Local councils have called upon the federal government to be transparent about its decentralisation drive and make it evidence-based and free from politicking, rather than leaving them to battle one another for government jobs, a public inquiry has heard.
A public hearing in Townsville last week (Friday) was the first time most regional councils have been able to make their feelings known about the possibility of moving public servants from Australia’s capital cities out into rural and regional areas.
The federal government decentralisation initiative, spearheaded by Regional Development Minister Fiona Nash and Deputy PM Barnaby Joyce, has put government ministers on notice. Ministers have been told to justify why jobs and departments should stay in Canberra, Sydney or Melbourne or to nominate a region to move to by December. Ms Nash has said the criteria for assessment will be finalised by mid-2017.
There are currently 155,000 public servants, or 14 per cent of the APS, located outside capital cities.
The hearing was part of the Senate Finance and Public Administration References Committee’s inquiry into the relocation of Commonwealth departments and specifically into the potential impact of the controversial plan to move the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority’s (APVMA) form Canberra to the northern NSW town of Armidale, in Mr Joyce’s New England electorate, by 2019.
The APVMA relocation, which involves about 190 staff, most of whom are highly specialised, failed a government-commissioned cost-benefit analysis and led to many staff walking out the door, including Chief Executive Kareena Arthy and some top regulatory scientists and lawyers. Ernst and Young estimated the move would cost at least $23.19 million. This includes redundancies for 85 per cent of the APVMA staff the report identified as unwilling to move to Armidale.
The plan to move the agricultural chemicals regulator exposed the government to further ridicule after Ms Arthy revealed that Canberra-based public servants were working out of Armidale MacDonalds using the free wi-fi because they had nowhere else to work, at a February Senate Estimates’ hearing, a remark Ms Arthy later said was taken out of context.
The situation blew up again after a document was leaked to Fairfax in April which gave APVMA staff suggested scripted replies to recite if they were asked about the relocation during “BBQ conversations” and other “social settings”. The guidelines came from APVMA’s Chief Operating Officer Stefanie Janiec.
Meanwhile, Committee Chair Labor Senator Jenny Mcallister said last week’s public inquiry showed that councils wanted the decentralisation process depoliticised ‘rather than agencies or departments being moved on a minister’s whim’. She said councils also felt bypassed by the federal government, which had not spoken to them about its decentralisation agenda.
She said that while every council wanted public service jobs they should not have to individually petition ministers for favours.
“The community can’t have that confidence in Barnaby Joyce’s decisions,“ Ms Mcallister said. “The Nationals should back Cathy McGowan’s proposal for a broad inquiry into decentralisation as a first step to rebuilding that trust.“
Acting Chair of Regional Development Australia Townsville and West Queensland, Frank Beveridge agreed that every region ‘would fight tooth and nail’ to have even one government department in their backyard but he said it was important to ’get away from the politics and actually have some legitimate figures backing it up, supporting it‘.
Fears that regional councils could cannabilise each other’s growth look to be well-founded.
All the councils spruiked their own areas at the inquiry, whether talking up their internet connectivity, educational institutions, transport links or affordable housing and insisted their area was unique and should get Commonwealth jobs.
Toowoomba and Gatton (which has the University of Queensland) were both vying for APVMA before the decison to move the authority to Armidale was finalised.
Cessnock City Council Mayor Bob Pynsent said the application process needed to be open and fair to councils.
“The process would need to be transparent, so that every local government area has the opportunity to apply. And when those assessments are made, the decision would not be a political one but be based on the criteria that have been made available to the people who have applied,“ Mr Pynsent said.
Townsville Mayor Jenny Hill said ‘transparency is extremely important to the community to provide confidence that we are doing the right thing‘ and Peter Hargreaves from Bendigo Council said the planned relocation ‘must be a planned process based on clear objectives’.
Councils are keen to have the criteria for regional development made clear, for example, the importance of closeness to a university, internet speed or available office space, and for regions to be properly defined.
The Senate Committee will issue its report on June 9.