The three beanbags purchased at $590 each by Julie Bishop’s “Facebooky, Googly” innovation centre were so expensive because they were Australian made, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has said.

Last year, Crikey first reported that InnovationXchange, Bishop’s $140 million pet project — paid for, in part, by cuts to the foreign aid budget and the merger of aid agencies — and described by the foreign minister as a “gorgeous little funky, hipster, Googly, Facebooky-type place”, had spent $590 each on three beanbags for staff in the office to use, which was said to have been cheaper and more practical than a three-seat couch.

When Crikey attempted to find from where the beanbags were sourced, we could not find many beanbags over $300 each. The beanbags gained so much attention that Labor Senator Anne McEwen set out to investigate herself, telling a Senate estimates hearing on Thursday that she could not find one more than $200: “You can get beanbags from for $29.95.”

The department’s head of InnovationXchange, Lisa Rauter, told estimates that they were “commercial quality beanbags sourced from an Australian supplier”, and thus were more expensive.

“They source their products from sustainable and social sort of impact sources so they work very strongly with indigenous communities who do their design work. Australian design work tends to be more expensive than cheaper overseas products, and it is also of commercial quality.”

DFAT secretary Peter Varghese defended the fit-out for InnovationXchange, stating that the cost per square metre of the fit-out was less than the average for DFAT. The beanbags themselves were only designed for one person each, and Varghese said the department had not tested if they could seat more than one person: “We haven’t conducted a competition to see how many people can sit on the beanbag.”

A $6300 “large conference table” that had also been converted to be a ping pong table was not permanently a ping pong table, the committee heard. It was only “very occassionally” used as a ping pong table outside of work hours, and an OH&S evaluation had been completed to ensure it was “low risk”. The department did not supply ping pong equipment, but Rauter said that staff had paid for their own ping pong equipment.

Labor Senator Penny Wong, for one, appreciated the desire to play ping pong in the InnovationXchange. “I used to love ping pong when I was kid,” the Senator reminisced.

Peter Fray

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