Western Sydney, Perth, Adelaide ‒ ‘that’s not decentralisation’: ex-deputy PM

By The Mandarin

Monday May 28, 2018

The former chief advocate for decentralisation policy in the Commonwealth government is anything but impressed with how the implementation is going.

In yet another interview — albeit this time unpaid — former deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce has used colourful language to describe the new plan to move 98 position across seven agencies out of employment hubs in Canberra and other CBDs.

“Decentralisation has to be authentic decentralisation. That is not Sydney to Parramatta. From the top of a tall building in Sydney, I can see Parramatta. So you can’t say that is decentralisation,” he told Fairfax Media. “Decentralisation from Canberra to Adelaide is yet another one.”

Joyce said the existing commitment was very modest, but the proposed moves were implementation via technicality.

“What galls us is we see the word decentralisation and we go, ‘beauty!’, and they say we are moving a department to Parramatta and we go, ‘bulls–t’,” he said. “You can’t decentralise to the centre. You have got to decentralise from the centre.”

Just three moves passed what Joyce considered the intent of the policy:

  • 10 positions from the Office of the Registrar of Indigenous Corporations moving from Canberra to Darwin;
  • seven positions from the Indigenous Affairs Group Regional Network Melbourne CBD office moving to Shepparton;
  • and nine positions from the Department of Infrastructure, Regional Development and Cities Inland Rail Unit moving to Toowoomba, Dubbo and Wodonga.

Joyce’s replacement as leader of the National Party, Michael McCormack, continued to spruik the policy as a win for regional Australia during the federal budget release earlier this month.

“The government’s commitment to a decentralisation agenda is unwavering,” McCormack said in a statement, promising further significant statements in coming months.

Slightly more detail was revealed at budget estimates last week, where Stephen Kennedy, secretary of the Department of Infrastructure, Regional Development and Cities, provided numbers for the agencies who nominated themselves for possible inclusion in the policy.

Kennedy explained that staff consultation was an important step and naming individual agencies at that point might be “unnecessarily disruptive” if the seven proposed moves didn’t go ahead, offering instead to name portfolios. Then, following a private discussion, he said seven was actually “a very preliminary number” that could still go up or down.

If there is any consensus of thought on the policy, it’s that the government isn’t as fully committed to decentralisation as the Nationals leaders have suggested. Government staffers have, we’re informed, told concerned stakeholders that the decentralisation policy is little more than a token gesture, and will never exceed trivial numbers, nor hit key policymaking areas.

The Mandarin publisher Tom Burton is one fan of re-thinking the location of government, writing during the announcement of the policy that it was time for government to question why it must be tied to a physical space.

“But while this will no doubt entertain the fishbowl of federal parliament, the bigger issue is the need for a well-articulated medium-term plan to rethink the location of government.

“This plan should obviously contemplate the non-trivial transition issues and the need to develop programs to make the shift to the regions as family- and partner-friendly as possible.

“Building clusters in regions around say health, education, communications would seem to be an obvious way to craft a longer-term plan to spread the benefits of government more equitably.

“Telling ministers and their offices they will have to also work from the new regional headquarters of their agencies would cement the shift. When parliament sits, ministers could vote electronically. Welcome to the 21st century.”

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