When Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce held a media conference on Thursday to extol the virtues of ‘decentralising’ government departments, one of the tougher questions was whether the exercise was ‘pork barreling’.
Well of course it is – shifting hundreds or even thousands of well-paid jobs to the regions will win the National Party plenty of votes, though Mr Joyce denied any such motive.
But either way, the policy merits serious consideration.
The 85 per cent of Australians crammed into our capital cities spend far too much time wondering if Australia is ‘full’, given the groaning state of much urban infrastructure and sky-high house prices.
Meanwhile, youngsters continue to drift away from regional centres, leaving key jobs unfilled, sometimes for years.
Creating a critical mass of middle-income workers in regional centres not only moves jobs out of Canberra, but helps create a virtuous cycle. Businesses or other services set up to cater for the influx of public servants can make moving there more attractive to other city types thinking of relocating.
One thing Mr Joyce clarified is that no “whole departments” would be sent to the bush. Rather, sections of departments would be relocated where it made sense to do so.
That’s a softer line than the one delivered to the National Press Club on Wednesday by Regional Development Minister Fiona Nash, who challenged department chiefs to “actively justify … why all, or part, of their operations are unsuitable for decentralisation”.
Ms Nash’s comments brought a swift rebuke from The Canberra Times. Its editorial called the plan an “all-out attack on Canberra” and “a blueprint for misadventure with potential to backfire on the government, damage its public sector and gut Canberra’s core workforce”.
Well fair enough – they’re reflecting their readers’ desire to protect the city they love.
However, most taxpayers don’t live in Canberra, and residents of Albury-Wodonga, Geraldton, Townsville or Dubbo are just as keen to see tax-funded jobs propping up their towns.
Besides, Mr Joyce said, Canberra is a city that will continue to grow regardless: “Never lose sight of the fact that the vast majority of funds are still going to be spent in Canberra.”
Build it and they will come
There’s nothing very new about moving government spending into the regions.
The headquarters for the National Disability Insurance Scheme, for instance, was set up in Geelong by the Gillard government to give the troubled city a leg up as its auto manufacturing wound down.
In the UK the same principle was used to breath life into dying industrial centres such as Liverpool, Newcastle and Birmingham in the 1990s.
The ‘forced’ nature of public spending means that it’s guaranteed to inject money and people wherever it is directed, an create new jobs for locals as well.
The incentive flop
Labor tried a different approach during the Gillard years, by offering grants to young Australians who moved to regional areas, found a job, and stayed for a prescribed time.
The scheme was a flop, because in the absence of the kind of ‘critical mass’ described above, only a handful of city folk wanted to go.
Relocating work previously done in Canberra, therefore, can only help make the regions more attractive to denizens of more over-crowded cities, particularly Melbourne and Sydney.
Public servants hate the idea, of course, and will argue, as The Canberra Times has done, that departments will not perform as well spread across the country.
On the other hand, very few countries concentrate their federal governments into an artificially created ‘capital’ like Canberra in the first place.
Most large private-sector companies operate across numerous sites.
And large numbers of employees across Australia, whether in the private sector or in public service delivery such as healthcare or education, are routinely told their jobs are moving elsewhere.
Australia is the emptiest, most urban-concentrated nation on the planet, with among the highest house prices to boot.
That’s why, even if it is pork-barreling, spreading the one-third of final-demand controlled by the government around a bit more makes sense.
Disclosure: The author spends around half his time at his permanent home in regional Victoria.