The decentralisation debate: public servants just won’t move

The federal government wants to shift public servants out of Canberra and into struggling regional centres. But the union warns it amounts to turning over the workforce with little benefit.

The public sector union says talk of shifting departmental staff out of Canberra is “playing postcode politics”. And state government examples warn of the dangers.

Abbott government frontbencher Eric Abetz, the Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Public Service, indicated in June he was considering a decentralisation plan to shift workers and prop up struggling regional economies. Independent MP Andrew Wilkie immediately put up his hand for Hobart, amid criticism from Labor and the ACT government over potential inefficiency and the impact on Canberra’s economy.

At a state level, New South Wales is looking for space to rent for its public servants in the outer western suburbs of Penrith and Liverpool. Victoria has driven much of its public sector to regional areas — with more to come — offering a case study on efficiency and staff movement.

In the late 1980s Victoria experimented with moving its Department of Agriculture to Bendigo, following the example of the NSW Department’s head office shifting from Sydney to Orange. The initiative was stunted by the refusal of senior people to move to the country, and eventually abandoned when the Kennett government was elected.

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