National Capital Authority loses the plot – again

NCA questionable contracts and the future of the National Library Lombardy Pines

The National Capital Authority (NCA) has important national functions to do with stuff about administration, the national plan, the government of the day and the care of national assets.

There is also the expectation that the NCA has stewardship, heritage and accountability as top priorities. The NCA should be doing a great job looking after the national parts of the city with the focus on the cultural and heritage matters and on spending taxpayer’s money effectively.

There are now serious doubts about how the NCA carries out its functions and whether the organisation has a good grip on what good governance means. In mid-December last year, the NCA executive appeared before a national audit hearing and faced serious questions over how it operated.

This hearing was a follow up to a scathing report in June 2022 on their procurement functions when they were found to lack transparency, were not good at record keeping and had major faults in its procurement processes – how it spends taxpayer’s money. The executive did not allay doubts when they admitted they were sloppy because they were too busy doing other stuff.

Many small arts, community and social organisation would have been stunned by this. They spend days of their time justifying the details of expenditure of small grants. They would be wondering how such a government agency gets away with batting away the lack of accountability while they struggle to meet detailed requirements in order to line up for another tiny grant or two.

The NCA has a questionable reputation on several other issues well known to those who care about the stewardship of national sites. The list includes the decisions on the War Memorial extensions and the removal of significant trees, the inexplicable roll over by the NCA on the land swap to allow the ACT Government to fill in part of the lake to enable future developments along West Basin, and the agreement to allow planes to land on the lake for a few well-heeled passengers.

The granting of approvals for planes to land on the lake is stunningly silly given that there is the fully functional Canberra airport a few kilometres away. This will have consequences for the many who use the lake for recreational reasons and those who enjoy the peace and quiet of the lake-side amenities. Such an executive pet project make sense only to those in comfortable executive positions. But there is more.

In front of the National library of Australia stand two lines of Lombardy Poplars that were originally carefully selected and planted to be seen as formal guardians that lined up with the architecture of the National Library’s building. In recent years, mainly due to drought and associated lack of care, some of these trees have struggled.

The decision was made by the NCA to replace them, not with like for like, but with other questionable species. Heritage organisations have been trying to convince the NCA executive to be good stewards and to honour the heritage nature of the original plantings.

The NCA has come up all manner of reasons why the want to change the species including that the ACT planning chief, who has no authority over the NCA, has designated the Lombardy Poplars as an invasive species. Utter rubbish! When managed well within sites such as within the national triangle, problems can be dealt with if the right levels of expertise were employed to maintain the plantings.

The NCA, being a Federal agency, can make their own decisions and can ignore the naive thinking of the ACT planning chief on this and other matters to do with heritage and the care of national assets.

The NCA executive needs to take a flight passed these honourable Poplars trees and see what is happening in plain sight. Given the more recent rains, the Poplar Trees have shown signs of recovery and are looking healthy. If a good arborist was employed to look after them, and a few replacements planted to fill the gaps, these heritage trees could have many more years of life as the National Library guardians.

In the lead up to the last federal election, several candidates expressed concerns about the NCA with particular attention on governance issues. Add to that the heritage and stewardship concerns, there remains a strong case for a fully independent and urgent re-assessment of this national agency and its roles in the future of this wonderful city.

The NCA needs to give up the desire for flights to the coast and instead put resources and energies into doing the right thing by the National Library Lombardy Poplars.


This article is a version of the piece originally published online with City News

Paul Costigan is a commentator on cultural and urban matters

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