art imitating life.

Indoor plants feature prominently in an episode of the ABC comedy series Utopia.
Indoor plants feature prominently in an episode of the ABC comedy series Utopia. Photo: ABC

Against a backdrop of rising spending and a big budget deficit, taxpayers have forked out millions of dollars on indoor plants for government offices since the Coalition took office.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics - which has shed hundreds of staff and axed research programs following budget cuts - signed a $417,540, three-year contract for office plants as recently as August 2015.

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"Living walls" at one Department of Education and Training building in Canberra cost $41,184 a year to maintain. 

But Labor's attempt to capitalise on the green-spree has backfired after a search of old records found it spent at least as much on indoor greenery during its final three years in power.

One of the 'living walls' inside the Canberra building housing the Department of Education and Training.
One of the 'living walls' inside the Canberra building housing the Department of Education and Training. Photo: www.rudds.com.au

Senate documents show 10 departments spent just over $400,000 in the 2014/15 financial year on indoor plants. The true bill would be higher because many other departments were not asked to disclose their spending.

The total value of office plant contracts signed since the Coalition's election just over two years ago comes in just shy of $1 million. In comparison, Labor signed up to more than $1.7 million worth of plant spending during the final three years of the Gillard/Rudd governments.

Illustration: Matt Golding
Illustration: Matt Golding 

A study by psychologists from Australia, Britain and the Netherlands last year found employees were 15 per cent more productive when barren workplaces were filled with houseplants.

The federal budget is on track to record a $37.4 billion deficit for the current financial year and it is not forecast to return to surplus until 2021.

Labor senator Joe Ludwig, who used Senate estimates to probe the plant spending, said the budget couldn't afford it.

"This government is facing a budget black hole," he said. "Although it seems that they are more content making cuts to pensions, health and education rather than spending on office foliage. This shows a government with a clear spending problem, and that dead spending is the root of their problem."

However, records show the bureaucracy also enjoyed leafy offices under Labor.

The Department of Environment signed up to a $462,476.30 indoor plant contract under Julia Gillard's prime ministership, and the Department of Finance agreed to one $397,000 deal under Kevin Rudd.

A spokesman for the ABS did not answer questions about whether the $417,000 contract was a responsible use of taxpayer funds.

"The contract, which was the result of an open tendering process, includes providing and maintaining plants in all [10] ABS offices," he said.

New contracts since Coalition took office:

Australian Bureau of Statistics: $462,000

Treasury: $215,000

Department of Education and Training: 54,000

Department of Communications: $48,000

Department of Human Services: $34,000

Department of Employment: $33,000

New contracts under final three years of Labor:

Attorney-General's Department: $492,000

Department of Environment: $462,476

Department of Human Services: $278,000

Treasury: $72,000

Australian Bureau of Statistics: $64,000

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