Debates about Canberra’s identity and role are not new. In the past they involved the character of Canberra as a city, whether it had a soul, whether it was too reliant on the public service, whether it was too left-wing, whether it was too planned, and many others.
Many people don’t like Canberra, including some who know the city and many who don’t. They don’t want to live here and that is their business. The critics have been varied and have included Prince Philip, John Howard, author John Bryson, Diamond Jim McClelland, sportsmen and women who say our climate is too cold, ordinary citizens spread across the country who blame the nation’s ills on “Canberra”, and so on.
We’ve seen criticisms come and go. We either turn a blind eye or get angry. Most of us consider ourselves lucky to live here. Our political leaders and federal representatives can be relied upon to speak up in our defence. Then the issue goes away for a while. Cuts to the public service, which also come and go, are another thing. Canberra has also recently had to suffer prime ministers such as John Howard choosing to make their primary home elsewhere.
The latest range of arguments is somewhat new, however, and raises issues that deserve a national debate even if they are not yet being taken too seriously. However they do point to weaknesses in the place of Canberra in the national psyche. They involve the potential dismantling of Canberra. As such they raise the whole idea of what it means to be a national capital.
The main but not the only proponent has been Andrew Wilkie, the Independent member for Denison. He argues that the Commonwealth Public Service should be completely decentralised because “There is no logical reason why the ACT should be the centre of gravity for the federal public service.” He reckons that technology has reduced the need for a centralised workforce and is attracted to the economic benefits of decentralisation to the rest of the country, including especially his own state of Tasmania, which he says needs imported public service jobs most.
But Wilkie’s voice is not the only one. The Abbott government is flirting with decentralisation of public service jobs (though Senator Eric Abetz, the government’s public service minister, declares that the federal government will not threaten the status of Canberra as the home of the bureaucracy). Furthermore, other federal MPs have taken at least some of Wilkie’s lead, including Andrew Nikolic, Liberal federal member for Bass, who has a specific proposal about centralising credit-card processing functions in Tasmania, and Warren Entsch, the Liberal federal member for Leichhardt in northern Queensland. There will be more if the idea of eating away at Canberra catches on.
Canberra is a sitting duck for such proposals. Chief Minister Katy Gallagher and Opposition Leader Jeremy Hanson have rushed to Canberra’s defence in a display of spirited bipartisanship. Each makes good points about Canberra-bashing (Hanson) while warning against becoming too defensive (Gallagher).
The most persuasive arguments in Canberra’s defence will not be those that are seen as self-interested. The rest of Australia already see Canberra as well-off and will not buy arguments that Canberra citizens will be hurt by such proposals. Robbing Peter to pay Paul, by shifting public service employment to those parts of the country most in need, is illogical and very short-term thinking. But defending Canberra with such arguments will not win the day.
Canberra has only two seats in the House of Representatives and these are usually won by Labor. We have little political leverage of this or any other kind.
Decentralisation of government functions is not new. The bulk of the Commonwealth public service is located outside Canberra in the states and the Northern Territory, a fact that is not widely understood. Federal governments from time to time take the opportunity of further decentralisation, such as the building of the Joint Operations Command Defence facility on the King’s Highway near Bungendore in NSW.
The same pressures for decentralisation can apply at the state level. This led, for instance, to the relocation of the NSW Department of Agriculture from Sydney to Bathurst/Orange. Perhaps Wilkie should suggest to the Tasmanian government that it move the heart of the Tasmanian public service away from Hobart, in his electorate, to those other parts of Tasmania in greater need.
Ultimately the strongest arguments for Canberra should hinge on two things. First there are the matters of good government for the whole of Australia that Hanson made directly to Wilkie. These are arguments about efficiency and effectiveness that flow from having Commonwealth public service departments and agencies in physical proximity to one another and to the government. They can be made by ministers and politicians but are best made by public administrators. Senior Commonwealth public servants should enter this debate because surely it is within their bailiwick. If not current departmental secretaries then recently retired ones should speak up.
Secondly there is the equally important argument about what it means to have a national capital – which is not only the seat of government (including the public service) but also the home of national institutions, such as the High Court, the War Memorial and national cultural institutions. Such an argument should be conducted within the proposed state of the federation white paper, which should not be just about functional federal-state relations but about the national interest, including our national capital.
It is only within this twin framework that the genuine impact of technological development on government institutions, including even Parliament itself, should be considered.
John Warhurst is an emeritus professor of political science at the Australian National University.