Estimates - ABC

Environment and Communications Legislation Committee

Senator McGRATH: Welcome. I hear with interest you joined the Right To Know campaign and you're supporting it. How does the ABC handle FOI matters? In particular, the IPA have put a number of FOI applications in to you, and certainly the information that's been released by the ABC is redacted. I've seen some. Indeed, I put it on my own Facebook feed where it's just swathes of black. Isn't that hypocritical of the ABC?

Mr Anderson: We operate within the FOI Act and certainly the Privacy Act. What the ABC is calling for, when it comes to law reform, is to clean up the FOI Act. We understand that was a provision that was put forward some time ago. I don't think we're hypocritical in the way that we're abiding by it. We're abiding with the act that exists and the laws we are required to adhere to.

Senator McGRATH: But you can release the information, can't you? You're an independent body. If another private concern, such as the IPA or myself as a senator, put an FOI in to you, surely—considering your rhetoric—you'd be able to release that information? What is so secret about the information that the IPA have put an FOI in on?

Mr Anderson: Simply by suggesting that freedom of information needs to be reviewed doesn't mean that we release all information. Obviously, we assess FOI requests on a case-by-case basis. There are sometimes confidential matters or bits of information that sit within the information that's been requested which we'll deny, again, working within those FOI provisions.

Senator McGRATH: I might put some questions on notice in relation to that. On 9 October, Jennifer Duke of The Sydney Morning Herald reported that the ABC was reviewing its property portfolio. Is that correct?

Mr Anderson: That is correct.

Senator McGRATH: The source of the story was an email you sent to ABC staff. Are you able to provide to the committee a copy of that email?

Mr Anderson: Yes, I am, Senator.

Senator McGRATH: Can you do that now, or—

Mr Anderson: I don't have the email on me right now. It went to more than 4½ thousand people. I'm happy to provide it to you. I don't have it sitting in front of me. I can speak to that email, if you wish.

Senator McGRATH: Hopefully, one of the 4½ thousand people might like to tweet it, or something like that—or email it to you or email it to the secretariat. You wrote that the ABC would be reviewing its property portfolio to achieve further savings. Who's going to be undertaking this review and are they independent of the ABC?

Mr Anderson: We're doing a couple of things. We are reviewing our own property portfolio. We are in 46 locations across regional and rural Australia, and every state and territory capital. We do have quite a large property portfolio. We've undertaken a feasibility study, which looks at some of the immediate options that might be available to us with regard to the properties we hold—specifically with regard to what opportunities might exist when it comes to our Ultimo building.

Senator McGRATH: Questions on notice that I put in last year, I think, revealed that you think the Ultimo building is worth $218 million. Is that something that you'd be looking to sell?

Mr Anderson: We're looking at that property portfolio, which does include Ultimo. The land that Ultimo sits on was recently revalued. This is something that we would do as part of the process when it comes to reporting on our fin stats. The property portfolio looks at what the options are to us. You can look at the options to relocate, but we think that's quite expensive. We want to see what the commercial value might be, for instance, of floors within Ultimo that, if we were to reorganise ourselves, we might be able to rent out.

I will say that as part of finding efficiencies over the years, we have centralised quite a few operations to Ultimo for efficiency purposes. To totally decentralise Ultimo would come at a cost, at a time when we need to find savings. The purpose of the feasibility study is really to look to see if there is something that we can do within our property portfolio that helps us meet the saving challenge.

CHAIR: Senator McGrath, can I ask a follow-up question on that? Do you report the value of your real estate in your annual reports?

Mr Anderson: I believe we do. Ms Kleyn, would you like to elaborate?

Ms Kleyn: We don't report the individual values of each property, but we report in aggregate.

CHAIR: Why don't you report the individual values?

Ms Kleyn: We report in line with our requirements under the PGPA. Our balance sheet just sets out our assets by category.

CHAIR: You gave an indication of the value probably 12 to 18 months ago. Have you got an updated value for your Ultimo property?

Ms Kleyn: We indeed do have an updated value, yes. As Mr Anderson just said, as part of our financial statements every year, we undertake a desktop valuation or, every three years, a full valuation. We did a desktop valuation of Ultimo this year and have an updated value of $330 million.

Senator McGRATH: I think there's a difference between decentralisation in terms of breaking up the ABC and shifting different divisions to different towns or centres. Has the ABC given consideration to, say, selling the inner city headquarters, especially in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, and moving to places like Caboolture or Toowoomba in Queensland? I'm being very parochial here. I don't really understand Victoria, but what about Ballarat? I'm being quite serious in terms of how technology has moved in and how other media players operate. Let's take the Sky News model. They will have a small inner-city studio where people can go and do media, but you can be based elsewhere. Is that something the ABC would look into?

Mr Anderson: Certainly it's something that we look into. I will acknowledge that a lot of organisations have headquarters. We have a headquarters that is in Ultimo. It does concern me that we have over 4½ thousand employees and that 2,000 of them are located in Ultimo. What we have looked at, initially, is our presence, particularly in Sydney, between Ultimo and what the options are for outer metropolitan suburbs. We are already in Toowoomba and we're already in Ballarat and Bendigo.

Senator McGRATH: So you've got a footprint there already.

Mr Anderson: We do, but these are very small properties. I've been to visit both Bendigo and Toowoomba. I haven't visited Ballarat. Those buildings are full. But any sort of large-scale decentralisation does come at a cost, as I've said. The feasibility study that we're looking at is based in reality and not large-scale relocation, but we will seek to use space we have in other properties whenever we can. I will talk to my leadership team about this; when we're replacing positions or looking at our functions, are there any that could be relocated to places like ABC in Adelaide, Melbourne, Perth or Brisbane rather than keeping going with the status quo of what we have in Ultimo. I see this as not being a quick solution to it but certainly a direction and something that we can question and certainly look at. And the feasibility study would suggest, if you do do that, you may be able to rent out some floors in Ultimo that may be of commercial value. That's what we're ascertaining at the moment.

Senator McGRATH: The efficiency study from a few years ago mentioned that there was underutilisation of some of the other headquarters in Brisbane and Melbourne. Was that recommendation taken into account in terms of using that underutilised space?

Mr Anderson: Yes. One of the things you do in a study is look at the utilisation of the space that you have and whether you can commercialise anything that sits outside of it. I know that, in Adelaide, we undertook an accommodation project that took people from across multiple floors in Adelaide. From memory, it's got eight floors, and we were using six of them. We put everyone into either ground, first or second and looked to commercialise the other floors. Commercialising those other floors has been met with only limited success. But that is something we do seek to do. When it comes to Melbourne, I have to say that production in Melbourne has grown over time. Some of our larger, say, television programs are coming out of Melbourne rather than coming out of Sydney. I can rattle them off for you, but Melbourne is becoming very busy and is becoming quite full. There is less space in Melbourne. But that is certainly one of the things we look at. What is the vacant space that we have and what can we commercialise? I was in Hobart in Friday and I was presented with a proposal that looked at what might be an accommodation refurb which would free up some space that might be available for someone to rent. We already have tenants like WIN in our ABC Hobart building, so this is something we have done before, and part of that study and what I'm signalling through the email is that we certainly will be looking at that into the future.

Senator McGRATH: Can you give an assurance or an undertaking in relation to the ABC properties in rural and regional Australia and particularly in Queensland that they won't be impacted by this review of the property portfolio?

Mr Anderson: I have absolutely no intention of withdrawing from regional and rural Australia. That is absolutely the last thing that we would want to do. Our commitment to regional and rural Australia is enduring. It has been over many years, particularly with the withdrawal of commercial media from regional and rural Australia. We see our presence there as paramount for locals as well as interpreting what is happening for the local community and taking those local stories out to a national audience. Recently we invested an additional $15 million a year in regional and rural Australia to enable that to happen, and we're seeing the fruits of that investment come through.

Senator McGRATH: Thank you.