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Cabinet papers: Tension in cabinet over plan to build massive new building for DFAT

The proposal to build a massive new building close to Parliament House for the status-conscious Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade sparked tensions in the cabinet over the cost, location and strategy.

The DFAT building in Barton, Canberra.
The DFAT building in Barton, Canberra. Photo: Fairfax

Cabinet papers released by the National Archives of Australia reveal the initial plan was for the DFAT building to go on York Park, on the northern side of Brisbane Avenue, with a new building for the Department of Employment, Education and Training to be built on the southern side.

However the DFAT building was eventually built on the southern side, with the other plum northern site still used as a car park.

Ministers in the Hawke government considered the issue several times during cabinet meetings in 1990, debating the best way to relocate DFAT out of the ageing Administrative Building known as the Kremlin.

Perhaps due to the sensitivity about the expense, the cabinet decided in August 1990 the new building would provide temporary accommodation for DFAT, Treasury and Finance during renovation of the Treasury and Administrative Buildings.

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Ministers said DFAT would go back to the refurbished Administrative Building and the "eventual occupant of the new building be decided at a later date".

The Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet said "consideration of accommodating further departments in the Parkes/Barton area involves a conflict between two factors: the ACT accommodation strategy [agreed by cabinet in 1988] which gives priority to locating Commonwealth office accommodation in Tuggeranong and Belconnen, and the co-ordination and liaison benefits which may accrue from locating departments close together".

PM&C also complained the "area of the building proposed is far larger than that envisaged when ministers last considered the matter in July 1989".

The Finance Department said the proposal would involve a "significant change" to the approved office accommodation strategy for Canberra and wanted DFAT to return to a refurbished Administrative Building.

"The space proposed [in the new building] is excessive," Finance said.

"The case for new office accommodation in Parkes/Barton rather than in Woden, Belconnen or Tuggeranong has not been satisfactorily established."

Treasury questioned the need for departments such as DEET and the Audit Office that do not have a "continual close working relationship with Parliament" to be located in the Parkes/Barton area.

A report from the Cabinet Office detailed a plan for office accommodation, with DFAT and the Department of Employment, Education and Training to have new buildings on York Park, the Anzac Park East building to be refurbished for the Department of Primary Industry and Energy, and Treasury and Finance to be temporarily located into the Administrative Building vacated by DFAT while the Treasury Building was refurbished.

The submission from then administrative services minister Stewart West recommended the cabinet agree to construct a $20 million multi-level carpark for 2500 spaces, at Blackall Street.

The plan for the pavilion-style DFAT building, sprawling over 4.2 hectares of York Park, was unveiled in the 1992 budget and the building was eventually opened by a Liberal prime minister, John Howard.

The building was dubbed "Gareth's Gazebo" after Labor's foreign minister, Gareth Evans, but, after the change of government, it was rechristened "Shirley's Temple" after the hairstyle of his successor, Alexander Downer.

It was reported at the time the Labor government had planned to name the edifice after a former Labor foreign minister, Herbert "Doc" Evatt, but the Liberal government chose the name, R.G. Casey building, after Richard Casey, former governor-general and external affairs minister in the Menzies government.

The National Capital Planning Commission required the roofs of the building in York Park be pitched to an angle of 30 degrees and building machinery like lift motors be hidden.

As the result, the DFAT building has 14 terracotta-tiled pyramids on the roof, above the four-storey low-rise structure that is 270 metres wide and 180 meters deep.

Mr Evans unveiled the foundation stone for the building in May 1993, when he described the building as a "modest and attractive national asset".

"I first learned to loathe the Kremlin, that enormous pile of speckled-brown-dog stonework known as the Administrative Building, when I was working as a consultant to Attorney-General Murphy back in 1972 – and spent my time dodging cracks in the lino and talking over clanking and wheezing pipes in the part of the building; that was occupied by AG's," he said then.

"So one of my very first – and unquestionably most reckless – promises to the new department in 1988, made in my speech to the assembled throng in the cafeteria after succeeding Bill Hayden as foreign minister, was to try and do what I could to get the department into a modern, workable building."

* The Howard government sold the R. G. Casey building for $217 million and, by 2017, it will have paid $310 million rent, according to the Commonwealth's contract records on Austender.