Department of Immigration wants to spend $250 million on unprecedented office upgrade

This empty building at Canberra Airport will likely soon house the new headquarters of the Department of Immigration. Photo: Andrew Meares A proposed floorplan layout for the new building.

Immigration bosses want to spend more than a quarter of a billion dollars revamping their Canberra headquarters in what is thought to be the most expensive office fit-out in Australian government history.

While the supercharged Department of Immigration and Border Protection – the result of a 2015 merger between immigration and customs – insists much of the $255 million cost of its “Headquarters Project” will be rolled into the lease costs, the politicians asked to approve the plan have raised major concerns.

Under the proposal, the number of buildings the department inhabits in the national capital would shrink from 12 to five, with the main office located inside a new state-of-the-art structure next to Canberra Airport.

The fit-out would include “a unified watch floor, situation rooms, briefing rooms, incident rooms, operation planning rooms, associated intelligence support rooms, and surge rooms”. The new building would include an armoury, conference and training facilities, evidence rooms and map rooms. The department envisions an “innovative” and “modern” new office with “large efficient floor plates to support future flexibility” and an open environment that will “promote collaboration and positive cultural renewal”.

But it won’t come cheap. The price tag for the 85,700 square metre multi-building fit-out suggests the renovations will cost nearly $3000 per square metre – well above the $1200 to $1800 government average.

The government has budgeted $22.6m for the fit-out, and another $20.5m will come from the department’s operating budget. The remaining $212m will come from landlord “incentives”, effectively meaning that cost will be incorporated into the lease arrangement with the government.

But Labor senator Alex Gallacher believes taxpayers will end up paying much more through hidden costs in the lease deal.

“Only half of the $212 million is actually a lease incentive,” Senator Gallacher revealed in the Senate on Wednesday.

“The other half is a loan – capital advanced up front by the landlord and amortised over the period of the lease.”

A member of the Joint Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works – which has to approve the proposal before it can proceed – Senator Gallacher said the department has failed to answer simple questions about the proposal and points to its “unenviable record” of poor contract management and cost blowouts.

Taking the rare step of circumventing the committee to raise his concerns, Senator Gallacher said he wanted “full transparency” from the department.

“It is the biggest single fitout the public works committee has looked at in six years. We’re probably going to find out it’s the biggest single fitout of all time,” he told the chamber. “And we’re asked as a committee to just tick off $250-odd million of expenditure because there’s a lease incentive from a landlord?

“Well I don’t think we’re going to do that.”

Senator Gallacher was left furious last year when the Department of Finance told the committee a lease on its new state-of-the-art offices would cost $194 million but the true cost was later revealed to be of $376 million.

Turnbull government MP David Coleman also raised concerns about the lease incentives at a committee hearing last week.

“It is a lot of money. It suggests that the rent must be a very large number,” he said to departmental officials. “It is only really truly a lease incentive if you are paying a low rate for the lease in the first place.”

Officials were unable to tell Mr Coleman what percentage of the department’s rent they would get back in the form of lease incentives, saying only “the rent rates per square metre are very competitive”.

The department refused to reveal other details, citing commercial-in-confidence concerns.

The fit-out is due to begin in August this year and be completed by February 2021. The upgraded buildings would accommodate 6000 staff.

There will also be $12 million worth of new security upgrades.

At the hearing last Friday, departmental officials said the cost per square metre of the fit-out would be approximately $2250 – still well above average – but did not explain how they arrived at that figure.

The department had originally wanted to bring all its Canberra-based public servants under one roof but a successful lobbying effort from commercial interests at the department’s present location in north Canberra forced a backdown.

with Noel Towell

Agus Yudhoyono protests explosive allegations against his father on eve of election

Jakarta gubernatorial candidate Agus Harimurti Yudhoyono, left, with his running mate Sylviana Murni at the rally on February 11. Photo: Jefri Tarigan Supporters of Agus Harimurti Yudhoyono at a rally in Jakarta on February 11. Photo: Jefri Tarigan

A Jakartan checks for his name at a polling station in the capital. Over 7 million voters are eligible. Photo: Jefri Tarigan

Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, left, casts his ballot with his son Nicholas and wife Veronica Tan, all in his campaign’s trademark plaid shirt. Photo: Jefri Tarigan

A Jakarta voter shows inkstained fingers to prove she has cast her ballot. Photo: Jefri Tarigan

A Jakartan man on his way out of the polling booth. Photo: Jefri Tarigan

A voter’s finger is marked with ink. Photo: Jefri Tarigan

Supporters of Agus Harimurti Yudhoyono at a rally in Jakarta last weekend. Photo: Jefri Tarigan

Fadli, 18, after casting his vote for Agus Harimurti Yudhoyono at Tanah Abang, Central Jakarta. Photo: Jewel Topsfield

Monganiah, a witness for Anies Baswedan’s ticket at the Tanah Abang polling booth. Photo: Jewel Topsfield

Jakarta: Agus Harimurti Yudhoyono, a contender for the governorship of Jakarta, has lashed out at “extraordinarily cruel” claims that his father, former Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, framed someone for murder.

The explosive allegations topped off one of the most incendiary election campaign periods in Indonesia’s history, which many consider was a proxy war for the 2019 presidential election.

Antasari Azhar, a former anti-corruption commissioner who was jailed in 2010 for murder but recently granted a presidential pardon, alleged on Tuesday that SBY – as the former president is known – had been the “initiator” of his murder case after he refused his request not to detain Agus’ father-in-law.

After casting his vote in South Jakarta, Agus said the claims had intentionally been made one day before the vote.

SBY, who has already vowed to take legal action against Antasari, said it was difficult to believe the “slander” was not related to the Jakarta gubernatorial election.

“I think it’s extraordinarily cruel, but we stay strong, we are not too affected,” Agus said as he cast his vote. “God willing, Jakartans are smarter, with hearts that can differentiate between lies and facts.”

Agus, a handsome former military officer who was plucked from relative obscurity to stand for governor, has seen his electability dive in polls after uninspired performances in debates.

Australian National University lecturer Ross Tapsell said although Agus led on polls for the best-looking candidate, “that’s never going to win you the election, even in the era of Instagram and Twitter and so on”.

“Agus was was always going to have to perform at the debates and the general consensus was that he hasn’t,” he added.

His father has also proven something of a liability during the campaign period, with hyperbolic Twitter outbursts that have been ridiculed on social media.

SBY has emotionally railed against rumours that he was behind a November 4 mass rally that called for incumbent governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, widely known as Ahok, to be jailed for allegedly insulting Islam.

When students protested against sectarianism outside his house, SBY tweeted: “I ask the president, the police chief, do I not have the right to live in my own country, with the human rights that I am entitled to?”

This resulted in an avalanche of satirical tweets such as “I’m asking Mr President and Police Chief: why am I still single?”  ​and “I’m asking Mr President and Police Chief, why I am always sleepy during work hours?”.

However Fadli, an 18-year-old who was casting his vote for the first time at a polling booth in Tanah Abang in Central Jakarta, told Fairfax Media that Agus had won his vote.

“He looks firm, he keeps his words,” Fadli said, showing us the purple ink stain on his finger Indonesians use to denote someone has voted. “An army officer usually says A when he means A. I hope he can make Jakarta better.”

Agus’ promise to develop Jakarta without the controversial evictions to relieve flooding, create new parks and eliminate vice that have characterised Ahok’s tenure was the policy that most appealed to Fadli.

However he had also been tempted by the third candidate, Anies Baswedan, who said he wanted to build a sports stadium for football.

More than 41.2 million Indonesians across seven provinces in Indonesia will vote for their leader for the next five years in Wednesday’s election.

However all eyes have been on the capital, where 7.1 million Jakartans are eligible to vote in an election seen by many as a test of Indonesia’s much vaunted pluralism and religious tolerance.

Ahok, who is Christian and ethnically Chinese, has been fighting an election campaign whilst simultaneously fighting to stay out of jail at his trial for blasphemy.

Religion is writ large in the election. Posters hung on the polling booths with profiles of the candidates list religion alongside their date and place of birth, education and assets in both rupiah and US dollars.

Of the six gubernatorial and vice-gubernatorial candidates in Jakarta, Ahok is the only non-Muslim.

Monganiah, a witness for Anies Baswedan’s ticket at the Tanah Abang polling booth we visit, said Agus and Anies were the favourites in the area because Islamic sentiment was strong.

“Ahok’s good, but because of the religious blasphemy case his electability decreases,” she said.

Voting is voluntary in Indonesia. In the 2012 Jakarta gubernatorial election there was a 63.7 per cent voter turnout in the first round, with commentators expecting participation to increase this year.

Even businesses are doing what they can to encourage participation in the process.

Voters who go to Bakerzin, an Indonesian bakery, are given free packets of macaroons if they can show their “pinky blue finger”.

Tari Lestari, supervisor at a central Jakarta branch, told Fairfax Media the promotion was to celebrate democracy in their country.

“It is a memorable moment for Indonesia,” she said. “We are definitely doing this to encourage people to vote.”

with Karuni Rompies and Jessie Chiang

‘Really significant step’: Consensus report emboldens push for free vote on same-sex marriage

Some Liberal MPs are agitating for a free vote on same-sex marriage. Photo: Chiang Ying-YingA fresh parliamentary push on same-sex marriage has become more likely after a cross-party Senate committee reached a broad consensus on refining the government’s same-sex marriage legislation.

The “unprecedented show of collaboration” paves the way for a marriage equality bill as soon as next month, to be co-sponsored by Labor, the Greens, gay Liberal senator Dean Smith, the NXT and possibly Derryn Hinch.

In the report published Wednesday, senators took aim at aspects of the Marriage Act changes proposed by Attorney-General George Brandis ahead of the failed same-sex marriage plebiscite.

The exposure draft – the first time an Australian government had outlined its vision for marriage equality – proposed sweeping exemptions to discrimination law for ministers of religion, civil celebrants and religious businesses who did not want to participate in same-sex unions.

But the committee expressed concern the government’s draft bill “would explicitly discriminate against same-sex couples” for no good reason, because the Marriage Act already “provides the broadest and strongest protection of religious freedom for ministers of religion”.

With regard to civil celebrants, the committee proposed to establish a new subdivision of marriage celebrant titled Religious Marriage Celebrants, to capture civil celebrants of a religious inclination, who would be given the same protections afforded to ministers of religion.

And the committee was against extending protections to celebrants who did not want to officiate gay unions on the basis of “conscientious belief”, declaring there was no need to “disturb decades of anti-discrimination law and practice in Australia”.

While the report outlined many complex legal areas requiring further clarification, Fairfax Media understands senators from across the political spectrum went to extra lengths to ensure the committee reached consensus on the major points.

Marriage equality advocates welcomed the multi-partisan effort as a watershed moment in the path to legalising same-sex marriage.

“This is a really significant step forward,” said Tiernan Brady, director of Australians 4 Equality. “The Senate committee has risen above party politics. They have shown that political parties can work together to deliver the will of the Australian people.”

Greens senator Janet Rice described it as an “unprecedented show of collaboration, negotiation and consensus [that] has given us a way forward to achieve marriage equality in this Parliament”.

Committee chairman David Fawcett noted a plebiscite remained the government’s position. However, moderate Liberal MPs who have been agitating for the Coalition to abandon its plebiscite policy have pointed to the report as a key marker in their case for a free vote.

Fairfax Media understands the report will inform a cross-party Senate bill to be co-sponsored by Labor, the Greens, gay Liberal senator Dean Smith (who abstained on the plebiscite vote), the NXT and possibly Senator Hinch.

The numbers in such a Senate vote remain tight, particularly if it takes place after replacements for Bob Day and Rodney Culleton are found, which is likely. It would require conservative Labor senators to abstain and Senator Smith, at the very least, to cross the floor.

If successful, Liberals supportive of same-sex marriage would pressure the party for a free vote in the House of Representatives. Those understood to be pushing for a free vote include Tim Wilson, Trent Zimmerman, Trevor Evans and Warren Entsch. They were believed to be carefully considering the Senate report on Wednesday afternoon.

But conservatives in the Coalition have returned fire, with Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce ordering MPs to stop discussing the “Oxford Street” issue. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has also reiterated the party’s position remains the plebiscite.

Even if the subject were debated in the Liberal partyroom, MPs would risk war with the Nationals, whose coalition agreement with the Liberals stipulates that a plebiscite be held.

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Just 129 public servants interested in sea change

Deputy Leader of the Nationals Senator Fiona Nash. Photo: Andrew MearesOnly 129  public servants have applied to be part of the Tax Office’s controversial excursion to the NSW central coast.

The underwhelming response, from the 19,000-strong revenue agency to requests for expressions of interest in transfers to Gosford, raises the prospect of forced relocations for more than 400 Tax Officials to the regional town.

The revelation comes as the Coalition defended its policies intended to push hundreds of Canberra-based public servants to rural and regional Australia.

The policy of moving federal public servants to Gosford has been controversial since it was first announced as the Coalition tried to win the seat from Labor before the 2013 election.

The Tax office took some time to determine what it would actually do with the $72 million new building it was told to occupy but Commissioner of Taxation Chris Jordan said in early 2016 that it was never the intention to move large numbers of public servants to Gosford from Canberra or anywhere else.

Rather, it was hoped the occupants of the building could be recruited “from the local area”.

But there could be a large shortfall on the numbers needed, after ATO staff were advised this week that only 129 of their colleagues had put up their hands for a Gosford Transfer.

“The Expression of Interest for transfer at level to the Gosford site has now closed, with a total of 129 applications received,” a staff newsletter reported this week.

“The assessment of applications has commenced and candidates will be notified of decisions by mid-March.

“The Gosford site is on track for the scheduled opening in November 2017.”

The central coast project is separate to the program of forced public service relocations from Canberra that the Nationals are driving in the Agriculture portfolio they control.

Under the Nationals’ policy the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation is moving to to Wagga Wagga and the Grains Research and Development Corporation is going Toowoomba, Dubbo, Northam and Adelaide.

The Fisheries Research and Development Centre will open an office in Adelaide and most controversially, the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Agency is being forced to move to Armidale.

Nationals Deputy Leader Fiona Nash told the Senate on Wednesday that the policy was here to stay.

“We are a Government that wants to invest in those communities and to invest in their futures,” Ms nash said.

“We want those communities to have good jobs, high paying jobs and have better access to services. Part of our commitment to growing jobs outside of our major capital cities is to look at opportunities to decentralise Government agencies to rural and regional areas.

“We never apologise for taking decisions that are going to provide a sustain future for regional communities, to provide more jobs – and part of that is looking to decentralise to get those public sectors jobs out into the regions where they deserve that investment because it is regional Australia that drive this country.”

Uber driver Muhammad Naveed found guilty of raping a passenger

Mohammad Naveed, an Uber driver, was found guilty of sexual intercourse without consent at his trial at Downing Centre District Court. Photo: Kate GeraghtyA Sydney Uber driver cried and said a woman who accused him of raping her in the back seat of his car had “trapped” him.

But within hours on Wednesday, a jury rejected Muhammad Naveed’s dramatic story, and found him guilty of sexual intercourse without consent.

The 41-year-old stood in the dock, but did not react when the jury delivered its verdict in the Downing Centre District Court.

The Crown’s case was that the woman was heavily intoxicated when she was picked up by Naveed near The World Bar in Kings Cross in the early hours of October 18, 2015.

Prosecutor James Trevallion said Naveed stopped to buy condoms and a bottle of water at a petrol station before encouraging the woman to get into the back seat and raping her.

The trial heard that the woman, who had an estimated blood alcohol concentration of .231 at the time, had only a partial memory of the night and woke up to find Naveed having sex with her.

She allegedly struggled to push him away and tried to tell him to get off her.

The Crown told the jury that the pair did have intercourse, but the woman never gave her consent, and, that she was too drunk to give consent.

When the woman was dropped at the place she was staying, the court heard, she immediately told a friend what had happened and police were called.

Naveed told the court that he was eating Doritos while on a break from Uber driving when the woman approached him and pleaded for him to give her a ride home.

He told the woman she needed to make a booking through the Uber app, but she asked him to show her “some sympathy” because her phone was out of battery and offered to pay the next day.

The woman, he said, did not appear intoxicated and was chatty in the car before she started trying to kiss him.

“I said: ‘Sorry I can’t do that I’ve got a family. Do you have a boyfriend’?”

Naveed told the court they then started kissing but he told her he did not have a condom.

“She said: ‘Don’t worry about protection’,” Naveed said.

“I said: ‘I don’t know you, you don’t know me, how I can trust you’? Then she said: ‘We can get condoms’.”

The court heard that Naveed stopped and bought the condoms and water before pulling over in a quiet street in Sydney’s eastern suburbs.

Naveed said they both climbed into the back seat of his car, but he could not get an erection.

At one point during his evidence he sobbed repeatedly “she trapped me”.

Naveed will be sentenced at a later date.