For just over a century, the public service has been building capital city monoliths to centralise power, decision-making and policy direction at the expense of the very people they are meant to serve.
They have become increasingly removed from many communities their policies have a direct impact on and are increasingly devoid of practical understanding and empathy of the plight of rural and regional areas being marginalised at a greater speed than any time since the arrival of the First Fleet.
Governments have willingly engaged in feeding an insatiable and unhealthy appetite of bureaucratic chiefs that has left many country towns gutted of people, skills and social cohesion.
The public service has seemingly thought nothing in closing offices, depots and workshops in those communities where the loss of a handful of jobs creates more than a ripple effect on the local economy that in the “big smoke” that would go largely unnoticed.
It’s been running like this since the early days of World War One when the metropolitan-country population ratio started swinging to the capital cities and now accounts for around 75 per cent of people trying to eke out a living in metropolitan areas, clogging freeways and public transport and creating an urban sprawl that those same public servants over the decades have failed to plan and deliver infrastructure to support.
Decentralisation was the saviour of many countries towns when gold became unprofitable early in the twentieth century. It was at the heart of a booming Australian manufacturing industry that brought parallel economic success as the nation rode on the sheep’s back after World War II.
Zealous economic rationalists consigned policies supporting decentralisation to the dustbin until a few brave politicians had a light-bulb moment, swallowed a brave pill and thought, hey, let’s move parts of the bureaucracy back to the country.
Wow! Public servants have often exploded at the prospect of being sent bush, actually being part of a community where people not only know you but also engage in conversation, where civilisation also has telephones, internet as reliable as any connection under the NBN regime and roads that connect.
Not a thought or care when for country towns when they have axed jobs but how dare the public service be moved to the country. Hypocrisy at its worst.
This week, chief executive officer of the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority Dr Chris Parker decided a unit of specialist scientists and decision makers will continue to work from the office in Canberra while other public servants are moved to Armidale in regional NSW.
He said: “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. 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.”
Or to put it simply, let’s find reasons to keep as many as possible in Canberra.
Success in the decentalisation of government departments has been hit and miss. Moves to transfer Victoria’s agriculture department into the regions some years ago was scuttled by political bickering and elections while that state’s TAC has made the most of now being in Geelong, the largest regional city albeit likely to be totally joined with metropolitan Melbourne by urban sprawl projected over the next 20 years.
Former National party whip and minister Damien Drum, the MP for Murray, based on Shepparton and the Goulburn Valley, had a short and sharp message for public service opponents of decentralisation this week.
They can either agree to move to a regional city or they can start their own business and leave the public sector altogether, said Mr Drum who chaired a committee into decentralisation that recommended regional locations be considered when a new government agency is created or an agency needs to be relocated due to changes to property leases:
‘As much as we understand and respect the work that public servants do, they cannot dictate to a government – whether it be a state government, or whether it be a federal government – where those jobs must be,” he was quoted in regional media.
“If they want to dictate the location of positions, they can go and start their own business. That way they can dictate where they live and where they work.
“If you want to take a role in the public service, you take that role where it exists.”
Any brave government would be wise to stock up on brave pills and be ready to adhere to such a policy.
Australians may then again have a rounded and informed understanding of city and country life, respecting the differences and acknowledging that not all wisdom resides in the capital cities and along the eastern seaboard.
And better still, that building the economic and social capacity of regional communities can contribute to easing the pressure on the big cities now face in housing affordability, transport and infrastructure catch-up.
Chris Earl is a rural and regional consultant.
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