Article – Northern cities beckon bureaucrats

7 July 2014
Phillip Thomson
Canberra Times
Sun-soaked cities at the top of Australia are crying out for Canberra’s federal bureaucrats to be relocated to the nation’s north.
Regional centres in northern Australia are energetically lobbying the federal government to decentralise the bureaucracy, which, at the moment, keeps 40 per cent of its 160,000-strong workforce in the ACT. The City of Townsville has even suggested limiting public service jobs offered in Canberra, faster career progression for bureaucrats who move north and the introduction of regional graduate programs.
The Abbott government has already indicated it is open to the idea and, if successful, it could mean some public servants moving more than 4000 kilometres. Already there are plans to disperse the Commonwealth public service workforce to boost regional economies. At least 600 will be moved to the central coast, while investigations are under way with a view to relocating others to Tasmania.
The Federal Parliament’s inquiry into the development of northern Australia is now dealing with requests from places such as Townsville and Cairns in Queensland, Kununurra in West Australia and Darwin.
The inquiry’s chairman, Warren Entsch, whose Leichhardt electorate takes in the top of Queensland, said he would love a public servant to be his neighbour.
“The house prices are a hell of a lot more affordable here than in Canberra and we don’t have the gas bills in winter,” Mr Entsch said on Thursday after the prospect of importing bureaucrats was again raised at another meeting. This time it was at Weipa, near the northernmost tip of Queensland, where locals said more federal quarantine and indigenous civil servants should be based.
“Given the choice, I don’t think you’ll find we have to force people here – we’d have no problem recruiting the numbers we require,” Mr Entsch said.
Cities such as Townsville and Cairns say they are the logical choice for a bigger Commonwealth presence. In its submission, the City of Townsville, which has been dealing with decade-high unemployment figures this year, argued it should be home to south-east Asia and Pacific trade policy experts from the Department of Foreign Affairs. The submission said its proximity to Papua New Guinea and other countries would facilitate more regional trade.
Already there were about 1500 federal public servants in Townsville, with the submission noting the overwhelming majority were classified APS 2 to 6, while most executives were in Canberra. The submission said there were five bureaucrats in Townsville working on federal infrastructure, transport and regional portfolios. It said Townsville would be more relevant for public servants dealing with tourism, energy and resources, and Townsville’s business chamber ranked the relocation of public servants as the second most important economic stimulus behind increasing the area’s power supply.
Mr Entsch said proposals to relocate public servants were “not about picking up half of Canberra and moving it to northern Australia” but more about permanently shifting satellite groups of workers. The benefit for policymakers was they would have a deeper knowledge of the north, which was very different to southern Australia in terms of climate, geography and economy. He said it was easy for the bureaucracy in the south to make incorrect assumptions. Cairns Regional Council suggested some support functions for Defence were based in southern Australia, even though they were related to operations in the north.
“With a growing research and teaching capacity at James Cook University, benefits may also accrue to Defence from the relocation of its malaria and dental units to Cairns to capitalise on the growing local research capability,” the Cairns submission said.
It also suggested it would be the best home for others, including some from Customs, the CSIRO and the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service. Kennedy MP Bob Katter, who was not on the committee of inquiry, said he was supportive of the idea because having all the power centralised in Canberra was counterproductive. Mr Katter said the biggest challenge would be not disrupting the lives of relocated public servants. “You need to do it with the policy of attrition,” he said.
Courtesy of the Canberra Times