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Verona Burgess: decentralisation spin lands in the long grass

Barnaby Joyce’s announcement last week that Darwin will get a new $8 million biosecurity ‘hub’ doubtless sent shivers up spines in the Australian Animal Health Laboratory in Geelong.

That’s because he told the media it would replace some of the work done in Geelong and Melbourne and jobs would move to Darwin.

But by Tuesday Joyce, or rather his office, had already backtracked, saying the Darwin jobs would be new and laboratory staff wouldn’t be relocated. This might have had something to do with the fact that the high-containment Geelong lab is a CSIRO facility and not in his department, but anyway.

It’s not the first time he has backtracked in what is threatening to become a farcical political play on public service decentralisation – not least while the High Court looms over the validity of ministerial decisions he and his deputy, Regional Development minister Fiona Nash, might make.

Who can forget how well it worked out last time when, before the last election, Joyce announced the forced move from Canberra to Armidale, in his own electorate, of the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority.

This blatant piece of pork-barrelling resulted in resignations of at least 50 of its 200 staff – including the then chief executive, Kareena Arthy – causing, among other things, a major slowdown in the agency’s rate of product approvals. But no matter – the move will be finalised by 2019.

Perhaps someone thought there should be an actual policy next time. So on April 19 at the National Press Club, Nash announced one – the public service decentralisation policy – along with a procedure.

“I’ll be responsible for creating a template for government ministers to assess which departments are suitable for decentralisation by mid-year … Departments will need to either indicate that they’re suitable to move to the regions or justify why all or part of their operation is unsuitable. All portfolio ministers will need to report back to Cabinet by August on which of their departments are suitable to be moved to regional Australia, and relevant ministers will need to report to Cabinet with robust business cases for decentralisation by December.”

But within days came another backtrack. Joyce ruled out moves for Finance and Treasury and also for the Australian Taxation Office, by which he presumably meant the head office, since the ATO already has 87.9% of its staff located outside Canberra, but who’s counting?

Next came the budget, and by then the all policy departments had wriggled out of it. The budget said:

“The government’s decentralisation program is prioritising the decentralisation of non-policy Commonwealth entities to regional areas. The intent is to promote job creation, economic diversification and broaden the diversity of public sector personnel to better reflect the distribution and make-up of Australia’s population.

“Decentralisation of appropriate non-policy entities will enhance existing linkages between entities and key stakeholders in the regions. Business cases for entities being considered for relocation are expected to be completed by December 2017.”

Decisions would be based on a set of standard criteria including the supply of skills or policy connection between the potential host regions and the operations of specific entities; telecommunications capability, services and infrastructure available to support the relocation of entities and accommodate their staff; and specialist staff retention and associated impacts on the specific entity performance.

What a relief to know Martin Parkinson won’t have to fly in from Broome every time he needs to meet Malcolm Turnbull.

Next came Senate estimates when Finance minister Matthias Cormann admitted there was really no more flesh on the policy’s bones than what Nash had announced.

On June 19 the House of Representatives set up a select committee, chaired by Queensland LNP member John McVeigh, to inquire into best practice approaches to regional development, decentralisation of Commonwealth entities and ways of supporting corporate decentralisation.

They have put out an issues paper which reveals, in a nutshell, that (despite the government’s standard criteria) there is no consensus on how regions can or should be developed or, indeed, defined; nor on how to measure development; but that there are some ‘consistent themes’ for best practice.

These include: consultation and engagement with and ‘buy-in’ by regional authorities and communities; prioritisation, effective communication and effective mechanisms for delivery; regions’ focus on their own core existing advantages, distinctive competencies and niches for developing and diversifying their economic bases; clearly defined policies, action plans and measurable benchmarks; and funding support from the central authorities. Who’d have thought?

This week seemed a good time to find out how it was all going. This is what the good media folk were allowed to say:

“The Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development is leading the implementation of the government’s decentralisation program. The government is currently considering portfolio responses regarding how entities may be considered further for decentralisation.

“As announced [by Nash], the Department of Finance has a key role in designing a robust business case process for consideration by government. The business case template is being considered by government as part of the Cabinet process.”

All on track, then? Roll on, the High Court.

Top image: AAP Image/Andrew Taylor

Author Bio

Verona Burgess

Verona Burgess is a former Government Business Editor and senior columnist for the Australian Financial Review. She has been writing about the Australian Public Service since 1990. A former Jefferson Fellow, she was also joint winner of the inaugural Richard Baker Senate prize and won a Walkley award with The Canberra Times for team coverage of the 2003 Canberra bushfires.