Public service decentralisation just a political stunt? Let's hope so

One of the first reactions to the National party's announcement of its big public service decentralisation policy on Wednesday was to dismiss it as a political stunt, an empty promise to job-hungry regions from a desperate party that could never be practically implemented.

For the sake of the nation, leaving aside the fortunes of its capital city, we should all hope so.

The Nationals' policy neatly encapsulates the business model of the wave of populist politics sweeping much of the developed world: it promises a quick and simple fix to the complex problem of regional decline in the hope of a prompt electoral pay-off.

It is no coincidence it was wheeled out between the Prime Minister's nationalistic pitches to recapture votes lost to anti-immigration sentiment on the left and right.

Like much of the quick-fix policies that may come to define this political era, "decentralisation" ignores practical problems and seeks to kick the full brunt of the consequences of today's "solutions" into the future, where they will be someone else's concern.

The unfolding train wreck of the forced move of the pesticides authority to the heart of Barnaby Joyce's electorate tells the Nationals leader, his deputy Fiona Nash and everyone else all they need to know about how this policy would unfold on a larger canvass.


No responsible political leader, armed with the evidence we have seen emerge from the APVMA debacle, would seek to massively enlarge such a policy unless they knew it was unlikely ever to be enacted.

First the cost; if the conservative official estimate of $26 million to move an agency of fewer than 200 public servants to Armidale is correct, then the Australian taxpayer would be forking out more than $300 million for, say, shifting the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet to Alice Springs as has been absurdly suggested recently.

And that is just for the move.

Taxpayers are already paying many hundreds of millions of dollars for empty office space around Australia, the result of years of public service mismanagement and waste.

Liberal Finance Minister Mathias Cormann is finally, to his credit, getting on top of the problem.

But now the Nationals want to force the evacuation of perfectly good and very expensive buildings in Canberra and other large Australian cities, leaving taxpayers paying for new ones to be built in regional Australia, while continuing to be slugged vast sums for decades for the office blocks left behind.

This is not speculative, it is happening with the APVMA, although thankfully the authority's lease on a purpose-built Symonston building expires in 2020, a year after its occupants are due to move north.

Are Mr Cormann and The Prime Minister simply to wave this madness through? Common sense says no, but desperate politicians take desperate measures.

Then there is the damage to the fabric of the national administration, with the pesticides authority disaster again offering a neat map of the road to ruin.

The evidence makes it clear that it will take years for the APVMA to recover its full capacity to do its job, if it ever does, after the loss of most of its frontline scientists, who simply refuse to make the move.

The prospect of such a situation confronting large departments with, say, national security functions would be laughable if it was not so alarming.

So the Commonwealth of Australia can withstand a political stunt by its ruling parties, we've seen plenty of those, but it cannot afford for this reckless policy to come to pass.