The Bush Capital Shouldn’t Go Bush
Canberra Chronicle, 2 May
Earle Page may not have been Prime Minister for long, but his shrewd advocacy for Canberra merits him a proud place in our city’s story. Faced with a Canberra-bashing MP, Page invited the man to visit from Western Australia for a weekend. They went trout fishing one night (the visitor caught three large ones), hare shooting the next morning, and quail shooting in the afternoon. After that, Page recalled, the MP became a Canberra enthusiast.
Canberra’s advocates have found different things to love about the nation’s capital. Andrew Fisher championed the art collection. Joseph Lyons believed a ‘young country’ needed a great National Library. John Curtin enjoyed the fact that Canberra left governments less vulnerable to special interests. Robert Menzies initiated the annual Prime Minister's XI cricket match, and aimed to 'build up Canberra as a capital in the eyes and minds of the Australian people'.
Telling the proud history of Canberra isn’t just a matter of civic pride – it’s critical to ensuring that the national purpose of our city isn’t eroded. The decision to relocate the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority will cost taxpayers more, produce worse scientific outcomes, and disrupt hundreds of staff. Since 2013, one in 13 federal public servants have lost their jobs – a virtual decimation of the national bureaucracy. Now, the successors of Earle Page and Robert Menzies are telling departments that they have to justify staying in Canberra.
Already, six out of ten federal public servants live outside Canberra. But the policy role needs to be in the national capital for the simple reason that proximity produces better outcomes. If you like efficiency and joined-up government, you should love Canberra. Recently, a friend told me the story of how she had solved a problem that crossed departments. The solution came on the soccer field, where the two public servants played in a local tournament. It saved taxpayer money, and would never have happened if the departments had been located in different towns. Enough bashing the bush capital.