Defence blasted as council walks away from 310 St Kilda Rd
By Sean Car
The Department of Defence has been slammed for “messing around” the City of Melbourne after talks between the two levels of government over a sale of the former Repatriation Clinic at Victoria Barracks broke down due to the building’s state of disrepair.
At a Senate Estimates hearing on October 27, Victorian Liberal Senator David Van grilled leaders from Defence’s estate and infrastructure group following a decision by the council on October 26 not to facilitate an acquisition of the property from the Commonwealth.
The news presents yet another blow to the Australian National Veteran Arts Museum (ANVAM), which has been seeking to establish a cultural and wellbeing hub for the rehabilitation of veterans in the space for nearly 10 years.
While City of Melbourne councillors considered the item in a confidential session at their October 26 meeting, the reasons for the council’s decision were laid bare in the Senate Estimates hearing as Senator Van took aim at Defence’s handling of the process.
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 requirements and has since attempted to offload it to another level of government for a peppercorn sum under Commonwealth property disposal rules.
Considered a sacred place by the veteran community, ANVAM has been long lobbying Defence to become a trustee of the site and establish a gallery and studio space for veterans to showcase their work and recover from trauma.
After efforts to offload the building to the state government failed in 2019, the Commonwealth stated that it intended to sell the site on the open market – a move which angered the veteran community.
In 2019, the City of Melbourne was approached by ANVAM and Defence about a possible purchase of the site and it officially entered discussions in April last year.
But the council told Southbank News that due to ANVAM being unable to “secure federal funding of around $21 million required to support site remediation works and ongoing operational costs”, it was unable to facilitate a purchase.
This followed revelations heard during the October 27 Senate Estimates hearing, where deputy secretary of Defence’s estate and infrastructure group Celia Perkins and first assistant Daniel Fankhauser told Senator Van it had barely spent any money on repairs in 26 years.
“Each year what money has been spent of it? It’s in terrible repair and it’s at risk of being lost to Melbourne because of the disrepair it’s been allowed to fall into. Is that a fair summation of what’s happened?” Senator Van asked the pair.
“I’ll just point out that the external security and maintenance of the property falls within our existing service arrangements for the broader Victoria Barracks precinct,” Mr Fankhauser replied. “The roof and the internals are in a poor state of repair. We did do an engineering study as part of our due diligence process for disposals in 2019, which identified a number of issues which would need to be remediated in order to bring the property back up to a state where it could be safely occupied.”
Senator Van replied, “But you probably haven’t spent much, if any, money on it in the past 26 years …”
“No. Other than those external areas to ensure that it’s safe,” Mr Fankhauser said.
After Senator Van posed the proposition that the building’s condition was responsible for putting its sale at risk, Mr Fankhauser agreed.
“That’s right senator. It would require significant investment to rectify the known damage and contaminants that are on the site, which are consistent with any property of its vintage,” he said.
Ms Perkins added, “the valuation of the property takes into account the current state of the facility” – a statement slammed by Senator Van.
“But if it’s going to be used for a public purpose, you’re asking another level of government to take on a liability that they didn’t cause? That your group has let this building go,” he said.
“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.”
“What would the public perception of Defence be if it was allowed to be turned into a block of apartments overlooking Victoria Barracks?”
“I brought them [the City of Melbourne] to that table to help keep it in public ownership and the amount of messing around from your office to Melbourne City Council, has caused them to walk away from this now.”
“I can’t say how upset I am by this news that they voted it down last night because of the disrepair you’ve let it go into, because what you’ve attached to it as conditions.”
A spokesperson for the City of Melbourne told Southbank News that while it was “unable to assist in this instance, we respect and value ANVAM, and will continue to work with the organisation as and when any future opportunities arise within the municipality”.
In response, ANVAM chairman Mark Johnston said it was grateful to the council for being “prepared to do the right thing, with the support of Senator Van, in supporting the veteran community” and preserving its heritage.
“Working closely with the council for two years, we came to appreciate how dedicated it is to this community. It is, of course, disappointing the property was not in a physical condition sufficient to transfer to the council.”
In a statement to Southbank News, a Defence spokesperson said it was undertaking further studies to determine options for the future use of 310 St Kilda Rd in light of the council’s decision.
“These studies will take into account the planned Victoria Barracks Melbourne redevelopment project,” the spokesperson said. “At this stage, it would be premature for Defence to comment on a decision about the future of the site until its studies are complete.”
During a year where the federal government launched a Royal Commission into veteran suicide, Mr Johnston said it had written to the Secretary of Defence Greg Moriarty to partner with ANVAM for a “win-win outcome”.
“While respective departments struggle to find solutions to address mental health, ANVAM’s innovative system approach centred around this place, community and the arts, is in line with the Mental Health Commission, and world’s best practice to address veterans’ suicide and give us hope and agency over our future.” •