Report blames Abbott government for renovation nightmare at The Lodge

Report blames Abbott government for renovation nightmare at The Lodge

A review into long running renovations at the Prime Minister's official Canberra residence has blamed the Abbott government for blowouts and delays, after more than 40 contract changes resulted in a $12 million bill to taxpayers.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull ordered the independent review of the renovation nightmare in January 2016, amid reports senior government figures had repeatedly ordered changes to the contract and size of the works.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and wife Lucy Turnbull outside The Lodge.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and wife Lucy Turnbull outside The Lodge.Credit:AAP

Originally expected to see the ageing roof replaced, some internal upgrades, electrical rewiring and removal of asbestos, the project morphed into a much needed property-wide refurbishment for the 1927 home.

The price tag increased from $3.2 million under the Gillard government to nearly $12 million after the changes, while the eventual three-year timeframe denied Mr Abbott the chance to live in the historic home as prime minister.

Tony Abbott was the first prime minister since Ben Chifley not to live in The Lodge.

Tony Abbott was the first prime minister since Ben Chifley not to live in The Lodge.Credit:Andrew Meares

Nearly $4.5 million in contract blow outs, or 80 per cent of the cost increases identified by the review, have been blamed on changes ordered by the government.

They included delays in choosing floor tiles and carpets, improvements to the billiards room, new storage and walk in robes, necessary occupational health and safety upgrades and an $83,000 specialist luggage lift.

The review, completed by Canberra consultancy firm Projects Assured, was released by the Department of Finance on Friday after a long running freedom of information appeal by Fairfax Media.

The report said costs paid to the project's head contractor had increased by more than 150 per cent from the original budget, representing "a major deviation from the norm" in similar construction projects.

More than $1 million was spent on consultant costs including legal work and design services, as well as staffing from Finance. More than $670,000 went to project management costs and more than $500,000 was spent on painting in the 40-room property inside and out.

The final bill includes nearly $400,000 for bathroom upgrades, $11,500 for marble floor tiles and $26,700 for improvements to the main stairway off the front entrance hall.

About $304,000 was spent on the new slate roof as well as $21,000 for landscaping works.

Some costs related to security upgrades and other sensitive information have not been made public.

The report said value for money was achieved on contracts as part of the works but cost blow outs were found in project management, design services and some consultancy works.

Mr Turnbull announced a new official residences advisory committee would be established to learn the lessons of The Lodge renovations, chaired by environmental and planning lawyer David O'Donnell.

Mr O'Donnell helped review the project after receiving a commission from Mr Turnbull's department.

The new body will advise the government on future conservation and improvements at The Lodge and Sydney's Kirribilli House. Its membership is made up of architectural and heritage experts and includes the daughter of former Liberal prime minister Malcolm Fraser, interior designer Angela Marshall.

Ms Marshall and Melbourne design firm Adelaide Bragg & Associates received a $10,000 contract for interior design work as part of the project. She is a former councillor of the Australiana Fund, the body responsible for managing historic art and furniture for official Australian government residences.

A parliamentary committee was told in 2016 that Ms Marshall received the commission after an introduction from Mr Turnbull's wife, Lucy Turnbull.

It was later revealed the Turnbulls contributed $130,000 of their own money to the project, including for restoration of historic furniture dating back to the 1930s.

"The Lodge and Kirribilli House are two significant national buildings that have housed prime ministers and hold the stories and memories of leaders that have steered this nation through war and prosperity," Mr Turnbull said.

"As the prime minister's official residences, it is important that these nationally significant heritage properties are well maintained and are fit for purpose."

Designed by Melbourne architects Oakley and Parkes, The Lodge was completed in 1927.

Depression-era leader James Scullin refused to live at the property, protesting its cost, while Labor legend Ben Chifley preferred a suite at the Hotel Kurrajong.

The colonial revival-style home was originally intended only to be home for the prime minister's family for five years, before a permanent replacement was built.

The Abbott government repeatedly blocked the release of information about the works, with bureaucrats ordered not to reveal the Prime Minister's Office as a decision maker and to provide "purposefully vague responses to requests for information".

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Tom McIlroy is a political reporter for The Australian Financial Review in the federal press gallery at Parliament House.

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