The announcement of any new Centre for Excellence at a federal agency is usually a cause celebre for ministers and departmental heads alike, but there’s some serious head scratching over how the numbers will stack-up for a new Australian Bureau of Statistics facility being set up in Geelong.
The federal Labor Opposition and the Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) are questioning how a new ABS “Survey Management Centre of Excellence” that promises to employ as many as 250 people — to be run in partnership with Deakin University – has fortuitously come into being in the run-up to Victoria’s looming state election.
It’s a predictable question when the nation’s official counting house has been on the receiving of $80 million in funding cuts and made 350 staff redundant over the last two years.
Much of the curiosity surrounding the new ABS regional facility is why the ABS apparently needed to confine the good news of the new Geelong facility to an internal staff announcement and a press release from Victorian Premier Denis Napthine … just a day before his government went into caretaker mode for the Victorian state election.
Still, it’s a public servant’s duty to implement the policy of the government of the day.
“This initiative is in response to a request by the Australian Government that we consider relocating some functions to the Geelong region, where it was appropriate and cost effective to do so,” said Jonathan Palmer, Acting Australian Statistician in the announcement to ABS staff.
“Our agreement to establish an ABS office in Geelong was publicly announced this morning by myself in conjunction with Ms Sarah Henderson (the Federal Member for Corangamite), Dr Denis Napthine (the Victorian Premier) and Prof Lee Astheimer (Deputy Vice Chancellor, Deakin University).”
While undoubtedly a blessing for Geelong, which has been left economically reeling in the wake of announcement of the closure of the Ford manufacturing facility, the deal is a very sore point in Canberra which is itself suffering from the Abbott government’s decision to cut public service numbers by 16,500 jobs.
Dr Napthine said the new project would be implemented in partnership with Deakin University “which will upgrade the site of the former Ford Discovery Centre to accommodate the new ABS centre.”
“This project will provide 250 jobs, which is great news for regional Victoria and for Geelong as it transitions to a more diversified economy,” Dr Napthine said.
But it’s where those jobs will ultimately come from that has unions and the Opposition up in arms.
“The [federal] Government wants to send 250 ABS staff to Geelong, burning through more money to start up a new centre and yet there is no explanation of how any of that is going to be paid for, said Community and Public Sector Union Deputy President Alistair Waters.
“This looks to be nothing more than robbing Peter to pay Paul. The ABS needs to be properly funded to do its job, regardless of where its staff are located.”
In a masterpiece of state-federal revenue recycling, Dr Napthine provided a partial answer about where the cash for the ABS’ big move is coming from; namely state coffers.
“The Victorian Coalition Government is proud to have provided funding to Deakin University and facilitation support to the ABS to secure this new Centre of Excellence for Geelong,” the then pre-caretaker Victorian Premier said.
Senior management at the ABS appears particularly enthusiastic about state facilitation of cheap rent.
“Under the agreement, the ABS will lease an office at12-14 Gheringhap Street, Geelong for ten years from early 2016,”said Mr Palmer.
“This is an exciting initiative that will deliver strategic and operational benefits. We will be getting a great office, in a desirable location, at an excellent price.”
Some of the finer details still appear to be a work in progress. While Premier Napthine said that the new Geelong ABS facility “will consolidate some of the ABS’ core functions into one location” Mr Palmer was more cautious.
“Existing ABS offices will not be closed as a result of this agreement. Early media reports stating that five existing ABS offices will be consolidated are incorrect,” Mr Palmer said.
Added that he and the Vice Chancellor of Deakin University, Jane den Hollander, had agreed that the new ABS office “will be the catalyst for a strategic alliance between the ABS and the University.”
“The University is a recognised leader in distance education and we will explore how this expertise can be applied to building statistical capability in Australia and the region. Deakin University also has a strong big data analytics capability. It offers a Masters degree in Business Analytics and established Australia’s first Centre for Excellence in Business Analytics in partnership with IBM in 2012.”
It was revealed earlier this month that IBM had been retained by ABS to provide the secure computing back-end for the 2016 eCensus which is anticipated to be an overwhelmingly online affair for most of the population.
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