Internal documents show requests for information from <em>The Canberra Times</em> have been denied on the grounds that it could generate ''negative comments'' about the project.
Internal documents show requests for information from The Canberra Times have been denied on the grounds that it could generate ''negative comments'' about the project. Photo: Gerrit Fokkema
Staff in Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s office have blocked the release of information on the year-long restoration of The Lodge, fearing "negative comments" about the $4.45 million project.

As contractors continue major works at the prime minister's official residence in Deakin, internal documents show bureaucrats were instructed to give purposefully vague responses to requests for information from The Canberra Times. 

Released under Freedom of Information rules, a series of emails show officials in the Finance Department were told not to provide any explanation or identify Mr Abbott's office or the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet as being responsible for the decision.

One senior bureaucrat said Mr Abbott’s staff could be concerned about privacy or a poor reaction to the information being made public.

''Just say the visit has not been approved and you are unaware of the reasons,'' the Finance Department official instructed a colleague via email in March.
''Don’t identify PM&C or the PMO as the decision makers, just leave it vague.''

Works to repair the slate roof, remove asbestos and replace electrical wiring and climate systems began in September.

The Canberra Times first hoped to give readers a look at the restoration in November 2013, but documents show the request set off a flurry of bureaucratic activity over more than five months.

No answer was received until March this year. Journalists and photographers have traditionally had regular access to events and photo opportunities at The Lodge.

Separate emails show Finance Department officials had recommended the media be given access in November and February after the removal of asbestos was complete.

''On balance – noting both pros and cons – we’re of the view that we should permit the visit in the interests of transparency,'' he wrote on February 4.

Another official said it was "better to be open and transparent than secretive" but said journalists should be "kept to the agreed message."

On February 28, an official was told Mr Abbott's office ''does not agree to the proposed visit by a journalist''.

The cost of the renovations and security concerns were not considered in the decision.

Senate documents showed in April that the project had blown out to $4.45 million, up from the original estimate of $3.19 million.

Last week’s federal budget included more funds for maintenance and the refurbishment, but the total amount was deemed commercial-in-confidence.

The government made a claim to its self-managed insurance fund, Comcover, after a 65-year-old Victorian man crashed his car into the brick wall surrounding the Lodge in March.

The wall remains partially demolished, with temporary fencing and hoarding in place, but the Attorney-General's Department said perimeter security controls would be reviewed as ''a matter of priority''.

A website outlining the work's progress says the replacement of a poor quality 1980s slate roof has been completed.

Designed by architects Oakley and Parkes, Prime Minister Stanley Melbourne Bruce first moved into the colonial revival-style home in 1927.

Former Prime Minister Julia Gillard told journalists that possum urine was once observed making its way down the dining room wall during the visit of a foreign leader.

Mr Abbott has opted to stay in a $110-a-night room at Australian Federal Police College in Barton while the renovations are completed.

Taxpayers forked out $65,000 in lease-termination fees in April after it was revealed Mr Abbott wouldn’t use a $3000-a-week rented home in Forrest chosen by the PM&C during the pre-election caretaker period.
Australian National University political marketing expert Andrew Hughes said it appeared staff were trying to avoid embarrassment over the renovations.

''They have seen this from a really narrow perspective,'' he said.

''When the government is trying to tell voters that they’re delivering a very tough budget, they want to avoid the impression that renovations on the PM’s residence have gone substantially over budget.''

He said it was appropriate for information about security measures to be kept secret but called for the public to be allowed to take pride historic home and the current restoration.  24 May 2014

Why should they tell anything to the people, under whatever pretext thought of at the time, especially when they are living on a Prison Island.

The 'colonial' days are alive and well, at least according to the fascist dictatorial government.