Decentralisation: ‘ideologically driven Canberra bashing’

By Stephen Easton

Thursday February 11, 2016

Andrew Barr

Three of the federal government’s agricultural research bodies will move out of Canberra as instruments of regional development and to be closer to the industries they support, as proposed last year.

In response, ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr has written to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to complain that the decentralisation, along with other cuts to national cultural institutions, were “ideological driven Canberra bashing” that had to stop. On Friday Barr went into on the attack via the media:

“The Prime Minister should honour his predecessor’s commitment to stop cutting our city.

“Canberra-based national institutions are not a political plaything and I have written to the Prime Minister to remind him of his obligations to the Canberra community.

“It is concerning that in the space of a few days, our national institutions have come under attack, government research jobs have been ripped out of Canberra and heads of departments are threatening to move senior roles to other cities.”

Agriculture and Water Resources Minister Barnaby Joyce announced on Wednesday that the three corporate entities would establish offices in regional centres. Joyce, who also became leader of the Nationals and hence the Deputy Prime Minister, said the move was part of a broad policy to scatter government bodies around the nation:

“Decentralisation is not just an abstract idea but is a real priority for this government.”

The Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation is moving its main headquarters to Wagga Wagga.

The Fisheries Research and Development Corporation will have a new “regional office” in Adelaide which will be used as a model for others. The Grains Research and Development Corporation will open four new offices in Dubbo, Toowoomba, Adelaide and Perth — with the “intent” to move to nearby Northam.

The moves will be quite costly — around $44 million — and significant staff turnover is likely to result. Time will tell whether those certain costs to the public purse are outweighed by the uncertain wider economic benefits that Joyce promises:

“We need to continue to develop parts of our nation outside metropolitan areas and Armidale is a place that is already exceptional in its research, particularly in agriculture.

“We’re committed to revitalising rural Australia, and relocating government agencies to regional areas is part of that commitment to boost jobs growth and investment in these communities.”

Joyce argues the new locations are more logical than Canberra because of their proximity to the relevant industries and to universities:

“These three RDCs are focused on rural research — including grains, fisheries and aquaculture, and small and emerging industries — so it makes sense to locate them away from Canberra where the boots actually hit the dirt in their respective sectors.

“As well as being home to vibrant farming communities, these regions also have some of the best agricultural universities and research facilities in the country. It is logical that strong links should exist between the RDCs, universities and farmers on the ground in each industry.”

The minister added that a proposal to move the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority to Armidale would go to an “independent cost-benefit risk analysis, which would then be looked at further by the government”.

Policies to deliberately spread out the flow-on economic benefits of the money poured into the public sector are gaining popularity but have faced some opposition, especially when proposed at federal level. ACT politicians of all stripes, including some of Joyce’s Coaltion colleagues, oppose their biggest industry being broken up. There is also a mix of support and opposition for the relocations from farming and industry groups.

Treasury boss: moving to Canberra a barrier to SES recruitment

Treasury secretary John Fraser said in his Estimates appearance yesterday the capital is such a turn-off for financial high flyers that he can’t find a decent deputy secretary who wants to take the job.

“That’s why we’re trying to make it so Melbourne or Sydney is a viable option for people to work as a deputy secretary,” Fraser said, adding that “family reasons” were the main barrier to moving to Canberra.

There is bipartisan support for decentralising the Treasury, which has a new Sydney office and one in Melbourne soon to open, but experts who spoke to The Mandarin last July were generally sceptical that a strong business case could be made for splintering the important central agency.

Digital technology obviously makes decentralisation of a government’s public service, and within agencies, an increasingly viable option.

‘People don’t move’

Telecommuting or “TelePresence” may be set to increase if the agency moves proceed without strong staff support. An earlier investigation by The Mandarin suggested that public servants just won’t move, at least in sufficient numbers.

When 200 of 400 positions from the State Revenue Office were moved to Ballarat, only eight employees followed. Community and Public Sector Union state secretary Karen Batt told The Mandarin: “Effectively they had to run dual processes,” which resulted in splitting the organisation in half. Within six months, “the senior managers had moved back to Melbourne, and now it’s pretty much used as an administrative call centre.”

Only around 100 of the 700 staff at the Transport Accident Commission were prepared to go to Geelong. To make matters worse, the agency suffered a “slow bleed” of staff pre-emptively jumping ship over the two years leading up to the move. Only eight of 48 moved with the Rural Finance Corporation when it was moved to Bendigo.

“The TAC made a huge attempt to keep knowledge in the organisation until the transfer date,” said Batt, who claims the organisation paid around $90 million in redundancies and incentives to retain employees.

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