Employment in the ACT

10 May 2017

Check against delivery

Madam Speaker it is my pleasure to speak in support of Ms Cheyne’s motion here today, and I thank her for moving it.

My colleagues in the Assembly will no doubt recall I recently moved a motion opposing the Federal Government’s decision to relocate the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority, the APVMA.

I spoke in opposition to what amounted to a pork-barrelling exercise, targeting Barnaby Joyce‘s electorate of New England.

In trying to move the APVMA to Armidale, the Federal Government has wasted $25.6 million in public money.

And what did we get for this price?

We’ve had 20 regulatory scientists and 28 staff members resign, taking with them 204 years’ of experience; and

The number of unfinished assessments have grown eleven times over in the space of a year.

Given this, perhaps we should have heralded the concerns of the agricultural chemical peak body CropLife, in a submission to the Senate inquiry stated the relocation posed “a real and genuine threat to the APVMA’s ability to perform its function and would cause delays for at least three years.”

You don’t need a cost benefit analysis to know that this apparent “trial” is a complete and utter failure that should be put to rest.

But rather than putting the “trial” down to bad judgement and moving on, the Liberal National Coalition is determined to expand on their error, requiring all departments justify why they should not be moved to regional areas.

Not content with the embarrassment caused by having 20 Australian Public Servants working out of a fast food restaurant, the tail of the coalition has once again wagged the dog.

The great myth of the virtues of decentralisation ignores the previous failed attempts we have made in Australia.

Just as we witnessed in the APVMA case, with staff refusing relocation packages and the resignation of the Chief Executive, similar problems were experienced when decentralisation of industry was attempted in the 1970’s.

If the Nationals had done their research on this, they would have understood they were setting themselves up for abject failure.

But should we be surprised by this lack of detail in policy development by the conservatives?

When asked for a response to a Productivity Commission report warning against the Federal Government’s decentralisation policy, the Hon Mr Joyce responded by saying “If you had a Productivity Commission report into Canberra back in 1900, they would have said don’t build Canberra.”

This gives some insight into the logic behind the policy formulation of the Coalition Government and why they are only too happy to repeat the mistakes of the past.

The leader of the Nationals believes that if you think what precedes your decision was a mistake, you have free reign to make another, even bigger one against all sound advice.

While we all sit here aghast at the way conservatives dream up policy, and the way in which the Federal counterparts of those opposite have bowed to the will of the Nationals, indeed, the former leader of the Canberra Liberals, Zed Seselja, sat idly in support of the APVMA Bill as it was passed in the Senate,

this was unsurprising given the Canberra Liberals themselves only managed to organise themselves to oppose this policy just last week, but while we sit here in stark disbelief, there is a very important point that this entire debate has missed.

A point that everyone from Miranda Devine and her inspired dalliance with a Kingston Foreshore socialite, to The Hon Mr Joyce with his sound policy logic have all missed.

The debate over the Turnbull Government’s decentralisation policy has failed to highlight that the original idea of Canberra is one of decentralisation.

Whether it be Canberra, Washington D.C., Brasilia, Abuja, or Islamabad, a purpose-built, planned national capital is intended to move the national parliament away from the major city centres.

Brazil moved its capital to a more neutral location to better balance the interests of its rural inland and industrial coastal regions.

Nigeria moved its capital from the major economic centre of Lagos to deal with congestion and to establish a capital with a greater mix of ethnicities.

Pakistan opted to change the location of its capital to make it more accessible to the nation as a whole.

And here in Australia, we decentralised our capital in order to achieve federation and to bring our nation into being.

While it is easy to dismiss the notion of Canberra as simply a solution to political gridlock, the benefits of a purpose-built capital far exceed that initial impetus.

A purpose built capital offers the opportunity to move the decision making process of national government away from the major centres.

This distance is intended to allow the machine of government to carry out the task of initiating, developing and implementing policy separately from the day to day functioning of the economy.

This distance, too, allows for economies of agglomeration to take shape around the government, as it clearly has here in the ACT.

Canberra functions as the National Capital, the Seat of Government and a City/State that is home to 400,000 Australians.

It also acts as a regional hub to the surrounding parts of NSW, offering employment, education, healthcare and social services to NSW residents.

Within these structures, the ACT has developed into a regional centre that specialises in governance and public administration, as any purpose-built capital is intended to.

Our educational institutions enable us to produce high quality graduates, ready to take on the public policy and administration challenges that face everyday Australians.

The ACT accommodates four universities, as well as an office of the Australian and New Zealand School of Government, unmatched by any other city of relative size in Australia.

Within these universities are schools and research centres such as the Institute for Research & Action in Public Health, the Crawford School of Public Policy, the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research, and the Centre for Gambling Research, all targeted towards designing better outcomes in public policy.

From the time our students leave these world class institutions, they are immersed in the world of public policy in one form or another.

Our graduates, and those graduates who arrive here from elsewhere, quickly learn detailed administration tasks such as the application process for the approval of active constituents and registration of agvet chemical products as our recently relocated friends at the APVMA do.

They develop an understanding of the how the various elements of departments, parliament and government combine to pass policy into law, and begin to implement it.

And, it may seem at times, that our graduates quickly acquire the ability to construct full sentences using only acronyms.

The specialist knowledge that our public servants develop is learned and expanded upon from the time one enters the public service to the time they retire.

Most public servants will know at least one old hand who took the entrance exam straight out of school and has devoted their entire working life to the service.

Sporting a haircut that went out of fashion many years ago, these individuals can recount countless tales of their time in the service.

The stories they share may be lost on some people as forlorn nostalgia; however they serve an incredibly important purpose.

They provide context, understanding, and history to public policy and the process of government.

The kind of background that, if listened to, prevents the mistake the Federal Government is so eager to make with its decentralisation policy.

It is this shared experience, this shared knowledge that a purpose-built capital creates and that enables a specialist workforce that is actively engaged in improving the lives of all Australians.

Carving departments and agencies out of Canberra and planting them in marginal electorates destroys this interconnectedness.

It destroys Canberra’s capacity to be a part of meaningful reform and outcomes that can take Australia forward.

Canberra isn’t just the national capital, it is the apparatus which facilitates the ongoing running of the country.

It is an island of faithful public servants, sharing stories and experiences that can further progress public policy outcomes.

It is a network of public sector professionals charged with the day to day running of the country.

To attack Canberra is to attack the provision of essential services to Australians everywhere.

To slice it up willingly, is to willingly deny Australians the best services we can offer.

To carry on decentralising agencies away from it, is to ensure we as a nation go backwards.

I again thank Ms Cheyne for moving this motion and implore the Assembly to support it because decentralisation is not the stuff of sound government, but the failed policy of a failing government.