“An insult to veterans”: Former repatriation clinic to be used for offices and meeting rooms
The Department of Defence says it plans to use the long-disused former repatriation clinic at 310 St Kilda Rd for its own purposes in the form of offices and meeting rooms – a move which veteran groups have labelled “an insult”.
It comes after the former Morrison Government announced a review into the historic building’s future use in February, with Melbourne architects Lovell Chen engaged to conduct a feasibility study into its refurbishment and re-use.
The Australian National Veterans Arts Museum (ANVAM), a not-for-profit community group dedicated to the rehabilitation of veterans, has long sought to become trustee of the site and establish a gallery, arts studios and mental health support services.
Despite many years lobbying all levels of government on the proposal, which has attracted widespread community support, new Assistant Minister for Defence in the Albanese Government Matt Thistlethwaite wrote to ANVAM last month stating the building would instead be used “to support Defence purposes”.
“Within its adaptive re-use design, some meeting areas may be made available for use by any Defence-related community organisation, such the Australian National Veterans Arts Museum, on a non-exclusive basis,” Mr Thistlethwaite wrote.
“Defence recognises the Australian National Veterans Arts Museum’s ongoing interest in the site and its continued efforts to support wellbeing of current and former Australian Defence Force members.”
ANVAM chairman Mark Johnston described the latest move in what’s been a long-running saga as “an insult to veterans everywhere, who had put his or her life on the line”.
“I find it hard to believe this use in this building passes that test when there are so many other sites around Melbourne and every other city in the country that would be more cost effective,” he said.
Southbank News contacted Lovell Chen regarding the outcome of the review, but it directed all enquiries on the building to the Department of Defence, which did not respond by deadline.
However, in response to an earlier enquiry requesting an update on current restoration works at the site, a Defence spokesperson said that it was progressing adaptive re-use works, taking into account the broader strategic needs for Victoria Barracks.
“The current preparatory works to maintain the heritage elements of 310 St Kilda Rd are well progressed and Defence anticipates completion of this project by November 2022,” the spokesperson said.
“Further plans to refurbish and re-use the building are currently in development, with the additional works anticipated to commence in 2023 and be completed by mid-2024.”
The former Repatriation Commission Outpatient Clinic was built at 310 St Kilda Rd in 1937 for the health and wellbeing of World War One veterans, and subsequently supported World War Two, Korean War and Vietnam War veterans.
The building has been vacant since 1995, and in 2015 the Department of Defence listed the building as surplus to requirement and has since attempted to offload it to another level of government for a peppercorn sum under Commonwealth property disposal rules.
But previous efforts to offload the site to both the Victorian Government and the City of Melbourne have failed due to what Liberal Senator David Van last year described as “the disrepair it’s been allowed to fall into”.
At a Senate Estimates hearing on October 27, Senator Van grilled leaders from Defence’s estate and infrastructure group following a decision by the council not to facilitate an acquisition of the property from the Commonwealth.
“Both in the precinct and in Melbourne, opposite the Shrine, it was built for veterans, it’s been allowed to fall into disrepair to the point where it can’t be sold to another level of government, which leaves a public sale,” Senator Van said.
“What would the public perception of Defence be if it was allowed to be turned into a block of apartments overlooking Victoria Barracks?”
The property was taken off the surplus to requirement list in February as part of the review by the Department of Defence, which at the time had yet to determine any valuable need for the building, as per Commonwealth property disposal policy.
Mark Johnston said with current office occupancy rates in the inner-city still high following the pandemic, there was “no way” offices and meeting rooms “passed the value for money test”.
He also added the move represented a “backflip” on a “promise made to veterans” by the current Labor Government, which first expressed support for the ANVAM proposal in 2016 when in opposition. •