THE National Farmers’ Federation (NFF) says it backs a methodical approach to decentralising government agencies and departments into regional areas - but to date that approach has been “sorely lacking”.
NFF President Fiona Simson said Nationals Deputy Leader and Regional Development Minister Fiona Nash’s new and broader decentralisation agenda for the Coalition government - announced yesterday during her National Press club address in Canberra - was “refreshing”.
But amid the controversy of relocating the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA) from Canberra to Armidale, despite staunch industry opposition, the NFF issued a thinly veiled warning about any future moves.
“The NFF is a strong proponent of government departments and agencies becoming unshackled from city confines – when a methodical approach is applied – which to do date, has been sorely lacking,” Ms Simson said.
“We welcome Minister Nash’s plan for the completion of business cases to help determine a government department’s suitability to move to the regions and we look forward to learning more about what will deem an agency suitable for decentralisation.
“Obviously we acknowledge the fact that the parliament is located in Canberra and the respective departments do the work of government so of course there is logic to proximity and we wouldn’t support the relocation of an agency just for relocation’s sake.
“Farmers will want to make sure there is a strong business case and the effectiveness of the bureaucratic process is not going to suffer as a result of any proposed move.”
Senator Nash said by mid-year she would consult with others to create the criteria for government ministers to assess which departments, functions and entities in their portfolio were suited to decentralisation.
She said all portfolio ministers would be required to report back to the federal cabinet by August on which of their departments, functions or entities were suitable.
“Departments will need to actively justify if they don't want to move, why all or part of their operations are unsuitable for decentralisation,” she said.
“The Minister for Finance will, in consultation with others, develop a template for business cases for decentralisation to ensure a consistent approach across government.
“Relevant ministers will be required to report to cabinet with those robust business cases for decentralisation by December.”
The NFF also welcomed Senator Nash’s plans to attract more big business to regional Australia with Ms Simson saying her template for decentralisation for corporate entities to the regions was supported by the farm sector.
Ms Simson said it was about time more people understood and recognised the benefits of regional living.
“Regionally-based Australians, including farmers, have long enjoyed the perks of working in, raising families in, and being a part of vibrant regional communities,” she said.
“I think it’s overdue that we disclose this to our fellow Australians.
“We've already seen the establishment of strong regional hubs such as Toowoomba, and I think there is huge potential to continue developing other hubs in regional centres as well as build on schemes such as ‘Evocities’ to change perceptions of life in a regional city and to encourage people to live, work and invest in regional Australia.
“To make this work we must have strategic investment in relevant infrastructure, such as transport links and inland ports, value adding capacity via public-private investment partnerships – all underpinned by increased market-access opportunities.”
Ms Simson said the government had a large role to play in facilitating equity for regional services in areas like health, education and communication – but the potential for corporate prosperity to contribute was also “significant”.
She said farmers had a strong vested interest in seeing that their communities remained vibrant, viable and prosperous.
“Overall the plans outlined by Minister Nash today are refreshing and something we actively support,” she said.
“They appear to have the potential to help revitalise our regional towns and cities, to attract new skills, and to increase opportunities and incentives for young people, born and raised in the bush, to return to their home towns.”
Regional Australia Institute (RAI) CEO Jack Archer said it was time the metropolitan monopoly on Australian Public Service (APS) jobs and public power came to an end.
He said the federal government’s decentralisation program was on the back of the RAI’s research indicating that on a per capita basis, the APS spends four times more on wages in big cities than in regions.
“This is hardly a surprise given that 83 per cent of APS jobs are currently located in the big cities,” he said.
“Those located elsewhere are generally lower paid with little influence over government policies impacting regional Australians.”
The RAI CEO said he housing affordability crisis - particularly in the metropolitan strongholds of Sydney and Melbourne - clearly demonstrated the need for government to look beyond the city and out into the regions.
Mr Archer said concentrating public service employment in inner city areas only increased the affordable housing problem.
He said it also meant well paid and interesting careers in the public service were limited to those Australians who can afford to live there.
In France, Finland, Ireland and the UK, the decentralisation of the public service has led to reduced inflationary pressures in the property and labour markets of capital cities, he said.
Mr Archer said there was no reason the same could not be achieved in Australia.
“For every additional 100,000 Australians who choose to live in regional rather than capital cities, the RAI estimates around $42 billion dollars will be released into the economy over the next 30 years through reduced interest payments on mortgages alone,” he said.
However, Mr Archer said the government must show caution before rushing “headfirst” into a one-size-fits-all policy position on decentralisation.
He said the costs of change and disruption to public services occur in the first few years and the benefits take longer.
“If we make a change we need to stick to it - a 10-year, bipartisan strategy is needed to ensure this policy strengthens and secures our national economy and social infrastructure in the long term,” he said.
“Relocation is not always an effective response to economic problems in regional Australia.
“It can alleviate local economic weakness in the short term, but if the decision is reversed in the future it leaves regional centres high and dry with a gaping hole in the housing and labour markets.
“Whatever path the government takes, it needs to consider regional Australia as an equal to our big cities in driving our national economy.
“Our national leaders should reject this false choice of city over country and see our regions as equal partners in our housing and labour markets.”