Can the PM sweeten Western Sydney for public servants?


History shows politicians can’t help seeing relocation of public sector jobs as a lever to boost local development, but that people are generally loath to pack up and move to outer suburbs or regional centres along with the jobs.

This can, of course, damage the institutional memory of government agencies, as currently demonstrated by multiple agencies that the Deputy Prime Minister wants moved to regional New South Wales, including one to his own electorate.

The latest plans to move several thousand NSW public servants out to Western Sydney face the same issue. But if Sydney’s state employees listen to their local, state and federal politicians, the Western Suburbs are on the up and will be increasingly lovely places to live thanks to the city deal they have struck to put in new roads, rails and an airport.

There are even plans to clean up a section of the Parramatta River and make it possible to swim in it again by 2025, so perhaps NSW public servants should just look on the bright side.

Yesterday, at a press conference discussing the latest Western Sydney Infrastructure Plan report card, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull talked up all the transport development his government has agreed to fund through one of its new city deals.

He enthused that all levels of government were working together “to achieve that goal of a more liveable city” with much better transport links to other parts of the sprawling metropolis — the dream of a 30-minute city — as well as less need to use them, because there will so much “greater amenity” in the west.

In February, announcing the move of about 1800 staff of the state’s Department of Education out to a brand new office block in Parramatta, NSW Minister for Finance, Services and Property Dominic Perrottet opined:

“Public servants simply don’t need to be housed in ivory towers in the CBD – wherever possible they should be close to the people they serve, and in areas where the economy and population are booming.”

The population in Parramatta and surrounding areas certainly is booming — but this justification seems backwards compared to one that is typically given for decentralisation: it is to boost the naturally sluggish development outside major cities.

Decade of Decentralisation

This week, the government’s Decade of Decentralisation moved ahead another step with property developers who are keen to accommodate the next wave of bureaucrats being shortlisted. Education’s new digs are about 25,000 square metres, according to Perrottet, while the next group will require more than double that.

The minister says the latest migration will see about 4000 public sector positions come to Parramatta, 1700 of which will move out of the CBD.

So keen is the government to stimulate big new developments in the west and open up space in the city to other uses that it measures its pledge in terms of office space. The commitment was to free up at least 100,000 square metres in the CBD by 2021 and move the associated public sector jobs to metropolitan and regional areas.

The Education move will be carried out between in 2018 and 2020. Perrottet’s previously announced plans to move jobs — in Transport and Finance, Family and Community Services, State and Regional Development, and Industry — would open up 38,000 squares in the city and move a shade under 2000 public service positions out, with about half of those going up river to Western Sydney.

It’s not just NSW getting on board with public service decentralisation, either. The idea is being revived all over Australia, although it is often the case that such policies concentrate on outer suburbs or satellite cities like Parramatta, or Ipswich in Queensland, and send very few agencies to actual regional areas.

Indeed, the Penrith council recently piped up to complain a few hundred public service jobs it was promised before the current NSW government was elected had never turned up, and that 150 publicly funded jobs were moving from Penrith to Parramatta. About half of all the jobs that have actually shifted out of central Sydney so far, about 2000, have gone to the bustling city of Parramatta and less than 200 to other parts of the west.

The idea has also come up a few times in an extremely long-running Senate inquiry into the potential of regional centres, which is now expected to report in December. It’s fair to say that in general, local councils love a bit of state public service decentralisation when their community is on the receiving end.

A popular view, expressed by the Mayor of Townsville in one hearing, is that public servants are a cloistered caste of city-dwellers who inhabit offices in nice places that aren’t like the real world, Canberra being his prime example.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said multiple agencies were moving into the Deputy Prime Minister’s electorate. In fact, only one was designated for his electorate of New England, while others were designated to move to the electorate of Riverina.

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