Moving public servants from Sydney and Melbourne, but not Canberra, helps everyone

Canberra is and will continue to be the centre of government administration for the Commonwealth. While it's understandable that Canberrans are concerned when the Nationals talk about decentralisation, we shouldn't lose sight of the fundamental reasons why it makes sense for government administration to be conducted from Canberra.

It makes financial sense and is by far the most efficient and effective way of delivering government administration. This is not just because of the massive investment in bricks and mortar to house government (and the efficiencies that go with it) but also the significant expertise and skill sets that have built up in the capital and its institutions since the 1950s, when most public service agencies began to be headquartered here.

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Quite simply, Canberra is good at the business of government because it was set up for it. This can't be easily replicated elsewhere.

Ministers of all political persuasions see this benefit close up in the day-to-day work of their departments. This isn't about to change. With Parliament House in the centre, ministers want easy access to the best policy, program and regulatory advice. In Canberra, they get it.

This is not to say that all aspects of government administration happen in Canberra. More than 60 per cent of federal government employees (about 70 per cent if you include defence personnel) work outside the capital. It is appropriate for Centrelink, Medicare, customs, quarantine and all sorts of other frontline functions to have a presence outside the ACT.

It's also a fact that our large capital cities, such as Sydney and Melbourne, house thousands of federal government staff. Here, the case for decentralisation becomes much stronger. With house prices shutting many ordinary workers out of owning their own home, and congestion forcing too many to spend hours commuting each day, the prospect of moving some of these workers to regional areas makes sense.


In her media statement on the subject on Wednesday, Regional Development Minister Fiona Nash rightly cited the congestion issues in Sydney and Melbourne as part of the case for decentralisation. An APS level 6 employee earning about $80,000 a year, struggling to pay the rent, a long way from owning their own home and spending hours commuting in Sydney, is likely to see significant benefit in moving to a regional centre where they can earn the same money but afford to buy a home and enjoy a short commute.

These compelling personal reasons, coupled with the fact that the Commonwealth, as a proportion of the workforce in Sydney and Melbourne, is a fraction of what it is in Canberra, means resistance in those cities is likely to be minimal or non-existent. As an example, in NSW, its 56,000 federal public servants account for about 1.5 per cent of its total workforce, and Victoria's 47,000 make up about 1.5 per cent of that state's workforce.

The example of the relocation of the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority demonstrates the cost and difficulty of moving even a relatively small number of public servants out of Canberra, particularly where there is a strong resistance.

The relative costs of office space between Sydney and Canberra are also a factor in favour of moves out of Sydney. Sydney, for example, has an average net effective rental rate of $545 per square metre compared to Canberra's $288 (Colliers International Edge, 2017).

This indicates that any move of public service offices from a city such as Sydney would potentially provide savings to the Commonwealth (or, at the very least, be much more cost-effective than similar moves out of Canberra), whereas moves out of the ACT will, in many cases, be prohibitively expensive.

Given the cost to government and the employment profile of our capital cities, any proposal to relocate public service agencies to regional areas should naturally focus on offices based in other metropolitan cities where the economic impact is far less significant and savings to government more apparent.

Indeed, on Thursday, Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce reiterated the point that Canberra will continue to be the centre of government policy development, and that major departments will stay here.

To the extent that there are proposals to move significant parts of agencies or departments out of the ACT, I will, on behalf of all Canberrans, forcefully make the case against. I have done so in the past when I successfully fought to keep 2000 Department of Social Service jobs in Tuggeranong and about 4000 Immigration jobs in Belconnen. I will continue to do so because it's in the best interests of Canberra, but also the best interests of efficient and effective government for all Australians.

Zed Seselja is the ACT's Liberal senator.