The defence of Canberra as the public service capital should be much louder


The city of Canberra is vulnerable to a number of threats. Some of them we share with other Australian cities, but others are specific to the national capital. We are a growing city, now in its second century, but the threats remain. Some are rooted in politics, economics and demographics but others are a state of mind among Australians generally.

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My response to criticisms of Canberra is generally to roll with the punches because many of them are superficial, but the three-pronged bad news last week relating to employment in Canberra could not be shrugged off. The Canberra Times asserted that the city "suffered three major body blows to its position as the centre of Australia's public administration".

The news in question related to present and future employment difficulties. The immediate difficulty arose from further cuts to six of Canberra's national cultural institutions because of federal government efficiency dividends. The two prospective difficulties were flagged by two of the most powerful figures in our national public life.

John Fraser, the head of the Treasury, told an Estimates hearing that his department was trying to put in place structures that would make Melbourne or Sydney a viable base for some deputy secretaries and other top staff.

Barnaby Joyce, since confirmed as Nationals leader and Deputy Prime Minister, continued his push to decentralise staff from certain federal government authorities to regional centres around Australia. He did so flippantly, but is still not to be taken lightly.


So at the same time we have a senior public service leader worried that prospective candidates for senior government positions may not want to come to live and work in Canberra while a senior political leader proposes forced relocation away from Canberra for other government jobs.

Their arguments deserve attention but at their heart they are inconsistent. Fraser and Joyce are talking a different language. Fraser is concerned about recruitment and issues associated with the voluntary decision by a family to come to Canberra. He was reported as saying that:

"For family reasons, in particular, moving to Canberra is a big issue for both men and women, but particularly I've found so far for women."

Joyce seems utterly unconcerned with the recruitment and retention of staff. Presumably if Fraser is correct that moving to Canberra is a big issue for men and women, then relocating to Wagga Wagga, Toowoomba, Armidale or Dubbo from Canberra is just as big an issue for professional staff. I know it is for university staff, having worked in Armidale at the University of New England. Dual careers in the one family, in particular, pose serious mobility problems for some families and that certainly applies to regional centres and to some extent to Canberra as well, including the ANU.

Our ACT senators, public sector union officials and the heads of the cultural institutions have all jumped to the defence of the national capital. Joyce's aspirations were roundly condemned as political pork-barrelling. Unfortunately that motivation drives more of our politics, including submarine construction, than we readily admit, so it might be water off a duck's back to the political class.

Decentralisation of public servants is not just attractive to some federal politicians but has also driven decentralisation of some state government departments to regional cities. But decentralisation advocates should be reminded that the Commonwealth public service is already a great driver of decentralisation, because the bulk of federal public servants are not based in Canberra. Canberra itself is also an important element of national decentralisation away from the big metropolitan population concentrations on the coast.

Fraser's comments deserve equal scrutiny because, if they are allowed to apply to Treasury, then slowly but surely they will apply to other senior government appointments. More and more senior public servants will be FIFO appointments or will live permanently in Sydney, Melbourne or other capitals.

To be convincing the response from defenders of Canberra should not rely on arguments that seem merely self-interested defence of the status quo. Anything like that will not receive a sympathetic hearing either from the political class or from the Australian public, many of whom have only a slight commitment to the idea and/or the reality of Canberra.

Any response should also recognise that neither Fraser nor Joyce is a lone voice. The idea that senior professionals won't come to Canberra can be heard in the non-government sector too. For instance, when the National Catholic Education Commission moved from Canberra to Sydney recently a supposedly better pool of candidates was one of the motivations. And there are many government backbenchers spread around the country who would love to bag some more federal public servants for their electorate, by hook or by crook.

A convincing defence of Canberra is already under way but should be much louder. Senator Katy Gallagher has pointed to the role of the national capital as the seat of government and the role of the public service in supporting the work of the elected government.

There is a strong argument for a unified career public service whose senior ranks are based together in Canberra in close proximity to government and parliament. It is an argument that the great nation-building public servants of the past who made Canberra their home believed in. But it is an argument that has to be made again and again.

There will always be those who choose to work elsewhere and whose circumstances or aspirations prevent them from joining this nation-building project. That is their choice. There will always be critics who want to tear down the national capital for their own reasons too. Let's hope they don't prevail.

John Warhurst is an emeritus professor of political science at the Australian National University.


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