The new decentralisation ultimatum: go bush or a local gets your job

By Stephen Easton

March 19, 2019

Murray-Darling Basin Authority chief Phillip Glyde confidently asserts the agency would do a better job with almost four times as many staff working out of its regional offices, but there may be bigger upheaval in his future pending the outcome of looming elections.

The statutory authority would see 76 public service roles in its support agency move from Canberra to regional offices over the next two years, under an expanded decentralisation plan announced last week by Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources David Littleproud.

“MDBA staff right through from Senior Executives to operational staff, compliance and environmental staff will be offered the chance to live in these regional centres,” Littleproud said among a series of announcements he strung out over several days last week for maximum electoral effect.

“If the number isn’t filled by people wanting to move, these positions will be advertised locally.”

The MDBA’s regional footprint would more than triple, from 27 to 103, leaving about 212 in the Canberra head office. Littleproud promised the jobs to four towns across four basin states: Mildura (Victoria), Murray Bridge (South Australia), Griffith (New South Wales) and Goondiwindi (Queensland).

The opposition has neither supported the decision nor strongly attacked it. Shadow minister Tony Burke said only some of the MDBA’s work was best done in regional offices and too much decentralisation could be a bad thing, if it is unnecessary and depletes technical expertise.

Burke’s comments leave open the possibility that a Labor government might scale back the project, if it judged there was an unacceptable risk of disruption similar to that experienced by the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority with its ill-fated relocation to Armidale, NSW.

Glyde said the MDBA had “long been committed” to the National Party’s policy, which ultimately aims to see more federal public servants spending their taxpayer-funded salaries in small towns, and he publicly expressed confidence that in this case it would only improve the agency’s work.

The new plans build on a smaller regionalisation program over the past two years that was funded from within the agency’s budget and has led to about 10% of its employees being based in relatively new regional outposts. Glyde said the MDBA “prioritised” that spending because it “recognised that the views of communities would only enhance our work” —but is happy to have dedicated funding to implement the new shift, so it does not detract from other work.

Echoing Littleproud and a couple of supportive state ministers, the chief executive said decentralisation would lead to better outcomes simply because the MDBA would absorb a better understanding of life in agricultural communities.

According to Glyde, “greater community involvement is critical” to the success of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan and a more spread-out workforce will improve the plan’s implementation, as well as the MDBA’s management of rivers on behalf of basin governments.

He also accepts the legitimacy of decentralising public service agencies for goals that are unrelated to their own specific purposes: “I fully respect the government’s right to consider a range of objectives, including regional development goals, when making decisions about where to locate its employees.”

The CEO expressed confidence that with dedicated funding and a reasonable timeframe to complete the project, the agency will be able to “methodically” work through the transition without compromising its core responsibilities.

“The expertise of our staff is highly valued and their feedback and ideas will be critically important to the planning the MDBA undertakes to deliver the government decision in 2021,” said Glyde.

“We won’t rush the regionalisation process and will work through the opportunities and issues methodically in collaboration with our staff to ensure the important work of implementing the Basin Plan and managing the River Murray is not hindered.”

However, the minister’s comments made it clear that whatever the time frame, it will come down to a simple choice for some existing staff: move to a country town and become ensconced in the life of a rural community, or be replaced by one of the locals.

“Country people deserve government jobs as much as city people do and they’re just as capable,” said Littleproud, adding that public service decentralisation also created “professional work” in the regions that might attract more university graduates back to their home towns.

It’s unclear whether further decentralisation would improve implementation of the basin plan but it pleases some agricultural stakeholders, and could help the Coalition shore up some regional electorates ahead of the NSW and federal elections. It is not likely to allay the serious concerns of many others who fear parochial politicians have consistently undermined the long-term efforts to share a scarce and dwindling natural resource, leading to environmental flows being reduced too much in favour of economic concerns.

If anything, the suggestion that the MDBA should be more influenced by the hip-pocket concerns of rural communities and lobbying by the agricultural industry is likely to inflame these tensions.

The South Australian Royal Commission gave growing fears a narrative of critical policy failure due to mismanagement by a highly politicised agency, acting on dubious legal advice and shrouded in a layer of upbeat strategic communications, which was boosted by recent research including a peer-reviewed study published in a respected journal and the latest output of ongoing work on the topic by The Australia Institute.

Some independent experts disagree and back the official view that the plan is going reasonably well, all things considered, and have their own fears that it will fall apart if governments push for a fundamental reset.

For now, the MDBA and basin governments can go on rejecting the widespread concerns as misconceived, inaccurate or a difference of opinion, hoping to rebuild public confidence in the whole endeavour, but the upcoming elections may change things.

The NSW Labor opposition and its federal counterpart have both indicated they might commission further judicial inquiries, if they gain sufficient parliamentary power in upcoming votes. Coupled with the Productivity Commission’s recent recommendations for reform, further probes could mean the MDBA is in for much more significant change in the next two years than a larger presence in country towns.

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