The Greater Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (The Authority) seeks approval from the Committee to proceed with proposed critical safety works for the continued safe operation of the National Education Centre for the Great Barrier Reef, Reef HQ.
The Authority states that the aim of the project is to ‘address a backlog of Reef HQ asset replacement and management. The works are directed to address the existing structural, mechanical and electrical safety risks. The project also aims to ensure that the Authority meets its duty of care for both staff and visitors’.
The estimated cost of the project is $26.9 million (excluding GST).
The project was referred to the Committee on 19 February 2020.
Conduct of the Inquiry
Following referral, the inquiry was publicised on the Committee’s website and via media release.
The Committee received three submissions, of which one was confidential. A list of submissions can be found at Appendix A.
On 21 May 2020, the Committee conducted a project briefing, public and in-camera hearing via teleconference. A transcript of the public hearing is available on the Committee’s website.
Need for the works
Reef HQ, the Australian Government’s ‘National Education Centre for the Great Barrier Reef’, was opened in the Central business district of Townsville, Queensland in 1987.
The centre, which is wholly owned by the Australian Government, was initially established as a ‘bi-centennial community project to create a living example of a coral reef on land, to showcase science and to deliver education about marine science’.
Today the centre holds the ‘world’s largest living reef exhibit in an aquarium’, and is recognised nationally and internationally as ‘a centre of excellence in environmental education.’
The Authority states in its submission that:
The proposal will address identified safety and operational concerns associated with Reef HQ’s ageing infrastructure, in order to allow for the facility’s continued safe operation. This in turn will allow for the continued provision of the provision of educational and informational services to the wider community.
Without the continued facilitation and delivery of its education programs, the Authority would be unable to meet its ‘strategic policy outcome of providing for educational and information services as outlined in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act 1975’.
At the public hearing representatives from the Authority told the Committee that:
After 32 years in a harsh tropical climate, typical deterioration has reached a point where serious risks are emerging and supporting infrastructure is now in many ways not compliant with current codes. The ageing and increasingly unreliable structure and systems continue to impact the Australian government's capacity to safely and effectively provide education and information services at Reef HQ.
In addition, the Authority noted in their submission that:
A 2019 asset management plan for Reef HQ states that “many of the asset groups have a weighted condition of marginal or very poor (at or past end of useful life).” Ageing assets continue to be a key risk to safety or service provision.
When asked by the Committee if the proposed works should have been undertaken earlier, the Authority told the Committee it believed that now was the right time for the project as the works were the result of a ‘very thorough examination of Reef HQ.’
The Authority states in their submission that it considered the following two options for the project.
Option 1: To fix the ageing infrastructure to allow for ongoing operation of the facility
Option 2: Close the facility
The Authority raised several problems associated with option 2 in its submission, including that:
The Australian Government does not own the land which Reef HQ resides on, it would be responsible for clearing the site and disposing of the marine animals and coral on display.
The facility’s plant and equipment would only attract a fraction of its asset value on resale and most of the assets would not be resalable and would have to be destroyed.
The permit conditions under which the facility operates does not allow for the re-sale of the in excess of 100,000 marine animals on display at the centre, requiring them to be donated to zoos or aquaria or euthanized.
Bio-security regulations would require over four million litres of water and reef structure to be treated and properly disposed of, costing hundreds and thousands of dollars.
Even if the facility was to be closed some critical safety works would still be necessary to ensure safety for works during decommissioning.
The closure would have negative impact on the Townsville economy and community.
Option 1 was selected by the Authority as the best course of action as it enabled the continued operation of the facility and would enable approximately 15-20 years of operation before another major refurbishment might be required.
Scope of the works
In its submission to the committee the Greater Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority categorised the proposed works into a series of elements based on asset type:
Concrete and structural works to ensure the rectification of health and safety concerns.
Internal and external repairs and waterproofing to walls.
The relocation of the Ergon Energy substation that provides power to Reef HQ.
Upgrades to several exhibits and structural work on the roof.
Replacing of air conditioning units.
Changes to wastewater and biosecurity.
Replacement of filters and pumps.
Repairs and replacement of the C-Bus Lighting Control System.
Replacement of the main switchboard, field distribution boards and cabling.
Work on the electrical supply and mechanical switchboards.
Repair and replacement of cabling and cable trays.
A complete upgrade of its security systems.
Fire Protection Elements:
An upgrade of Reef HQ’s fire hydrant.
Material and Furnishing Elements:
Some materials and furnishings will be replaced as part of the retrofit actions (Structural, Electrical and Mechanical) detailed in previous sections.
Hydraulic Services Elements:
Some hydraulic services will be modified, replaced or repaired as part of the retrofit actions detailed in previous sections including relocation of a stormwater drain.
Installation of foundational piles for a new electrical main.
Relocation of NBN supply cabling.
Modification of underground services for above works.
Only if these measures are required to comply with the NCC 2019.
May be required to ensure safe public access to the Reef HQ Entrance.
Community Value of Reef HQ
The Authority told the committee that:
The original vision of the facility was to create the Great Barrier Reef on land, making the reef accessible while at the same time spreading the reef conservation message and gaining public support for protection of the real thing. …Through Reef HQ, visitors have the opportunity to engage with the reef, better understand the management in place to protect and conserve it and learn about actions all individuals can take to help the reef.
Reef HQ also plays an important role in education about the Great Barrier Reef ,with the Authority explaining that it is
…the Australian government's National Education Centre for the Great Barrier Reef and is recognised nationally and internationally as a centre of excellence in environmental education.
Reef HQ provides an opportunity for local community engagement through its volunteer program. Supported by a ‘Volunteer Association with more than 100 volunteers’, each year volunteers contribute ‘in excess of 12,000 hours each year’ to the operation of the facility.
The Turtle Hospital, located within Reef HQ, provides a dedicated facility where sick and injured marine turtles can be cared for and rehabilitated back into the wild.
The Authority note in their submission that the Turtle Hospital ‘is one of the most popular exhibits’, with over 800 people turning out to witness the release of 3 turtles back into the wild in January 2020.
Living coral reef
Reef HQ ‘provides a living example of the Great Barrier Reef’ that is ‘accessible to people of all ages and physical abilities.’ The facilities’ 2.5 million litre living coral reef aquarium remains the largest in the world, ‘containing over 150 species of fish and over 120 species of hard and soft corals exclusive to the Great Barrier Reef’.
Social and economic function
At the public hearing, representatives from the Authority told the Committee that as one of the main tourism experiences in Townsville, ‘with eight per cent of the population being members of Reef HQ and 120 people being volunteers’, it had an important social and economic function to play within the local community.
In addition, the Authority told the Committee that:
There is $1.1 million worth of small to medium enterprises for the ongoing running of Reef HQ, not to mention staff employed directly by Reef HQ. It is an attraction that people might stop into town to see, so there's a broader flow-on effect for anyone who stops in the town and visits Reef HQ.
In its submission to the Committee, the Authority stated that it had already advised its members, voucher and ticketing agents and the broader Townsville Community that advanced notice will be provided in relation to paid memberships and agreements/ contracts in place.
The Authority also stated it would use its existing social and traditional media channels to ensure members, agents and community are kept abreast of closure, works progress and the facility’s reopening.
When questioned by the committee if the Authority knew of any notable public opposition to the project, the Authority replied it was not aware of any public opposition to the proposed works.
When asked by the committee what percentage of the project’s work could be sourced locally the Authority responded that due to the nature of the work, much of it would be able to be delivered by local contractors.
Cost of the works
The estimated cost of the project is $26.9 million (excluding GST)
In its submission to the Department the Authority stated that net operating costs at Reef HQ were likely to decrease due to the project.
The Authority’s submission to the committee noted that the proposed works are not proposed to be revenue producing and are solely about critical safety requirements.
The Committee acknowledged that Reef HQ is a national asset and an important research and education facility located outside a capital city.
The proposed works are very important for the future of Reef HQ to ensure that critical safety issues are addressed and that identified operational concerns are also addressed.
The Committee believes that the presence of such a facility is critically important for the wider Townsville community and the domestic and international tourism market. Following this project, the Committee considers it vitally important that Reef HQ obtain additional government funding to support its important roles in education, tourism and research.
The Committee is aware through its scrutiny of other similar projects that Reef HQ will need to update its exhibits and its technology used to educate and interact with visitors to maintain relevancy and attract visitors, including virtual education to a wider audience.
Provision of funding is outside the scope of the Committee’s scrutiny however the Committee strongly recommends that the Commonwealth Government considers appropriate additional funding for Reef HQ for this purpose. This would recognise and build on the value of the works undertaken in this project and provide the Authority and the Townsville region with a world class facility for education, research and tourism about the Great Barrier Reef.
The Committee recommends that Reef HQ is provided with additional funding for the purposes of updating its exhibits and technology to enable it to maintain its excellence in education and research, and tourism.
The Committee encourages the Authority to continue to work with its contractors to ensure that local industry continues to be engaged and the participation of local contractors is maximised as per the Commonwealth Procurement Rules.
The Committee did not identify any issues of concern with the proposal and is satisfied that that project has merit in terms of need, scope and cost.
Having regard to its role and responsibilities contained in the Public Works Committee Act 1969, the Committee is of the view that this project signifies value for money for the Commonwealth and constitutes a project which is fit for purpose, having regard to its established need.
The Committee recommends that the House of Representatives resolve, pursuant to Section 18(7) of the Public Works Committee Act 1969, that it is expedient to carry out the following proposed works: Critical safety works for the continued safe operation of the National Education Centre for the Great Barrier Reef, Reef HQ.
Proponent entities must notify the Committee of any changes to the project scope, time, cost, function or design. The Committee also requires that a post-implementation report be provided within three months of project completion. A report template can be found on the Committee’s website.
Hon Dr John McVeigh MP