More pork-barrelling with public service jobs

The Canberra Times is reporting that up to 250 jobs from the Australian Bureau of Statistics will be moved out of Canberra and sent to Geelong as part of a Victorian Coalition election promise. I joined 666 ABC Canberra to explain why pork-barrelling with public servants is bad news for effective national policymaking. Here's the transcript:

E&OE TRANSCRIPT

RADIO INTERVIEW

666 ABC CANBERRA

TUESDAY, 11 NOVEMBER 2014

SUBJECT/S: Tony Abbott’s pork-barrelling with public service jobs

PHILIP CLARK: The Government has announced plans that up to 250 public service jobs, this time from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, are to be shifted from Canberra to Geelong. The jobs are going from the Australian Bureau of Statistics which has most of its workforce based in the ACT, and a number of staff there have already been made redundant. There's a new so-called ABS Centre of Excellence for survey functions to be established in Geelong and opened in 2016, and 250 jobs are going to be moved out of Canberra to there to staff it. Andrew Leigh is the Federal Labor Member for Fraser and Shadow Assistant Treasurer, and he's on the line this morning. Andrew Leigh, good morning.

ANDREW LEIGH, SHADOW ASSISTANT TREASURER: Good morning Philip.

CLARK: Isn't Canberra supposed to be the centre for national bureaucracy?

LEIGH: Well absolutely. The thing that I find really shocking about this decision, Philip, is that it's just so nakedly political. It seems that Tony Abbott has looked over at Denis Napthine and said: 'you're behind in the polls, so here – let me give you 250 Canberra public service jobs to see if that will help out'. The crass arrogance of using public servants as pork-barrelling pawns is terrible for a great national institution. You go around the world and people are in admiration of the Australian Bureau of Statistics. They have led the world in terms of national income accounting, and on a range of metrics they are an excellent outfit. So then to be gutting the organisation, to be taking 250 jobs and just plonking them down the day before the caretaker period starts in Victoria, I find that shocking.    

CLARK: Look, there's been a lot of criticisms of cuts to the bureau anyway; it's a vital national resource. After all, if we can't accurately measure what's going on in the economy, we can't make sensible economic decisions. The Australian Bureau of Statistics is far more than counting heads; it's about making sure we've got the information on which to base critical decisions. But does it matter if it's disaggregated in that sense? I mean, we're all connected these days anyway by network systems, so does it matter if the bureau is disaggregated?

LEIGH: This comes down to one of those great 'death of distance' questions, Philip. One of the things that strikes me when talking to people in, say, the technology industry is that they talk about how even the IT sector and Silicon Valley is becoming more concentrated, rather than less. There's a great virtue in proximity – you rub shoulders with people and that serendipity leads to better ideas and to a better functioning system. So good organisations are housing themselves under a single roof, increasingly. If you were a corporation, you wouldn't be willy-nilly taking 250 people and just plonking them on the other side of the country, and the same holds true with the public service.

CLARK: Although I suppose if you were the Mayor of Geelong then you'd be talking to me this morning saying: 'you know what? We're an area of Australia that has contributed much through our industrial production and engineering over the years, all those jobs are going from here, Ford is going and we need jobs, why not share some of these around?'

LEIGH: Indeed, Philip. But the right lens through which to approach this is not through saying how many jobs is this in Geelong, how many jobs is this in Canberra? The right lens is to approach it through the national interest lens and say: do Australians benefit from a decision like this? Palpably there, the answer must be no. The Australian Bureau of Statistics is a key national resource. As you've said, it determines things like inflation, which sits behind a whole lot of business contracts; the unemployment rate – and there's been some controversy recently over ABS unemployment figures but I think they're doing a good job of getting to the bottom of that; and those key growth figures which tell us whether or not we're going into a recession. Not to mention a whole host of other standards of living indicators, including some that have been cut by the Coalition such as the Measures of Australian Progress and the Australian Tourism Survey, which was cut for a time. So all of that work is fundamentally in the national interest. ABS workers move from project to project and benefit from learning from one another by being in the same building and being able to have those team meetings across different groups. They just can't do that if you willy-nilly take 250 people out and plonk them a state away.

CLARK: There was a view – Robert Menzies probably espoused it best when he decided to put funds into the building of Canberra – that Canberra should be the centre of national administration. The great departments of state, Defence and Prime Minister and Cabinet and the economic portfolios should be here in Canberra. Does that extend right to the very edges of the public sector though? That everything needs to be here?

LEIGH: Clearly service delivery needs to be in regions, and occasionally there will be times when you will want to have part of the policy arms sitting in other places. But the fact is, Philip, it is not only a good Menzies tradition to have your capital city being the centre of government, but it is the way in which other countries which stand tall on the world stage do things. Frankly, they're not sitting there in London or Tokyo or Washington or Ottawa doing their best to try and rip government functions out of the capital cities and pork-barrel them across the country. Nations that want to walk tall on the world stage are nations that know there is a benefit to aggregating policy expertise in the national capital. It's just such a petty, small-minded decision by Tony Abbott. As you say, it is stepping away from the Menzies tradition but it is also really trying to prop up a desperate Napthine Government that has been a bad government, is behind in the polls and which Tony Abbott thinks he can help over the line by allocating some Canberra jobs there.

CLARK: Andrew Leigh is my guest, the Federal Member for Fraser and the Shadow Assistant Treasurer. I suppose one of the things that always occurs to me, and I'm sure many of our listeners too, when these things happen, is that granted, Geelong is an area badly in need of jobs and investment but there are other areas around Australia too which are similarly affected by economic change. Doubtless an injection of jobs is a good thing for Geelong. But you get similar job losses and cuts here – government-inspired – and no-one ever suggests moving jobs to Canberra, do they? 

LEIGH: Indeed. That's one of the real concerns I have. We've seen a recent property survey, for example, showing that Canberra is the only state or territory in Australia where prices are slipping backwards at the moment. That's a marker not of the Abbott Government deciding to invest in housing affordability in Canberra, but rather the fact that business confidence is in the doldrums in this town.

CLARK: Strangely, public servants have families too!

LEIGH: It turns out they are, indeed, human beings, and darn good ones too. The thing about the Bureau of Statistics folks is that maybe they're a little bit more introverted than some of the rest of us, probably not so ready to stand up and hold a rally. It's a bit like hacking into the CSIRO – when we spoke to a range of the CSIRO researchers they would just constantly say: 'look, I'm not political. I don't want to be a political pawn, I just want to get on with doing my job'. The bureau's very, very good at what they do and they should be left to formulate the best national statistics, on which good policies and good economic growth can be grounded.

CLARK: Ok, good to talk with you, Andrew. Thank you.

ENDS

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