Aboriginal elders say they’ve been kept in the dark about stalled plans to build a First Nations cultural centre in Adelaide’s CBD, describing the site as a “graveyard” for their culture.

Work on the $200 million Tarrkarri building has been on hold since October 2022, following a $50 million cost blowout and state government concerns the design was “sub-standard”.

Construction at the old Royal Adelaide Hospital site was initially scheduled for completion in April 2025, but less than a year out, the site remains a hole in the ground, strewn with weeds and rusted fencing.

“It’s like a graveyard dug for our culture,” Kaurna elder Jeffrey Newchurch said.

“We’re left here to flounder over dollars.

“Give us a place of belonging and we will make it happen.”

Jeffrey Newchurch is concerned about the delays of the Tarrkarri project.(ABC News: Brant Cumming)

South Australian Premier Peter Malinauskas previously said that Tarrkarri could cost up to $600 million if built – three times the amount currently budgeted by the state and federal governments.

He initially set a 2023 deadline to announce whether the project would go ahead, but no decisions have been made public.

“It just seems to have stalled and doesn’t seem to be going anywhere,” Kaurna elder Tim Agius said.

“More importantly, that’s on our country, but we haven’t been engaged in it.

“Community is kept in the dark.”

Tim Agius questions where the project is heading.(ABC News: Brant Cumming)

Mr Malinauskas told ABC News the Kaurna community was “certainly” consulted during the review.

“The process since then is principally a process within the cabinet itself,” he said.

“We’ll make an announcement as soon as we reasonably can once we’ve vetted a few variables down.

“It’s potentially a very big project, it is an important site, culturally it’s significant, so we just want to make sure we get it right.”

‘High-level’ review yet to be released

Tarrkarri was slated to be bigger than the SA Museum and the Art Gallery combined, displaying tens of thousands of Indigenous artefacts currently sitting in storage.

The former Marshall Liberal government said the institution would be “globally significant” and draw hundreds of thousands of visitors each year.

The project has blown out by $50 million.(Supplied: Woods Bagot)

After the cost blow out, the Malinauskas Labor government commissioned former Indigenous Australians minister Ken Wyatt, former New South Wales premier Bob Carr and former investment banker Carolyn Hewson to conduct a “high-level review”, with their findings handed to the state cabinet in April last year.

A state government website previously said a summary of the review’s findings would be made available to the public in mid-2023, but it’s yet to be released.

The Department of the Premier and Cabinet has knocked back an ABC News freedom of information (FOI) request for the findings.

The FOI officer wrote the government had “determined the public interest is outweighed by the need for a safe space to consider options without fear of this advice being made public”.

“There are other First Nations cultural centres planned or in progress across Australia and it would not be in the public interest for them to learn of the proposals which were intended to ensure Tarrkarri would be the best of its kind,” the officer wrote.

“I recognise it is in the public interest for there to be transparency regarding the operations of government and decision-making, however there is a candour attached to the report that has been communicated by the reviewers within the confines of the cabinet protection.”

The site of Tarrkarri at Lot Fourteen on North Terrace.(ABC News: Brant Cumming)

But opposition spokesperson John Gardner said the government should make the review public.

“This project should have gone ahead and kept going ahead in 2022,” he said.

“To see just a hole in the ground with no work going on is ridiculous.”

‘We’re working through all the numbers’: SA Premier

Mr Malinauskas said his government was committed to release the review “at a time of the government’s choosing in conjunction with when a final decision is made”.

Mr Malinauskas has previously said that the state government was open to increasing its budget for Tarrkarri, but it would also seek additional funding from the federal government, private companies and philanthropists.

Last week, he said the state government would have to make “hard” funding decisions ahead of the release of its next budget in June.

Tarrkarri was earmarked to be a “globally significant” cultural institution.(Supplied: Woods Bagot)

Asked if the public would find out more about the government’s intentions for Tarrkarri in the state budget, Mr Malinauskas said: “Potentially yes”.

“We’re working through all the numbers,” he said.

“There’s a balance to be had here — we’ve got to make sure that the taxpayers’ interest is best represented, that we’re fiscally prudent, but thirdly, of course, that we don’t compromise the quality of the outcome.

“The worst possible thing that could happen here is for a project to be built that is value-managed in such a way that actually compromises the end game.”

Millions of taxpayer dollars already spent

Federal government documents released to ABC News under FOI show as of June last year, the Commonwealth had already spent $14.5 million on Tarrkarri.

That included $4 million on a business case, $3 million on a “project plan” and $2 million on the installation of “new hoarding inclusive of the Australian government logo”.

The documents show the state and federal governments had planned to appoint a director for the centre in December last year.

They also state “close to 50 subject matters experts” were consulted as part of Mr Carr, Mr Wyatt and Ms Hewson’s review.

The federal government has committed $85 million towards Tarrkarri, with the remaining $115 million budgeted by the SA government.