FOI documents shed light on how to spin Adelaide’s university merger

Newly released documents show that UniSA leaders were concerned about how the public would react to the university selling land at its Magill and Mawson Lakes campuses for development, ahead of a merger announcement with the University of Adelaide.

Feb 16, 2024, updated Feb 16, 2024
Premier Peter Malinauskas signing the heads of agreement for the merger of the University of Adelaide and UniSA on July 2, 2023. Photo: Tony Lewis/InDaily

Premier Peter Malinauskas signing the heads of agreement for the merger of the University of Adelaide and UniSA on July 2, 2023. Photo: Tony Lewis/InDaily

The revelation is contained within 30 documents the Premier’s Office released to InDaily last month about the government’s public relations strategy for announcing the merger agreement between the two universities late on a Saturday in July 2023.

The Premier’s Office initially refused to grant full access to 15 documents InDaily requested via freedom of information, citing exemptions that apply to internal working documents and information affecting financial and property interests.

InDaily appealed the decision to the State Ombudsman, who subsequently ordered the Premier’s Office to release the documents after finding that much of the information in them was already in the public domain.

The documents do, however, show that UniSA vice-chancellor David Lloyd and his chief-of-staff Alan Brideson asked the Premier’s Office not to distribute maps to journalists showing that the Magill and Mawson Lakes campuses will be sites for future housing and/or commercial developments.

UniSA Magill campus

The local heritage listed Murray House on UniSA’s Magill campus. Photo: Tony Lewis/InDaily

The state government purchased UniSA’s Magill campus for $64.5 million, and occupation rights to a “surplus” part of the Mawson Lakes campus for $50 million as part of its now $464.4 million funding agreement to support the merger.

The campus sales were to be revealed in the Saturday, July 1 announcement.

The state government also produced a “glossy” policy document – outlining land at Magill and Mawson Lakes “earmarked for future development” – which was to be distributed to journalists at a press conference the following Sunday morning.

The original Magill campus map the government intended to distribute contained the words “earmarked for future development”. This was later edited out after a request from UniSA.

Mawson Lakes Map

The original Mawson Lakes map which UniSA did not want distributed. The words “earmarked for development” were removed from the final document.

The day before the announcement, the Premier’s senior adviser, Cat Blaikie, emailed the policy document with the campus maps to senior leaders at UniSA and the University of Adelaide asking for feedback.

UniSA vice-chancellor Lloyd responded: “Hi Cat. First blush response – please don’t put out the campus plans as you have included them.

“That will create enormous community reaction which will be particularly unhelpful at this time.”

Lloyd’s chief of staff, Brideson, wrote in a separate email to the government’s communications director that it is “imperative that page 4 of the glossy (the campus maps) is not issued”.

Blaikie responded to Lloyd around 25 minutes later with a message from Premier Peter Malinauskas.

“Thanks David, The Premier is very keen to have the maps in the document, but has suggested changing the wording (and per attached):

“Magill Map: 1. Replace ‘Remains under University Control for up to 10 years’ with ‘Remains under University Control’.

“2. Replace the wording ‘Earmarked for future development’ with ‘Ahead of master planning for future use’.”

The Premier’s Office also suggested eliminating the word “development” from the Mawson Lakes campus map.

“Replace ‘Adjacent land earmarked for development’ with ‘not part of university campus’,” Blaikie suggested.

“The thinking is that the media will immediately ask about the land and will request maps, which we will have to provide for transparency.

“Otherwise, the media will make their own maps.”

Lloyd responded shortly after: “Much better. We can live with page 4 now!”

The final version of the Magill campus map that was distributed to journalists.

The final version of the Mawson Lakes campus map that was distributed to journalists. It made no reference to the word “development”.

The Advertiser reported months later that the Mawson Lakes land will be opened up to private developers for commercial use within three years.

UniSA may have had reason to be concerned about the community’s reaction to its land selloffs at Magill and Mawson Lakes. Indeed, the parliamentary committee which subsequently inquired into the university merger received dozens of submissions from local residents worried about future development at the Magill campus, particularly if it involved loss of trees and open space.

Local Liberal MPs John Gardner and Vincent Tarzia also encouraged constituents to make their voices heard about the campus’ future and accused the state government of not consulting properly.

The debate around the land even prompted an intervention from Planning Minister Nick Champion, who accused the Liberal Party of running an “irresponsible, NIMBY-style campaign” about the site and assured residents there would be “no Manhattan in Magill” when the campus is redeveloped.

Magill campus is set to remain a university campus for at least 10 years, according to the government and university, with the government leasing back the land to UniSA essentially for free.

The land opposite Magill campus on the eastern side will be ready for development earlier and is zoned for low-rise and medium-density housing. A Renewal SA spokesperson said community engagement on that land parcel is expected to start in mid 2024.

Asked about the concerns it had about the Magill campus sale, a UniSA spokesperson said: “UniSA has transacted a sale for the Magill Campus and has a 10-year lease to occupy.”

The Renewal SA spokesperson said the Mawson Lakes campus “is proposed to be rezoned at some stage in the future”.

“However, it will be required to go through a master planning and consultation process – which will determine the final make-up of the site,” they said.

“A timeframe for redevelopment is yet to be determined.”

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