Bursting the Canberra bubble pays its way

Decentralisation for regional economic gain Australian Farm Institute hears


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Regional Australia Institute chief executive Jack Archer.

Regional Australia Institute chief executive Jack Archer.

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Decentralisation benefits regional economy, AFI conference hears

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DECAMPING from the bush capital to a regional hub creates performance risk for a government agency but significant policy and economic benefits are on offer, the Australian Farm Institute (AFI) conference heard today.

Australia’s agricultural policy think tank, hosted a discussion on the benefits of decentralisation in Sydney today.

AFI executive director Mick Keogh said the conference’s subject matter is strategically selected, if not the location.

“Hopefully, the effect we have is like a pebble on a pond and create ripples that have positive impacts,” he said.

Regional Australia Institute chief executive Jack Archer explained how public service agency relocation could benefit public policy, expenditure regional economies.

“I want to move beyond the hysteria that surrounds particular agency movements and look at how to have strong regional centres and population growth.”

Relocating public service organisations to regional economies helps balance the distribution of public funds, which are currently centralised in big metropolitan centres, Mr Archer said.

There are significant opportunities, but decentralisation is only a small player among broader trends - Jack Archer

More than 80 per cent of the workforce is located in our largest cities. The public service spends four times more on wages in our largest cities than in regional areas.

On a per capita basis $1001 is spent on public sector wages in large cities, compared to $281 in the regions. For senior roles expenditure is 12 times more contracted in cities, with $436 spent per capita compared to ust $36 in the bush.

However, the influx of staff to a regional city, who may number in the hundreds, would not be a game-changer to the local economy.

“If we get changes right, there are significant opportunities, but decentralisation is only a small player among broader trends.”

The rosy story of decentralisation “we tell ourselves doesn't tell the whole story,” Mr Archer said.

“The idea that cities are going ahead, while there is regional decline to scrutiny.

“Our works shows the difference between regional and metropolitan growth is only international migration.

“If regional areas received 33pc of skilled international migration (as our large cities do) flows, population growth would be the same.”

The conference heard from AgriFutures managing director John Harvey, who oversaw the recent move of the agency formerly known as Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation from Canberra to Wagga Wagga in southern NSW.

He said AgriFutures would payback costs associated with the move from one year's worth of cost reduction driven by cheaper business costs at the regional location.

AgriFutures managing director John Harvey.

AgriFutures managing director John Harvey.

“It cost us $900,000 to move to Wagga Wagga. We have identified savings through rent and salaries and it looks we save $1.1 million,” he said.

Mr Harvey said his biggest concern for the move was finding good staff. Only three staff moved from Canberra, which left a dozen roles to fill.

But he was pleasantly surprised by the number of professionals who had moved back to the bush in their 30s for lifestyle reasons after starting corporate careers elsewhere.

“We were spoilt for choice by people with strong corporate backgrounds looking for jobs,” Mr Harvey said.

“In the whole move process this was the issue I was most nervous about, but it ended up being the least of my worries.”

Mr Harvey and Mr Archer said agencies benefit from moving staff and operations away from Canberra and into the communities impacted by the policies they administer.

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