APS decentralisation must be stopped

May 17, 2017

The federal Government MUST abandon its decentralisation proposal for Canberra's public service jobs. I spoke about this in the Australian Capital Territory Legislative Assembly last week in a motion that was strongly supported by all sides of politics. 

Watch my speech or read the transcript below.

I rise today to speak for Canberrans and I rise today to speak for Canberra—the nation's capital and our cool little capital, the nation's centre of administrative expertise and our workplace, the home of federal government and its work, but also our home. We are an inextricable mix of local and national. It is the reason for our success as a thriving regional centre. Any attempt to disentangle the two is utterly misguided and destructive.

Three weeks ago the federal Liberal-National government put the policy of decentralisation on the table. Decentralisation represents a threat to our social fabric, to our economic wellbeing and to the vivacity and dynamism of our home. Since then, many people have approached me to tell me about the uncertainty this is causing them and how disruptive it has been, from those public servants who might have to move but who have to spend months and months waiting to find out, to those whose businesses and work might be caught up in the ripple effect. Hundreds have signed my petition.

Mr Assistant Speaker, you know that six months ago I too was a federal public servant. My story is a familiar one to many because it is also many other people's story too. I moved to Canberra to join the federal public service, and I fell in love and stayed. It is important for me to bring forward this motion today to stand up for, and with, all Canberrans against this policy. But I especially do so for the federal public servants who cannot speak up and, indeed, for those who have been told that they cannot speak up.

Canberra is the nation's capital. We are the national centre of excellence in public administration. This is why we were created; and it is no accident. Contrary to what some ignorant and misinformed commentators might say, I know from personal experience that the public servants working in Canberra are of the highest calibre. They are intelligent and resourceful professionals who are committed to delivering the best outcomes for Australia. They serve the entire Australian community quietly and proudly, resilient in the face of repeated attacks from a federal government to whom they work.

One of the strongest arguments for decentralisation is to boost the economies of regional centres, to create jobs. But Canberra is a regional centre itself. In fact, we are arguably the greatest regional success story there is in this country. Canberra is the hub in a region of close to one million people. Our region covers the city, the coast, the alpine regions and the tablelands. We have partnered with surrounding New South Wales councils to strengthen economic growth, encourage tourism and to foster export opportunities. The region is linked through transport, education, health services and retail. So moving people from a successful regional centre like Canberra to another regional centre does not make sense.

I am all for job creation. I grew up in towns of around 5,000 people and I know the importance of it, but this is not job creation. It is robbing Peter to pay Paul: robbing one regional centre to pay another regional centre. What would make sense is to move jobs out of increasingly congested cities like Sydney and Melbourne to Canberra, injecting even more life into our thriving region and easing issues of transport and housing affordability along the east coast.

It is worth noting at this point that, unlike the federal Liberal-National government, the ACT Labor government is absolutely committed to creating and protecting jobs in Canberra. We do know what job creation means and how to go about it.

The ACT is currently seeing the benefits of many years of focus on bolstering our economy and protecting jobs. Business confidence is the highest in Australia; unemployment is at national lows; and our economy is strong, with growth in the university, retail and construction sectors. We are investing a record $2.9 billion in infrastructure to deliver a strong pipeline of major infrastructure projects. These are projects that will bring local jobs and enhance our city, making it an even better place to live, work and relax.

We are leveraging our strengths by continuing to promote Canberra as an education destination. The university sector alone contributes $2.6 billion annually to our economy and brings 16,000 jobs into Canberra. We know the importance of diversifying our economy, which is why we support cutting-edge programs and incubators to encourage entrepreneurs and innovators in the ACT.

Just last month Entry 29, Canberra's biggest start-up community, opened a satellite hub at the University of Canberra. On top of that, we are attracting record numbers of international visitors and we are now working hard to establish Canberra as an international trade hub for our region.

As you can see, Mr Assistant Speaker, the ACT government is utterly committed to a strong job market. However, the reality remains: the Australian public service is a key element of our economic security. Our strong economy comes off the base of a strong public sector. The fact is that decentralisation will pull the rug from under our feet. And for what?

No cost-benefit analysis has been done. There was no cost-benefit analysis for the move of the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority either, and that move is currently mired in a mass staff exodus. Decentralisation will undermine the ACT's economy and what we have worked and fought so hard for. It will disrupt the lives of Canberrans whose familial, social and work networks are firmly established in the ACT, and it will jeopardise the efficiency and expertise of the Australian public service.

The decentralisation option is already causing uncertainty in Canberra, casting doubt on investment decisions and causing public servants to enter limbo as they wonder what the future holds for them and their families. If decentralisation occurs, thousands of federal public service jobs in Canberra are at stake. As a result, the viability of many Canberra businesses will be jeopardised.

When the proposal to move the Department of Immigration and Border Protection from my electorate in Ginninderra in 2015 was on the table, it was estimated to rip $30 million from small businesses in the Belconnen town centre alone, threatening hundreds of jobs. The finance minister said at the time:

We are very mindful of the fact that the Commonwealth is a major tenant across the ACT, but also individual departments are major tenants and major contributors to local economies in specific areas in and around Canberra. As such, obviously, when certain decisions are made, it is important to appropriately consider relevant local impacts.

That was just about moving a department to the other side of the city, let alone out of our entire region. What has changed in 18 months? I urge the federal government to heed its own words. Decentralisation will affect our economy across the board. Every industry will feel the blow of uncertainty, population decrease and drain of expertise out of the city that it will cause.

As I mentioned, this is more than political for me. Just six months ago I too was a federal public servant. Arriving in Canberra for a graduate program in 2008, I had no idea what I was in for. I did not expect I would be here for long to be honest. But, to my surprise, I quickly fell in love with Canberra. The more I fell in love with Canberra, the more I put my roots down here. I made more and more friends, both in and outside the public service. I bought a house and introduced two dogs into my life.

Canberra is not just a workplace. It is a home. Canberrans are not chess pieces. We have lives we have built here. Couples will be forced to make hard decisions under this policy. Children and families will have to consider uprooting their lives, their schools, their sporting clubs, their friends. Families will be forced to choose between their jobs and their communities. You cannot put a price on how much Canberra means to Canberrans. But there is a real, human cost to the political games the federal government is playing.

There is a real impact on the efficiency and expertise of the Australian public service as a result. No good for the Australian public service will come of decentralisation out of Canberra. Federal public sector agencies are currently being compelled to justify their continued existence in Canberra, that is, justify why they would want to stay in the city where they have ease of access to the parliament and to their minister; justify why they would stay in the city where they have built a workforce with invaluable corporate knowledge; and justify why they would stay in the city where they benefit from collocation with other public service departments.

Am I missing something here? In the words of Tony Boyd's article in the Australian Financial Review earlier this month:

Wise heads familiar with the symbiotic relationship between the public service and government understand that the main federal policy and service delivery departments should be co-located to strengthen the opportunities for collaboration and information exchange.

That does not even taken into account the cost in travel alone, which will be astronomical as public servants are flown back and forth, to and from Canberra, from whatever region they end up in. That also does not count the cost of public servants forced to choose, who might quit their agency and try to find another job here in Canberra. These public servants might be in highly skilled, highly technical jobs. The capability and core competencies of that agency, and of many agencies, is then at risk.

This policy does not create one job. Instead, it speaks to the failure of the federal Liberal-National government to create jobs in rural and regional areas. This policy is lazy. Canberrans are not chess pieces to prop up a failing government running out of ideas and quickly running out of time. This policy is destructive and ill conceived. It has dire detrimental consequences.

I am proud to be part of a government which will continue to use all the tools at our disposal to fight decentralisation out of Canberra and to protect and support Canberra's public sector workers. And I am proud to be part of an Assembly which is united on this.