Press conference at The Australian War Memorial

The Hon Matt Keogh MP
Minister for Veterans’ Affairs
Minister for Defence Personnel

E&OE transcript
Joint press conference
Australian War Memorial

HON MATT KEOGH MP, MINISTER FOR VETERANS’ AFFAIRS: Well, it’s wonderful to be here at the Australian War Memorial. You might not get that sense from the background – we’re here as part of the building works that are being undertaken as part of the expansion of the War Memorial, which is very necessary work to be undertaken. This is a War Memorial that commemorates those that have made the supreme sacrifice for our nation, commemorates those that have served our nation so well through times of conflict and war. And, of course, it’s a Memorial that whilst old needs to serve us well into the future.

And so as an important institution for our nation commemorating those that have secured our future as a nation I’m very proud to be making an announcement that’s about also securing our energy future as a nation as well.

As part of the expansion work program we’re going to be introducing and including a geothermal heating project which will see a reduction in carbon emissions from the Australian War Memorial and a cost saving as well. This will be the largest closed loop geothermal project, an Australian first that will replace the gas-powered heating system for the Australian War Memorial with a closed loop geothermal system that will provide heating through winter and cooling through summer.

It will see a reduction of some 1,000 tonnes of carbon emissions through the introduction of this program. That’s the equivalent of about 87,000 school students’ round-trip bus trips from Sydney to Canberra in terms of the carbon saving, as well as saving over a million dollars a year in gas costs for the heating of this War Memorial.

It’s a great example of how the government through its own projects and through the public service can be contributing to the 43 per cent reduction in fossil fuel emissions by 2030 as well as, of course, bringing down costs for the public sector as well.

We’re very proud of this program and the way in which it is using and showcasing a great national institution in our national capital as a way of moving forward on our carbon agenda as well as showing that this is a building that’s not just about the past, it’s a building that is also about our future.

And as we expand this great institution of the Australian War Memorial to make sure that it doesn’t just reflect upon and commemorate those conflicts and wars from our history but those also from our current time and our recent past such as Iraq and Afghanistan, making sure that we have the space and the appropriate way of reflecting and demonstrating and educating the public about those conflicts, about the sacrifice and service of those that have served our nation, and we’re very proud to be making this announcement of the introduction of geothermal as part of the expansion here at the Australian War Memorial.

Brendan, would you like to say a few words about the project as well?

DR BRENDAN NELSON AO, CHAIRMAN OF THE COUNCIL OF THE AUSTRALIAN WAR MEMORIAL: Thank you very much, Minister Keogh and Director Matt Anderson. I’m Brendan Nelsen, Chairman of the Council of the Australian War Memorial. Firstly to reiterate and reinforce what the minister has said – all of this work that is being undertaken here is entirely for the young generation of veterans that our nation has produced over the last 20 years. In more than two decades we’ve created more than 100,000 new relatively young veterans – men and women who’ve served our country at war, war-like operations, peacekeeping, humanitarian, disaster relief, and providing support to Australians in times of crisis.

They need their stories to be told. They deserve to be told. But not at the expense of telling the stories of those who’ve served in Vietnam, the first or the second world wars or other conflicts.

The project is well and truly on track, and we expect it to be fully completed by 2028. The money that our nation is investing in this project we spend on defence in four and a half days. And it’s extraordinarily important that all of us remember that it is in addition to the more than $12 billion that the Australian government spends supporting veterans and families every year.

The Australian War Memorial is a very important part of the milieu that gives meaning and understanding to sacrifice that’s been given for us and in our name. One of the contributors to post-traumatic stress and the events that have led in part to the Royal Commission is a sense of meaninglessness. It’s extremely important we say to veterans, particularly those young veterans we’ve created, that what they have done for us is as valued as those who came before them.

The architecture and the buildings that are being built here are world-class. And Australians will be immensely proud of it when it’s completed. We made the decision as a council – in one sense a difficult decision because it would come at the expense of gallery development and some of the things we need to do in the project at the back end beyond 2026, but in another sense it was an easy decision. And that is to spend about $10 million in introducing and providing a geothermal heat exchange for the Australian War Memorial.

What we’re doing here is something as a nation of which we are immensely proud. This is a once-in-a-two-generation project. One hundred years from now we will have the geothermal heat exchange which, as the minister has said, will substantially reduce not only our greenhouse gas emissions but also our energy costs.

It complements a 235-kilowatt solar energy array that we are installing and a 580,000-litre rainwater harvesting system. We want to be absolutely determined that for the next generation of Australians we say to you the future has arrived and it is here. This is our energy transition at work. I discussed this with Minister Bowen, obviously with Minister Keogh. We received the support and encouragement of the Australian government to do it, and we’re proud of the decision we have made.

MATT ANDERSON PSM, DIRECTOR OF THE AUSTRALIAN WAR MEMORIAL: Thank you, Chairman. Thank you, Minister. The Minister has explained what we’re doing and Brendan has explained why we’re doing it. I guess I just want to explain to you how it is we’re actually going to do this. And it will involve drilling about 320 holes on the vacant site behind me and around this eastern precinct going down to about 150 metres. And we’ve already drilled some test bores just to make sure that that works. We’re then going to connect that with about – with a couple of hundred kilometres of piping. And what that then allows us to do as the temperature down there is a constant 18 degrees – and as we know in Canberra, we don’t have constant 18 degrees – and what it allows us to do is to generate the heating and the cooling of the Australian War Memorial using that 18 degrees.

It means we’re not heating up from minus 6 degrees on a cold winter’s morning and we’re not trying to cool that water down from 40 degrees on a hot summer’s day. It means we’re pumping water into our system at about 18 degrees, and that’s how we make that energy exchange. That’s how we keep the Australian War Memorial at a constant temperature for the 364 days a year we’re open. That’s how we look after our visitors, and it’s how we look after our most precious national collection.

We’ll save a significant amount of money doing it. It’s the right thing to do. And this is the right time to be doing it.

JOURNALIST: Just on some of the price, is that $10 million that you mentioned, can you talk us through that? [Indistinct].

MATT ANDERSON: Yeah, so the question was that is it $10 million? We’re still finalising the negotiations, so I won’t go into specifics, but it’s around $10 million that we’re seeking. Now, on current energy prices we expect to be able to recoup that $10 million in about seven years. To give you an idea of the energy savings, it is out of the existing project it is not, you know, what we were hoping to do obviously. The Chairman mentioned that it means in the outyears – 2026 to 2028 – if we haven’t been able to effect savings throughout the project up to that date there’ll be some things we can’t do. And then, of course, there’s also questions about whether or not we can actually use and utilise some of the energy savings and the operating expenses to offset the cost of the geothermal. That’s the plan. That’s why the Chairman said it’s a difficult decision to do now, but it’s the right decision.

JOURNALIST: [Indistinct].

MATT ANDERSON: I’d need to take that question on notice. But I’ll ask Leanne: what’s our energy bill at the moment? Right now today? So we estimate the savings, the savings in energy use, will be over a million dollars a year based on [indistinct].

JOURNALIST: That $10 million, we’ve seen the original price for the whole project and the renovations is $500 million, and it’s gone up to $550 recently. Is that within that or is it another 10 on top of that?

MATT ANDERSON: No, it’s within that.

JOURNALIST: Do you anticipate you’re going to need more money?

MATT ANDERSON: We are doing everything we can to make sure that we stay within the budget of $550 million. I’m very, very proud of the team that’s working on this. The work that they have done to value manage this project at this point in time is extraordinary. They have looked to make sure that every cent we spend has been well spent. And at this stage we are working as hard as we can possibly work to achieve the design and the build outcomes within the $550 million.

JOURNALIST: Minister, if they do come to you asking for more in unforeseen circumstances, will the Federal Government fork out the extra cash?

MATT KEOGH: Well, obviously the additional 50 has come about because we’ve had some pretty significant price increases, inflation, cost escalations and everyone involved in any construction project across the country right now has been confronting. And I want to commend the War Memorial on the work they’ve been doing to really keep those cost escalations as low as possible.

This is a great use of expenditure to incorporate the geothermal project as well. There’s no current ask on government for additional funds. And I know because of the great management of the project that they’re going to be able to bring this project to completion within that envelope, and we look forward to continuing to work with the Memorial on achieving that outcome so that we get good outcomes like the use of this geothermal technology in terms of heating and cooling the Memorial as well as the solar power and the rain harvesting arrangements which I think really demonstrate that this is a demonstration project of what is possible when we do projects well in our country, large-scale projects like this, but also making sure we’re able to properly commemorate, reflect and educate people about the service and the sacrifice of our Defence Forces that they’ve made for our nation.

JOURNALIST: [Indistinct] more money what will be the process?

MATT KEOGH: Look, the War Memorial is a Government entity like any other. If they have ongoing or additional needs, they come to government as part of an ordinary budget process. And if that happens in the future – and we’re not foreshadowing that that would – the government would look at that at the time that a request was made.

JOURNALIST: I’m sorry, did you say you’re not foreshadowing that that will happen?

MATT KEOGH: I’m not foreshadowing nor have we had any request made of government at this stage. But as with any government agency, if they make requests they go through ordinary budget processes.

BRENDAN NELSEN: Just on this, anybody who is doing any kind of building work at the moment whether you’re building a granny flat or renovation to your home through to a project of national interest knows that as a consequence of the pandemic-induced supply chain constraints, energy, transport costs, building costs knows that building costs have been increasing far in excess of anything in our recent memory.

And when the budget is done for the project, our auditors, our quantity surveyors, when all of the costings put together for contingency and escalation funding, that of course, preceded the events that have unfolded in the last two and a half years.

It is an immense credit to the project management team here that the management of costs in building this magnificent architecture for this generation of Australian veterans is well below the increases experienced in the rest of the construction sector. Only yesterday as the Chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce I was speaking to a businessman who said to me he started building a factory two years ago, his costs have increased 50 per cent, nothing like what we’ve experienced here at the Australian War Memorial.

I’d also remind you that the Master Builders Association of New South Wales only recently published increases in building and construction costs – hard steel increased 43 per cent, hardwood 39 per cent, the smallest increase in any building product or material, 15 per cent. And yet the management of this project, yes, the costs have increased, but has been extraordinarily impressive, and as taxpayers I think we should be very proud of the way in which it’s managed. We have no intention that we can foresee at this stage, to be going back to government.

And I just also remind you that the National Gallery of Victoria redevelopment is a $1.7 billion project. The Victorian government has invested more than half a billion dollars into it. Allianz Stadium in Sydney, $850 million. It’s estimated the Penrith Stadium will be about 600 million – all very worthy projects.

This is our national Memorial, a place of immense emotional intensity and meaning to Australian veterans and their families. It’s where we reveal our character as Australians. It is why every head of State that visits Canberra comes to the Australian War Memorial. That is its importance to us. We owe it to everybody, Australians in particular, to get this right, and we’re determined to do so, including on the financial management of the project.

JOURNALIST: Can I just ask on a related issue – there’s been a lot of criticism of the Memorial for not recognising the Frontier Wars. That would require a change to the act. Does your government have any desire to pursue such reform?

MATT KEOGH: So I think it’s important to recognise that the Memorial already has some recognition of frontier conflict. And I’m aware that as part of the expansion program that the council is looking at how it can have some greater reflection upon that. I think that the recognition and reflection on frontier conflict is something that is a responsibility for all of our cultural institutions, not just here in Canberra but across the country. It’s important that we do raise awareness for people about – across the country - about the importance of frontier conflict and the impact that that had on our First Nations people and to properly reflect upon and understand our history, and that there is already some elements of that here in the War Memorial and that will be expanded upon as part of the overall expansion project.

JOURNALIST: The council chair has mentioned that the project is on track in terms of the timeline. Has there been any setbacks along the way that have been made up for? What have been the main sort of causes of [indistinct]?

MATT KEOGH: As the Chair mentioned, obviously COVID has had a dramatic impact on a whole range of supply chains, on cost factors for every project across the country, and here at the War Memorial the project team have actually run this exceptionally well keeping those escalations to their lowest possible point.

And we are still on track for the time frame that was predicted and within that funding envelope that we’ve discussed. And we’re working with the War Memorial to make sure that that’s achieved, and they’re doing a very good job in getting to that outcome.

JOURNALIST: Minister, just on the green project again, sorry, can you just, as briefly as you possibly can, tell me how important it is to reach your government’s target of net zero?

MATT KEOGH: So the geothermal project here at the War Memorial is a great demonstration as an Australian first of removing carbon emissions from a public building and from the public sector. We’re removing about a million tonnes of carbon by replacing the heating process that currently uses gas with a geothermal closed web system will be the biggest geothermal closed loop system in the world and an Australian first project here at the Australian War Memorial.

JOURNALIST: So [indistinct]?

MATT KEOGH: Absolutely. By removing the carbon emissions from heating the Australian War Memorial this will make a contribution towards moving towards net zero and reducing our emissions by 43 per cent by 2030.

JOURNALIST: [Indistinct] tell us what’s been achieved and what's the next phase of the project?

MATT ANDERSON: What’s been achieved on the project?

JOURNALIST: Where are you at now?

MATT ANDERSON: Where we’re at right now, so the War Memorial project is in – there are three major works packages. The major work package 1 is the one out the front, the southern entrance. Major works package 2 is where we are here now, which is the Bean Building, the Research Centre and also the central engine plant which will be out the back of this building. Main works package 3 is Anzac Hall [indistinct].

Where we are right now is we’ve just concluded all of the major excavations and the early works. Now that’s everything from services relocations, things that run under the road, gas, electricity, high voltage lines, all those sorts of things. The excavation of the equivalent of 50 Olympic swimming pools of soil, nine and a half thousand truck and trailer loads of soil has been taken out to Pialligo from the front and the side and the back of the building.

And we’re now at the stage where we have signed with Hindmarsh to undertake the Bean Building and the central enter part work and the geothermal work. We are in the process of finalising with our preferred tenders the other major works packages.

So I think that’s very, very important. The question about have we – has there been a delay, what have we had to change, one thing I would say was that the direction of the council in the midst of the pandemic when things were slowing down, we were closed to the public for over 200 days. And with everything else going on in the world the council gave us the direction that we should accelerate, we should go as fast as we can.

So those main works packages 1, 2 and 3 I just spoke about, following that was meant to be the work that was going to be done inside the main Memorial building, the front of the building underground. And we took a decision to bring that forward from years 3 and 4 to the same time. So we did that concurrently. That’s why we only have one entrance now, is because we took the decision to accelerate. In taking that decision – when we took that decision, we’ve been able to stay on track, on time and within the $550 million.

JOURNALIST: Dr Nelsen, you’re leaving… I would have thought you’d prefer to stay with the project and see it through.

BRENDAN NELSEN: Well, as I said to the Minister, one of the true loves of my life is the Australian War Memorial. And in considering and accepting the role that I am taking in my professional career it’s the one thing that I deeply regret not seeing through. But I can assure you that with the Minister’s guidance and with the council members that we have. The Minister and the government will choose an appropriately qualified person to replace me, I have every confidence in the project.

And I’d also say at the risk of embarrassing him, the project manager for this, the Managing Director is a man called Wayne Hitches, and I hope that he’ll be a household name in the future because what he has done here – in life you make some good decisions and sometimes you make some that aren’t so good. One of the very best decisions that Kerry Stokes and I ever made was to appoint Wayne Hitches to oversee this project. And I have absolute confidence in him, notwithstanding the challenges we have with building costs and all the other things that we’ve described.

And just to add to what the Director said, by the way, with everything that’s happened we’re just over 12 weeks behind because of COVID and because of rain. And when you think of the scale of this project, that is a stunning achievement to make. 

Any other questions before we leave?

JOURNALIST: Just one to the Minister.

BRENDAN NELSEN: Just on the frontier violence, by the way, just to remind you, I was in a meeting with a very senior public servant on another unrelated matter last week, and I explained to her what’s actually here. So before any of this started there were stories of frontier violence perpetrated against the First Australians in what is called the colonial galleries. On the grounds here we have a Daniel Boyd Indigenous artist’s sculpture, at the centre of which is a fire pit with soils from Aboriginal lands throughout Australia, which is now the focal point of the Indigenous commemorative service on Anzac Day.

When you walk into the memorial right opposite the Gallipoli bullet-ridden landing boat is a 5-metre long, 2-metre high painting by the APY lands artists depicting the importance of the defence and protection of land to Aboriginal Australians from the time of the European arrival through to our common defence of Australia now.

Hanging in the galleries is one of 63 art works – as we stand here one of 63 art works depicting frontier violence – the Ruby Plains Massacre by Rover Thomas, what he called the killing years in the Kimberley from 1880.

The council has made the decision that we will have a much broader, much deeper depiction and presentation of the violence committed against Aboriginal people, initially by British, then by pastoralists, then by police and by Aboriginal militia. That will be part of the new galleries. And so we will have more to say about that in due course when the gallery development is more advanced.

MATT KEOGH: Just one more question.

JOURNALIST: Just quickly [indistinct] renovations, how they will reflect more recent soldiers in 2018 to 2028, that’s another 10 years. Do you forecast whether there will be more changes to reflect those more recent soldiers?

MATT ANDERSON: Well, it will be finished in 2028. That’s the first thing. So that’s only six years away. But the other thing – so we’re already looking through the council’s leadership and direction and my staff’s work, we’re already looking at how do we commemorate – our eye is on 2039. The next major thing coming after we finish this work – and we acknowledge those who have served, suffered and died in more recent conflicts – is to acknowledge the fact we’re coming up on the centenary of the Second World War. So that’s the next big thing down the line. So we’re already looking at that.

But for us the most important thing we can do is to provide a place for contemporary veterans to come and to be recognised. They have waited long enough and they’re owed nothing less. And that’s why we’ve got to get cracking right now to tell their stories now. Because women and men are at a point on peacekeeping operations today. Just last week we commemorated 75 years of continuous service of Australian women and men in the defence of our values, our interests, at the United Nations. Every day for 75 years women and men have been deployed on operations. Sixty-three peacekeeping missions and their stories aren’t told. When we finish this they will be.


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