SENATOR Fiona Nash, the Minister for Regional Development, argues effectively for a decentralised public service to drive sorely needed regional growth and breathe new life into rural Australia.
However, is the cost to the national capital just too great?
The greatest challenge for this approach to decentralising the public service by the current government is the Abbott legacy of slashing the public service. Slashing 16,500 public service jobs was announced in the 2014 Budget alone. And this came on top of public service freezes over multiple Budgets. The impact on Canberra’s growth and the local economy was dramatic and recovery a long time coming.
And now the Federal government has launched another major attack on Canberra. As “The Canberra Times” headline declared with an unflattering photo of Senator Nash, “The War on Canberra”. Her speech at the National Press Club revealed Fiona Nash’s passion for the Australian bush and her commitment to turning around the decline of regional and rural towns. Her response to “The Canberra Times” headline on her own Facebook page was telling: “I won’t be taking a backward step”.
Putting yourself in the shoes of another is always challenging. Canberrans have the right to expect that the Coalition government should understand the impact that the cuts previously made to the public service and its multiplier effect had a serious, direct impact on employment throughout the ACT.
However, as Canberrans, we should also try to put ourselves in the shoes of regional and rural Australians. As the Minister stated: “Regional Australians deserve the careers, benefits and flow on jobs which government departments offer”.
She added: “Those who think only cities deserve the benefits of government departments need to explain why they think country people don’t deserve, or aren’t good enough for, a career in a government department.”
To her credit, Senator Nash has declared an appropriate procedure of assessing which departments, or sections of departments, are suitable for moving to regional areas. Following the disastrous announcement of the move of the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority from Canberra to Armidale it is clear a much better process is needed. That case was simply “pork barrelling” by Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce and is already having significant negative staffing consequences.
As part of the process, she has made clear that she would be “creating a template for government ministers to assess which departments are suitable for decentralisation”.
The regionalisation move would not include “policy” sections of departments. This doesn’t really make much sense to me. Why is it that any but the most senior people in policy areas need to be singled out to be close to government at all times? Or is it that policy gurus are the ones advising her?
Additionally, the Minister attempted to use the “you-owe-me” argument: “After all, regional Australia supplies the water, food, electricity and gas which powers our cities. City people should thank regional Australia for their way of life.”
This is not a strong argument. The alternative view is that rural and regional people owe Canberra for the effective government oversight and management of taxation, higher education, the environment, agriculture and fisheries, health and much, much more.
Understanding the issues is really about putting yourself in the shoes of the other.
While Australia has twice the percentage of public servants based in the capitals as the US and UK, it is possible to decentralise the public service. However, having built Canberra as the specific centre for government, Australians should also respect the role, the importance and the iconic nature of the national capital.
ACT Senator Zed Seselja, although Assistant Minister for Social Services and Multicultural Affairs in the Coalition government, has attempted to find an alternative suggestion to protect Canberra by targeting public servants in places such as Sydney and Melbourne. He pointed out that “most DHS employees are outside the ACT at the moment because they are about direct service delivery.”
Rural Australia does need an injection of jobs and economic growth. However, it should not be at the cost of yet again cutting public service numbers in Canberra.
Michael Moore was an independent member of the ACT Legislative Assembly (1989 to 2001) and was minister for health.