*check against delivery*
TRANSCRIPT: INTERVIEW WITH JONATHAN RIDNELL, ABC CENTRAL VICTORIA MORNINGS
DATE: 9 APRIL 2013
TOPICS: Fortuna Villa; Margaret Thatcher
JONATHAN RIDNELL: And probably our lead story this morning is the fact that a deadline is fast looming. If you've been listening to Fiona Parker's program, which is now, over the last few weeks you'll know that a bit of a last-minute idea to save the Fortuna mansion in public hands has been gaining momentum. The plan is that the Fortuna mansion should be purchased by a Fortuna Commission and paid for by some subdivision of Fortuna Land and some unoccupied old mining country just to the east of the Fortuna site. Now, the plan is that you sell off that land and you get some money from a rates honeymoon and you create a trust that will manage and maintain Fortuna into perpetuity.
Well, that's fantastic that it's getting some support, but a deadline looms. The Fortuna mansion goes under the hammer at auction this coming Friday, so three working days to get this plan together unless we convince the Parliamentary Secretary for Defence and the Federal Government to delay that particular option. Here's what Councillor Lisa Ruffell, the Mayor of Bendigo, said to Fiona Parker yesterday.
LISA RUFFELL: My fellow councillors asked myself and the CEO to go out and secure meetings with the Premier and the Federal Government. We secured it with the Premier, they've given us their scenario, and we thank them for that. Now we're still trying to secure a meeting with the Federal Government with unsuccessful luck at the moment. They still want to proceed with their auction. We've still got a phone call await this morning that we will be trying to keep saying to him let's hold the auction until we look at this whole proposal that has been put forward to us.
FIONA PARKER: Given that the last thing the Department of Defence, as far as I can see, has said is that the auction will go ahead on Friday, what sort of chance do you think you have of postponing the auction?
LISA RUFFELL: I think it's like anything. We always have a 50-50 chance, don't we, and it hasn't been from a lot of hard work behind the scenes phoning and having that open conversation with them. We were going to meet with the Senator in Melbourne today but unfortunately he didn't come down from Canberra, so we will be trying to have that phone call with him this morning to say - stress to him that we would really appreciate the Federal Government stopping the auction on Friday to give us the time to have a look at this proposal.
[End of excerpt]
JONATHAN RIDNELL: Councillor Lisa Ruffell, the Mayor of the City of Greater Bendigo. I'm Jonathan Ridnell, filling in for Fiona, who'll be on your radio this afternoon between three and six on Statewide Drive. But after having a listen to that we're pleased to be joined by Senator David Feeney, the Parliamentary Secretary for Defence. Good morning Senator.
DAVID FEENEY: Good morning Jonathan, how are you?
JONATHAN RIDNELL: Well, thank you. I feel a bit funny pre-empting the conversation we're hoping that you'll have with our Mayor, but I guess the question is can you delay that auction on Friday?
DAVID FEENEY: Well, I guess the point is I'm not inclined to, so at this stage the auction will be proceeding.
JONATHAN RIDNELL: So, not inclined to? So have you had a chance, though, to talk to anybody about the pros and cons of this plan to save Fortuna in private hands?
DAVID FEENEY: The Federal Member for Bendigo brought the idea to my attention some weeks ago, and since then I've seen it bubble away and the - as was sort of highlighted in that news package a moment ago the Council has sought a meeting with me, and I'm sure I'll be speaking to them in the next few days.
JONATHAN RIDNELL: So is that an undertaking that you will talk to the Council and its representatives before you make a final decision on whether you can or will cancel or postpone that auction?
DAVID FEENEY: Well, I'm happy to give that undertaking on the basis that I'm always happy to talk to community representatives and councils about these sorts of issues, but I'm saying here, as I've said in the past, and I will say into the future, that our firm resolve is that that auction go ahead.
JONATHAN RIDNELL: Okay, and why that firm resolve, given that there might be some extenuating circumstances? Federal Member for Bendigo Steve Gibbons has mentioned this idea to you, what don't you like about it?
DAVID FEENEY: Well, what I don't like about it is that I don't think it's a viable business case, and I think what we've seen here is a very long and torturous process, running now over almost five years, where Defence indicated that we were no longer required the Fortuna site and there were ample opportunities in those five years for the Greater City of Bendigo and for the State Government to come up with alternative plans.
Those - none of those alternative plans ever amounted to anything, and finally we have implemented a heritage covenant to protect the heritage values of that property, and we are proceeding to get rid of it, and I guess the key issue for Defence is that we don't want to continue to bear costs for a property that is no longer required by the Federal Government.
JONATHAN RIDNELL: Question without notice: do you know how much it's cost you to maintain that place over the last five years?
DAVID FEENEY: No, I'm sorry, I don't have those numbers in front of me.
JONATHAN RIDNELL: But yeah, it is a large piece of land. So we have now got the idea of a last-ditch effort, if you like, and we basically need to convince you that it's a going concern.
DAVID FEENEY: Well, it's not as simple as that, sadly, because inevitably what these plans - and there have been various iterations of them - invariably what these plans suggest is that other tiers of government are prepared to fight for the last drop of the Federal Government's Exchequer. The simple fact is that while the Greater City of Bendigo might have the best intentions in the world regarding Fortuna they actually need to put a serious amount of money on the table, and at this point, with the State Government having said that it's not prepared to bear the costs, and with the Federal Government indicating and with me now again saying that we're in the business of selling this property, we're not in the business of having to spend millions of taxpayer dollars bargaining our way out of it. But if the Council has a vision for Fortuna, if the Council believes in the economic and heritage potential of Fortuna, then good luck to them. They should come to the auction and buy it.
JONATHAN RIDNELL: So rather than delay it you'd say, well, put your money where your mouth is?
DAVID FEENEY: Precisely.
JONATHAN RIDNELL: Okay. So the - I think the Council at this stage is saying it's a new idea, we need to look through the costings of this Fortuna Commission plan, please hang off for a few weeks. At this stage, just no.
DAVID FEENEY: Well, no, and we've been down this road just so many times, and for the Commonwealth and for Commonwealth taxpayers to incur another delay in the hope that another fantastic proposal might be able to economically stack up, it's just too much to ask. We - it's time now to bring this to a close for the Department of Defence. If - as I say, if the Council end up believing that they can do something with this site, then I wish them the very best, but for the Department of Defence and the Commonwealth Fortuna is surplus to requirements and we're releasing it into the market.
JONATHAN RIDNELL: And what's your feeling? Will it sell on Friday?
DAVID FEENEY: I don't know. I'm not a great student of Bendigo house prices at the moment, but I would've thought that the market and the economy there are strong. It's obviously a significant asset and I guess we're very hopeful...
JONATHAN RIDNELL: And...
DAVID FEENEY: But I guess the critical point for us is that we don't want to continue to spend taxpayer dollars keeping and maintaining a significant property that is no longer required by us. The best thing for us, the best thing for - in terms of public policy, and I would say the best thing for Bendigo, is that this property is given over to people who care about it and its future.
JONATHAN RIDNELL: And you mention the heritage overlay, how confident are you that what you have instigated through your government, and I suppose all the heritage organisations, will maintain that mansion and that site in a way that will make it, I guess, a cultural or heritage beacon no matter who owns it?
DAVID FEENEY: Well, that will simply be a requirement. That heritage covenant will be binding. It will not be an opt-in opt-out opportunity, and obviously Council will I'm sure be vigilant in making sure that any future owner of Fortuna is respecting its heritage values.
JONATHAN RIDNELL: Senator David Feeney, Parliamentary Secretary for Defence. Thank you for your time, but one last question before I leave you...
DAVID FEENEY: Sure.
JONATHAN RIDNELL: ...and that is that former Prime Minister Thatcher passed away overnight our time.
DAVID FEENEY: Indeed.
JONATHAN RIDNELL: What legacy do you see that she's left?
DAVID FEENEY: Well, I guess she was a very significant international figure, and I certainly remember growing up as a boy and her being a very significant figure in the nightly news and so forth. I think she'll be remembered for leading the United Kingdom through, I guess, the Falklands Crisis with Argentina, that's one that springs to mind. I think she'll also be remembered for offering a sort of strong conservative vision of her country. It was a time of great change and economic transformation in the United Kingdom.
JONATHAN RIDNELL: Extreme times, weren't they?
DAVID FEENEY: They were.
JONATHAN RIDNELL: Senator David Feeney, thank you so much for joining us.
DAVID FEENEY: Cheers Jonathan, and thanks for having me on the program.
JONATHAN RIDNELL: The Parliamentary Secretary for Defence with the Commonwealth Government, and the answer is unless you come up with a really, really, really good argument, no. The auction will continue on Friday.