Tabloid newspapers have known for a long time that a simple adjective placed in front of any monetary amount spent on behalf of taxpayers by any government or one of its agencies can turn even a story of just marginal interest into a red hot source of reader outrage.
A prime example was in Saturday’s edition of Brisbane tabloid The Courier-Mail in an “exclusive” story by its federal political editor Renee Viellaris about the cost to fit out a yet-to-be-built high-rise office block for the Australian Taxation Office in Brisbane.
It began with: “The ATO will spend an eye-watering $50 million just to fit out its new mega office at Brisbane’s proposed Wharf Street commercial tower, with plans to have interconnecting stairs between floors ‘to promote connectivity and wellbeing in the workplace’.”
So what do we know so far from reading just the first paragraph of the story? Yes, that’s right. The ATO is paying way too much to fit out, or apparently more correctly, “just” to fit out its new building.
We know that to be the case because the cost is “eye watering” and the “just” suggests the ATO is spending even more of our hard-earned to construct the building. Plus we get the idea that the ATO is off on some hippie dippie, new age bent by insisting on having stairs between floors which readers could also assume will add to the cost.
But wait, there’s the second paragraph that should have readers really angry: “Despite the new 27-storey Spring Hill tower not being scheduled for completion until 2022, taxpayers will fork out the cash so the design of the offices are ‘fit for purpose’ for Taxation Office staff.”
So taxpayers are having to foot the fit-out bill for a building that won’t be ready for ATO staff to occupy for a couple of years.
Wow, this “exclusive” is shaping up as an expose of a scandalous waste of taxpayers’ funds to featherbed pen pushers by the people who actually collect taxpayers’ funds. If you live in Brisbane and stick your head out the window and listen really hard you might even hear readers actually fuming.
But should they? Well, probably not.
Nowhere in the story are readers told the new high-rise is actually being built by a private developer. The ATO is taking out a long-term lease on the new building and must carry the cost of fitting out the space for its particular needs. Plus it’s quite understandable that fit-out planning starts and costs are incurred before a building is completed, otherwise it’s a tad late once construction is over.
In the rest of the story we are informed that the ATO will need to fit out 18,000 sqm of floor space in the new building. Divide the “eye-watering” $50 million by 18,000 and you will get a figure of a little over $2,000 per sqm for the fit-out.
Expensive? Outrageous? A waste of taxpayers’ money?
A quick check of some property sector websites shows office fit-outs for run-of-the-mill suburban office spaces for, say, a law practice or an accounting firm run to around $1,200 to $1,500 per square metre.
But the ATO has some specialised needs which include “…..the need for a robust security system that protects ATO information, people, other assets and operations” and “video conference facilities” and “IT infrastructure which will support the needs of the site”.
Were any of those details that might help explain the fit-out bill included in The Courier-Mail story? Well, no.
But how did The Bug know about them?
Simply by reading and cutting and pasting the same documents Ms Viellaris appears to have read and cut and pasted to write her “exclusive” story.
It’s the ATO’s submission to an inquiry into the fit-out being conducted by the Standing Committee on Public Works of the Federal Parliament.
In fact it’s the only submission the committee has received so far (pictured), although the deadline for submissions is 17 January 2020 .
The entire Courier-Mail story including quotes from the ATO are there in the submission sitting on the committee’s website for all to see. So much for an “exclusive”.
It seems that all Ms Viellaris or someone at The Courier-Mail added was the emotive adjective “eye-watering” in reference to the fit-out cost.
But let’s try to put that figure into perspective.
In 2012 News Corp Australia announced the completion of a major renovation of its very low-rise Queensland headquarters at Bowen Hills in Brisbane.
That project included entirely new office fit-outs for staff of The Courier-Mail, The Australian, Sky News, and others.
The cost? A self-promotional Facebook post at the time (pictured) told us it was $56 million.
But obviously and most importantly, it was not an “eye-watering” $56 million.