Decentralisation policy finds more success in theory than in implementation

By Stephen Easton

Tuesday July 3, 2018

Two of the government’s flagship moves under its decentralisation policy have had their new financial year targets curbed. There’ll be dividends eventually, a bipartisan report claims, with positive outcomes for government, rural and regional locations, and employees in the long run.

After all the ups, downs, twists and turns in the saga of the federal government’s attempt to move its pesticides and animal medicines regulator 750km north to Armidale, the agency has decided it needs to keep up to 40 “scientists and decision-makers” in Canberra.

In the latest episode in the series that has given the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority incredible name-recognition, if nothing else, chief executive Chris Parker announces a change of plans that partly vindicates critics of the relocation.

“Our existing plans for teleworking, an enhanced reliance on external scientific assessors and recruitment into Armidale have not reduced our relocation risks to an acceptable level and more must be done,” Parker said in a statement.

“Retaining the knowledge and expertise of our scientists is essential to the effective operations of the APVMA and accommodating these specialist staff in a Canberra office further supports the APVMA to deliver its statutory obligations.”

Parker says the team of specialist scientists and senior administrators in the national capital will number “30 or 40” and plans to eventually have another 150 staff working in Armidale, out of about 2000 square metres of A-grade office space that he hopes to lease by mid-2019.

Currently there are 21 staff working from an interim office on Beardy Street in Armidale, but it will reach full capacity in August, so another interim office has been leased on Jessie Street to accommodate another 32 staff.

A new building on Taylor Street that will become the permanent home of the whole APVMA Armidale team is under construction.

“This decision does not compromise our commitment to establish a regulatory centre in Armidale,” said Parker, explaining that the compromise is an effort to protect the agency’s ability to perform well, while still following its marching orders from the government.

Those orders were devised against independent advice by Armidale’s local federal Member of Parliament, the self-described humble back-bencher Barnaby Joyce, when he was Deputy Prime Minister and Agriculture Minister.

New jobs, not cuts, needed: CPSU

The opposition and public sector union, both of which have long criticised the relocation as pork barrelling, seized yesterday’s announcement.

“Embarrassingly, the Government will have to change its own General Policy Order, which was trumpeted as a linchpin of their decentralisation ‘policy’, to allow one quarter of the APVMA’s staff to stay in Canberra,” said shadow minister Joel Fitzgibbon in a statement. He also disputed Joyce’s claim that it would be helpful for the agency to form a relationship with the University of New England campus in Armidale.

“The APVMA does no research and it does no work with universities,” he said.

Community and Public Sector Union national secretary Nadine Flood echoed Labor’s various arguments against the APVMA move and said the government would do better to create new public sector jobs in regional areas.

“If the Turnbull Government was serious about creating jobs in rural and regional Australia, they could start by creating new jobs in short-staffed agencies that are currently struggling to maintain service standards,” Flood said in a statement.

“The Commonwealth has an important role to play in providing quality employment opportunities in the regions, but instead we’ve seen cuts to front-line services and the forcible relocation of an agency due to the demands of the then Nationals leader.”

That, one might argue, is what the government claims to be doing by establishing the new Regional Investment Corporation in the town of Orange, a few hours drive inland from Sydney. “RIC ready to roll on July 1” was the headline on a ministerial statement last week, but Fitzgibbon disputes that claim, too.

The new body has taken over administering $2 billion worth of concessional loans to farmers for drought assistance and business development, and is offering to lend out the same amount again “for state and territory governments to fast track the construction of priority water infrastructure” and it does have an independent board.

“We have issued the RIC with its operating mandate and look forward to seeing it achieve outcomes for rural and regional communities,” said Finance Minister Mathias Cormann — but the shadow minister says it has no office or staff yet, meaning the board had to meet in a local park.

“The promise to establish a RIC in Orange has always been a poorly thought out and unnecessary waste of $28 million,” said the opposition spokesman. “The administering of concessional loans is already being done by state authorities.”

Decentralisation inquiry wraps up

While the APVMA move hasn’t been very successful, the general idea of public sector decentralisation got a boost last week in the final report of the recent parliamentary inquiry. It notes the the select committee from the House of Representatives heard a lot of criticism of the APVMA move, from a range of sources.

On balance, however, the inquiry concluded decentralisation was a very good idea in general, as expected. It recommended the government continue to pursue it — but only in combination with a host of other regional development policies, and only where it is not detrimental to the agency being moved.

“The Committee recognises that decentralisation may be met with initial resistance by those having to relocate from a capital city to a regional area,” reported the chair, Nationals MP Damien Drum.

“It also acknowledges however, that in the long run, decentralisation can result in positive outcomes for government, rural and regional locations, and employees.”

“The Committee has set out the basis of a solid Commonwealth decentralisation policy. It insists that any decentralisation of Commonwealth entities must balance the benefits of decentralisation with the requirement for efficient government. In other words, it must not take away from an agency’s ability to perform its functions.

“It also advocates for decentralised Commonwealth agencies or functions to be a ‘good fit’ for the new location. Elements that give rise to a ‘good fit’ include those that give a location a natural advantage for a particular agency.

“For example, the physical environment, the presence of existing industry or businesses, or the availability of a skilled workforce make a rural or regional town a sensible choice for a Commonwealth entity.”

The committee came up with a set of clear principles for choosing, executing and evaluating future relocations or establishment of new agencies in regional Australia, and 13 recommendations — some of which are quite interesting, such as the idea of removing any limits on the number of highly paid senior executive roles in an agency, when they are located in a regional office.

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