ONLY time will tell how serious the Turnbull government is about a proposal to decentralise – where possible – the federal public service, which was announced at the National Press Club in Canberra on Wednesday by the deputy Nationals leader and Minister for Regional Affairs, Senator Fiona Nash.
As Senator Nash recounted on Wednesday, a number of federal departments have already been moved into regional centres over the years. The decentralisation push has also occupied state politics from time to time, most notably in this region when part of the Mineral Resources Department was shifted from Sydney to Maitland in 2003.
But as the federal government is learning with its decision to move the Australian Pesticides and Medicines Authority from Canberra to Armidale, these things do not always go smoothly. The savings that are often held up as justification for such moves are not always achieved, especially if public servants take redundancy rather than move; and wherever a department is moved to, there are usually allegations of pork-barelling in some form or other.
And if these concerns are not enough, critics will often bring up the Whitlam government’s grand dream of turning the NSW and Victorian border town of Albury-Wodonga into a modern city of 300,000 people, to prove once and for all that decentralisation does not work. But as Senator Nash said in her speech on Wednesday, some parts of regional Australia are already gaining population, and there are good reasons to explore decentralisation again at this time. In a free-market democracy like Australia, governments should not be telling people where they should live or work but anything that can encourage well-paid jobs in centres other than Canberra and the big state capitals is worth exploring. Although Labor frontbencher Joel Fitzgibbon criticised Senator Nash’s proposal as “a thought bubble”, the Hunter is surely one of the regions that could benefit should the decentralisation proposal gain momentum.
Senator Nash mentioned cheaper property prices as one attraction in shifting public servants into regional Australia, but it would be a mistake to try to use the location of government jobs as a lever in the property market. At the same time, Australia would benefit from having its population more evenly spread, and the government, as a major employer, has the ability to try to make this happen.