The federal government wants to move more public service jobs out of Canberra, but their efforts so far have been damaging. Is there a better way?
Although its main proponents have left the stage, the idea of decentralising the Australian Public Service persists within the government.
Barnaby Joyce and Fiona Nash were leading the push to move jobs out of Canberra before their respective departures from Cabinet.
There is talk of the government continuing to review proposals for which functions can be shifted, however — and acting Prime Minister Michael McCormack brought it up again a few days ago, arguing that public servants could live like “kings and queens” outside the major cities.
Perhaps we’ll see something in the soon-to-be-released budget. But if we do, it had better be undertaken in a more sensible way than we’ve seen from the Turnbull government up to this point.
There’s the by now infamous case of the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority, where more than half the 200-strong workforce have declined to move 750km north to Joyce’s electorate. This includes 33 regulatory scientists — a profession one suspects is not strong on the ground in Armidale, a rural town of 23,000 people.
This is not to mention the significant disruption the move itself has caused, with performance dipping at the APVMA and making life difficult for the many stakeholders reliant on its work — or the cost-benefit analysis that found the move would have a negative net impact.
And it doesn’t help that the government has been cutting some of the jobs that did already exist in economically depressed regions.
Since 2013, the proportion of APS jobs in regional areas versus capital cities has grown by about half of one percent, currently sitting at around 14% — though both are down. There are now 11,000 fewer city jobs — an 8% cut — versus a drop of 1100, or 4.5%, in regional areas.
Townsville — with an unemployment rate of 10.8% and youth unemployment at 22% — has seen 200 Commonwealth jobs cut since 2013. The government offices in Townsville, which the Commonwealth is still paying full rent on, are “half empty”, says Nadine Flood, national secretary of the Community and Public Sector Union.
“The federal government has cut more public service jobs in regional Queensland than Campbell Newman did,” Flood notes.
“We’ve seen substantial job losses in human services, CSIRO, tax and a range of small agencies, many of which retain the footprint, but with an awful lot of empty desks and buildings.”
She thinks there’s a gap between the government’s rhetoric about putting jobs in regional areas and the reality. “It doesn’t make any sense whatsoever,” Flood argues.
Move social policy closer to the people
“The assumption that everything’s best if it’s located in Canberra is not actually paying dividends at the moment,” thinks Terry Moran, former secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, now chair of the Centre for Policy Development.
There are a couple of reasons why governments should consider decentralising jobs, Moran believes. The first is moving positions to regional centres to take pressure off the big cities.
“At the moment Melbourne is adding huge areas of residential development on the fringe of the city, but that’s not necessarily backed up with facilities of the quality you’d find in Geelong, Ballarat and Bendigo, and not necessarily with ready access to a wide range of jobs,” he says.
The second is that despite the benefits of Canberra being a centre of specialisation for public administration skills, it is “fairly privileged place to live” and “remote” from the lives of most Australians.
This means that it’s hard to find some of the commercial skills that are common in Sydney and Melbourne — and is a reason that agencies like the Reserve Bank are based or have strong footprints outside the national capital.
But it also makes Canberra a less-than-ideal base from which to make complex decisions about social policy that are best when they are informed by on-the-ground experience and stakeholder engagement. The majority of Australians live in a handful of big cities, after all.
“I think in social policy there are weaknesses that could be remedied if specialised agencies were located in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne in a way that allowed them to draw on expertise that’s available in those cities,” Moran says.
“New agencies are arising all the time. When that happens in the social policy area, unless there’s a good reason that they should be located in Canberra, they should be located elsewhere.”
And if governments do want to move jobs to regional areas, he says, they should be looking at places that already have a reasonably sized labour market — like Geelong, Bendigo, Ballarat, the Gold Coast, the Sunshine Coast, or Wollongong.
“Beyond that there are other conditions for success. Geelong, Ballarat and Bendigo have very good rail links to Melbourne, motor vehicle links to Melbourne, each has a significant university presence, a significant TAFE presence, public and private schooling available, and significant cultural assets in the visual and performing arts.
“In other words in those three cities you have the preconditions for an appealing life for the sort of people you’d hope were willing to work in senior positions in government. If you go into smaller locations, most of those are lacking, which is the case with Armidale.”
NDIA ‘a mess’
The National Disability Insurance Agency is another one of the Commonwealth’s decentralisation flagbearers, and it too is faring poorly.
The agency, which is in charge of the National Disability Insurance Scheme — one of the biggest national reforms of the past decade — is situated in Geelong, alongside two Victorian government agencies that also deal with social insurance — the Transport Accident Commission and Worksafe. The same pattern could be seen with the shift of the TAC, too — while it has been in Geelong for the best part of a decade now, only around one in seven employees moved with it.
By locating these agencies close to one another in a large town, it was hoped that a labour market for the types of skills they require would evolve, but some are concerned this is yet to occur.
The NDIA itself is certainly experiencing deep problems.
“The staff we represent at the NDIA, which includes both directly employed public servants and labour hire or contract staff, say that the agency is a mess,” says Flood.
It has “done very badly” out of the federal government’s public service employee cap — whereas it was initially planned that the NDIA should have more than 10,500 staff by now, it is instead trying to deliver the NDIS reforms with a cap of 3000 employees.
“Because of this the NDIA needs to outsource much of its work, which is a particular risk when it’s so new and needs to build institutional capability and knowledge,” says the CPSU boss.
Almost a third of staff are contractors, and many staff have virtually no prior experience with the APS. This can be seen in the data: 34.7% of NDIA have a length of service of less than one year, compared to 8.1% across the APS.
“There’s a particular issue where decentralisation is deeply problematic after significant budget cuts, where you risk exacerbating capacity problems in the public service by putting scarce public funds into expensive and politically driven decentralisation moves,” Flood argues.
“This is a new and critically important function of government that is not going well.”