Inquiry into the Government's management of the Powerhouse Museum and other
museums and cultural projects in New South Wales

Submission from Tom Lockley

This submission addresses specifically Terms of Reference 1 (a) the proposed move of the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences, the Powerhouse Museum, from Ultimo to Parramatta, including:

(i)             the core visions behind the move,

(ii)           the governance of the project, including the effectiveness and adequacy of planning, business cases, design briefs, project management, public reporting, consultant selection and costs, project costing and cultural and demographic justifications.

#7: Public reporting and related matters

The idea of moving the Powerhouse Museum to Parramatta was first officially suggested by Infrastructure NSW in the State Infrastructure Strategy Update 2014 Recommendations to the NSW Government November 2014,[i] suggesting urgent investigation of the idea. The decision to make the move was announced on 26 November 2014 without any significant such investigation, and it has been shown repeatedly to be a bad decision (#1 Fact sheet).

Yet the Government persists, and in the process a whole intertwined mass of misstatements, obfuscations and other techniques have been advanced in support of their actions, and a mass of other negative features of the process have emerged. This submission outlines some of these.

Misinformation

·        Inner city elitism (‘cupidity and selfishness[ii]’) were said to be behind the initial resistance to the ‘move’ eg characterising the opponents of the ‘move’ as inner city snobs[iii]. However opposition quickly developed that was based on the bad economics of the process. The point has been constantly made that Parramatta deserves its own cultural facilities, not a transplanted and largely irrelevant museum.

·       Statements were made that Infrastructure NSW had indeed researched the options – eg Ms Grasso, Inquiry testimony Monday, 14 November 2016 Page 2 It is uncontested that government accepted a recommendation from Infrastructure NSW to relocate the museum from the current site in Ultimo to a site in Parramatta. This is not so. INSW has stated that their involvement takes as its starting point the Government’s decision to locate the Powerhouse Museum on the Riverbank site in Parramatta.[iv]

·        False statements that the ‘move’ had widespread support. See #7 Consultation and #4 Heritage.

·       Ignoring expert advice is a feature of the whole project. Consider:

a.     A consistent policy of not having people with museum experience and qualifications in the planning groups. See #2 ‘Finding’.

b.     Neglecting such material as that presented by qualified and experienced people to the Inquiry both in submissions and in evidence. See #5 Consultation and #3 Heritage.

Secrecy

·        During the first Inquiry the mantra ‘cabinet in confidence’ was used on over 25 separate occasions during the first Inquiry to block answers, not only on cabinet deliberations but also on the information given to cabinet to assist their deliberations. We were not even allowed to have information given to the writers of the business case to assist the preparation of their briefings, notably re the work of logistician Peter Root[v].

·        The Government had to be forced to make public the 2017 business case, but this was done by releasing a single black and white photocopy to an office available by appointment only. It was necessary for them to be photocopied and put on line privately (http://maasbusinesscase.com/). Many pages were highly redacted, and many others were illegible, and a few vital pages were missing. We made many efforts to get the missing material from all relevant Government authorities with no response.

·       The Government has been deluged with protests. People have written or emailed thousands of times to politicians and to INSW and MAAS, and typically get no answers. If they are do receive answers, the standard response is that the matter is being referred to the Minister for the Arts, and / or a message comes from Create NSW, which completely ignores the matters raised and simply proclaims the alleged virtues of the ‘move’ idea. Reasoned responses to the questions asked are very rare indeed.

Relationships with lower-level staff and volunteers

·       The Museum was deliberately allowed to run down in 2014 when cuts in forecast expenditure were a blow to the long-term plans of the time and caused staff reductions and reduced operating and maintenance budgets. The fact that the museum has been criticised for the dullness of the permanent collections is directly traceable to this period of austerity[vi].

·       Staff and volunteers were told in 2015 that they were to present a positive image of the move when talking to visitors[vii]. The result is that most employees and some volunteers were afraid to speak their minds on the subject. Employees, and even other people who do business with the Government, feared that this might result in loss of jobs or other career damage and accordingly do not want their input to such fora as our email group to be public knowledge.

·       I had personal experience with this mindset after an event on Friday 15 November 2019, at the opening of the excellent Linear exhibition. During the function at the museum I had been in discussion with an officer of the museum about various related matters. At the end of the formal part of the evening I noticed that Mr Harwin and Professor Glover were not occupied with masses of people and sought to approach them to see if we could arrange a time when our very serious concerns could be discussed with Mr Harwin or an appropriate political officer. I had on many occasions tried to initiate dialogue with such a person with no response.
The museum officer stated that in the officer’s opinion this was not an appropriate time to make such an approach. We discussed the matter at some length, and though I clearly explained that I had no intention of creating any disturbance, that I had exhausted all other avenues of approach, and that I had the best interests of this museum at heart, the officer stated that if I attempted to approach Mr Harwin the officer would get someone to remove me, in public, from the premises. I was reluctant to cause disruption and did not approach Mr Harwin.
Ms Havilah spoke to me about this matter later in the evening and made it clear that she would not carry on with the policy forbidding volunteers from making negative comments to visitors. She later agreed to meet with me and hear my submissions, and since that time, with joint agreement, my discussions with her have been regarded as discussions direct with the Government.

·        There were several incidents of seemingly deliberate action to harm the museum and damage staff and volunteer morale in the process of moving items. One such example involved the Stuart Piano. This is a wonderful example of Australian skill, widely regarded as the best engineered piano in the world. Daily and on weekends volunteers played the piano, and it was a firm favourite, popular with staff and visitors, and an entertaining and educational feature of the museum.
It was necessary to move the piano to make way for the Apollo 11 display, and in February 2019 it was learnt that it was to be moved to storage. Volunteers asked that it be retained at the museum in the place of the unplayable Bechstein piano that is part of the
Icons exhibition but we were told it could not be kept as OH&S had determined that there was no safe place to put it. We emailed the OH&S officer and she did not confirm this. As spokesperson for the volunteers I was called to the office and reprimanded by a museum officer for raising the matter. I was told that I had no right to question the museum’s decisions and if I continued to do this I should cease being a volunteer. The piano was moved, much to the disappointment and chagrin of many volunteers.

·       The brief for the design competition indicated that the full site at Parramatta was available for the new museum. However the Business Case clearly indicates that the project was only financially viable if part if the site is used for a non-museum tower building and the Parramatta Council (which has never approved the use of that site for the museum) has stated that Willow Grove and other heritage sites must be preserved. Thus it was quite dishonest to state that the whole site was available to the designers. It would also have been honest to indicate to the proposed entrants that the project did not have unanimous support, to put it mildly.

Unstable staffing and unsatisfactory Trustee involvement

1. The status of Directors and Trustees has been compromised

·       Since the announcement of the project, there has been a high turnover of directors. Rose Hiscock replaced Dawn Casey, who had a five year tenure (2008-13). Rose Hiscock departed in January 2016 to inaugurate the far smaller Melbourne Science Centre. Her deputy Director Dolla Merrillees was promoted, but resigned in July 2018. Lisa Havilah took up duty in January 2019, not as director but as CEO with the direct contractual responsibility to the Government for making the move happen.

·       Mrs Janet MacDonald, trustee for a total of eight years, resigned in March 2017, exposing a culture of contempt for the input of experienced and highly qualified people such as herself[viii]. The group of trustees has been systematically denuded of people with experience in the museum and arts field: the new appointments to the trustees announced in February include only one – maths teacher Eddie Woo – who has relevant qualifications (in education).

·       Most of the rest are financiers or property developers:  Darren Steinberg, chief Executive of the property development firm Dexus later resigned, and one explanation is potential conflict of financial interest.

·       The most reprehensible appointment is that of David Borger, who led the public campaign for the ‘move’ despite the overwhelming evidence that it will be a disaster[ix]. He has consistently ignored requests to debate the matter, relying on polemic rather than dialogue.

The high-level professionals are fleeing. Without exception, all the Government witnesses at the Inquiry who had supervisory responsibilities for the ‘move’ have since left their positions.

·       Samantha Torres, who at the Inquiry on 5 September 2016 said that she had overall responsibility for the project abandoned this job less than six months later and is now working for Johnstaff. She is qualified in law with an MBA and no relevant eperience in museums so will fit in well.

·       Michael Parry, appointed Parramatta Project Director in February 2016, seconded to Create NSW June 2017 to February 2018, returning as Parramatta Project director in September 2018, left NSW in May 2019 to take up a job in Victoria.

·       Michael Brealey resigned as CEO of Create NSW after 13 months in the post and left at the end of March 2018.

·       Ms Alex O’Mara was the team leader at Create NSW, in charge of creating ‘a vibrant, accessible and thriving cultural sector in NSW’. She left in May 2019 to become Deputy Secretary Place Design and Public Spaces at NSW Department of Planning and Environment. To me, this does not sound like a promotion.

·       Carolyn McNally, secretary of the New South Wales Department of Planning and Environment, announced her resignation in April of this year.

·       Craig Limkin, Executive Director of Create Infrastructure since April 2017 suddenly quit in August 2019.

Within the staff of the museum, there have been at least three interesting departures:

·       ‘highly respected’ Collections and Exhibitions Director Peter Denham, recruited from the Museum of Brisbane in October 2016, knowing full well that he would be deeply involved in the ‘move‘, left in August 2019.

·       Programs Director Tristan Sharp was appointed to facilitate the ‘move’ and lasted from September 2016 to May 2019.

·       Museum Executive director Mr Jesse Price, recruited for the project in October 2016, departed by January 2020.

The point is that if the move program was going ahead smoothly, and we were on track to produce ‘the equivalent of the Smithsonian’, or was even a viable and sound project, would all these people have abandoned their chance for a wonderful career achievement?

(Andrew Elliot, MAAS finance director, who was acting director pending the assumption of the CEO job by Lisa Havilah, appeared at the Inquiry on 16 November 2018. His long opening statement was irrelevant to the major issues. He is a rare survivor from the group of senior people that have been involved in the project).

It is not irrelevant to note that Mr Harwin, appointed to replace Mr Grant as Arts Minister in January 2017, resigned from the ministry in April 2020 following allegations of illegal behavior during Coronavirus restrictions.

General comments

·       A typical ruse of the Government is to ignore the heritage of the museum. For example to meet the statutory requirement of making a heritage assessment in such cases the Government has sponsored an assessment of the Ultimo Tramways Power House, a very obscure title of what is universally known as the Powerhouse Museum. The mandatory ‘independent’ review can thus downplay the importance of the museum. This point is further developed in our submission #4 Heritage page 2.

·       In other areas of Government activity there seems to be a reluctance to get involved in the museum ‘move’ controversy. In September 2019 the Greater Sydney Commission held an ‘independent’ inquiry into the development of the area, including Pyrmont-Ultimo. The focus was largely on developments around the Casino, but, spontaneously, 37 other submissions objected to the removal of the Powerhouse Museum[x]. The terms of reference included examination of planning methods, and we prepared a submission on the planning deficiencies of the ‘move’[xi], and another paper on the relevance to the terms of reference as we feared that the matter would be regarded as outside the terms of reference of the consultation. I presented these at an appearance before an engagement session[xii]. To my certain knowledge, ‘deficiencies in planning methods’ was also mentioned many times in other submissions.
In the final report, (32 pages, 10373 words) all references to planning were positive or neutral. The words Powerhouse, MAAS, and museum were not mentioned. There were only three references to arts and one to culture. We prepared the document listing the spontaneous references to the museum referred to above, and I forwarded it to the Commission, following up with a phone call. An unnamed spokesperson told me that the matter of the Powerhouse demolition could not been canvassed at the consultation process because it had already been determined as Government policy and the matter of the consequent use of the Powerhouse Museum site could not be canvassed because the appropriate business case had not been completed.

 



[i] Page 6: As part of the Parramatta North Urban Renewal Project, a cultural precinct should be developed around the Old King’s School site, potentially including a relocated Powerhouse Museum; page 10 recommendation Urgently consider relocation of the Powerhouse Museum to the Parramatta Cultural Precinct; Page 117 To anchor the new Parramatta cultural precinct, Infrastructure NSW recommends giving consideration to relocating the Powerhouse Museum. A relocated Powerhouse could be a core asset in the Parramatta precinct and a major addition to cultural infrastructure in the west.

(our underlining).

[ii] Mr Borger’s terminology

[iii] Daily Telegraph, 25 January 2015 for example.

[iv] Final Business Case Summary: Powerhouse Museum in Western Sydney April 2018, page 1

[v] Inquiry transcript, Friday, 17 February 2017 page 30. Mr Root’s specialty is logistics. He is credited with doing an excellent job when the present Powerhouse Museum was set up, but even though his work was only input to the people organising the business case, he stated that he had been advised that ‘such documents are to be considered a subject of public interest immunity and are therefore privileged’.

[vi] We were briefed by Museum officials on this situation but do not have the exact figures and references.

[vii] Written instructions to this effect were issued.

[viii]  See her evidence, originally ‘in camera’ to the Inquiry at https://www.parliament.nsw.gov.au/lcdocs/transcripts/2175/In%20camera%20transcripts%20resolved%20to%20be%20published.pdf

[ix] Mr Borger is the only person who gave evidence supporting the ‘move’ of the museum who was not a Government employee in some form or another. One wonders about his financial acumen: he is impervious to reasoned argument that conclusively demonstrates the incredible waste involved if the ‘move’ process is carried out. We have asked for the reasons behind his support for the scheme over all possible alternatives with no response, and have invited him to discuss the matter directly with us, again with no response. His appointment as Trustee is therefore most galling.

[x] The relevant extracts are available on http://maasbusinesscase.com/, link on title page to additional documents

[xi] http://www.maasbusinesscase.com/oct%2019%20bulltein%20stuff/sub.pdf

[xii] https://gsc-public-1.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/pyrmont_transcripts_website.pdf