The Bush Capital


Wednesday 22 March 

I rise to speak on the many virtues of Australia's Bush Capital, a city which is, according to the OECD, the most liveable region in the OECD. It is a great privilege to represent the north side of Canberra, the electorate formerly known as Fraser and now known as Fenner, after the great Australian scientist Frank Fenner. With community volunteers, we organised a 'Clean up Yerrabi Pond' afternoon last Saturday and were pleasantly surprised at the number of locals who turned out to assist us with making that part of Canberra just a little cleaner.

I would like to acknowledge my staff, Nick Terrell, Eleanor Robson, Lillian Hannock, Jacob White, Nick Green and Taimus Werner-Gibbings, and the many volunteers, including Rob and Robin Eakin and Gerry Lloyd, plus other community volunteers, who helped us not only to pick up some of the garbage that had been strewn on the ground there but also—after we had washed our hands—to cook a barbecue for the community. It was a reminder of the strong community spirit that exists in Canberra and the Gungahlin area in general and Yerrabi Pond in particular. One of the things I love about Yerrabi Pond is it is a terrific spot take the kids with its flying foxes and state-of-the-art play areas. It is also the start area for the Gungahlin parkrun. I know that my colleague Ross Hart has recently spoken about the virtues of parkruns. This parkrun is very well attended and certainly one that I have enjoyed running in the past.

But Canberra in general is home to the highest quality of living worldwide, according to data from Numbeo, the world's largest database of user generated content. That research website ranks Canberra first on its quality-of-life index, which takes into account purchasing power, pollution, cost of living, safety, health care and climate index. Over the past seven years, it is the fifth time that Canberra has finished in first place. Sometimes this is a surprise to outsiders, but it is not to those of us who live here and understand the great cultural, sporting and community strength that is Canberra's.

Canberra will soon wrap up the Versailles: Treasures from the Palace exhibition at the National Gallery of Australia. It is an exhibition which is only travelling to Canberra and an extraordinary opportunity to see the excesses of Versailles, which played no small part in precipitating the French Revolution. My son Sebastian and I very much enjoyed spending time there, as indeed have tens of thousands of visitors. It is just one of the successful art exhibitions that have come to Canberra recently. These include the History of the World in 100 Objects exhibition, which, according to the Director of the National Museum of Australia, Mathew Trinca, has welcomed more than 128,000 visitors. Indeed, the exhibition saw its one millionth visitor during its Canberra showing. It is the National Museum of Australia's most successful exhibition to date, surpassing the 2010 Yiwarra Kuju Canning Stock Route exhibition.

Of course, culture does not just come in the form of the high arts. Canberrans were so enthusiastic to see Midnight Oil perform at the AIS Arena in October that tickets sold out in just 30 minutes flat. It is no surprise that Canberrans are keen for Midnight Oil, because it was a group formed in the 1970s when Peter Garrett was studying at the Australian National University. Indeed, I remember Peter telling me about the share-house he had on Limestone Avenue where, on the last night before moving out, they had a bonfire in the backyard which ended up being a little bigger than they expected because, by the end of the night, the entire broken down paling fence had been added to the bonfire. And, of course, the Doug Anthony All Stars were formed on the streets of Canberra in the 1980s and have held successful shows here. Canberrans love their live music.

On the sporting front, Canberra is home to the great Australian Institute of Sport, which has seen a range of sports stars, including marathon runner Rob de Castella. I would like to take a moment to acknowledge the Canberra Sports Award winners: San Antonio Spurs guard, Patty Mills, named Canberra Milk Athlete of the Year, Men's Sport; Olympic Gold Medal rower, Kim Brennan, named Capital Chemist Athlete of the Year Women's Sport; and Paralympic cycling medallist, Sue Powell, named Athlete of the Year, Para Sport. Sue and I met up last year for a run-ride photo opportunity by the shores of Lake Burley Griffin, and I can confidently report to the House that she rides a good deal faster than I can sprint. We also recognise as one of our own, tennis player Nick Kyrgios—certainly one of Australia's most interesting athletes. On the playing field, the Canberra Raiders had a stellar 2016 season, falling agonisingly short of a grand final berth. So Canberra's sporting prowess can be seen right across the board.

Last year Canberrans also showed their progressive values through re-electing Labor members in the federal election for the lower house, in Gai Brodtmann and me, and, in the upper house, in Senator Gallagher. And, in a historic re-election victory, Canberra Labor was re-elected for four more years, showing a clear mandate for light rail. Members and senators would, as they travel around Canberra, be aware of the light rail construction that is now underway—phase 1 linking Gungahlin to the city, but future phases will naturally build this out into a wider network. The world's leading cities are all investing in public transport, recognising that it is a way to ensure that we do not have our streets choked with congestion—and Canberra is doing just that.

As a result of that election, the ACT now has the first-ever female majority parliament, making it the first female parliamentary majority in Australian political history. The 25-member assembly can take great credit for this progressive move. Indeed, it reflects the progressive values of Canberra. Canberra is also the first jurisdiction in Australia to be led by an openly gay parliamentarian, in Andrew Barr. As Labor member Chris Steel, the second-ever openly gay person to be elected to the ACT parliament, has noted, Chief Minister Barr's 'hard-won path' meant that things were easier for others as they ran for office.

The ACT's progressive values are also seen in the ACT's strong commitment to renewables. The ACT is currently on track to be fully powered by renewables by 2020. That has meant that the ACT has seen significant jobs growth in the renewable sector. Jobs growth in the ACT renewable energy sector in the past six years has been 12 times faster than the national average and six times higher than in any other state or territory. The ACT government has invested $12 million into a renewable energy industry development strategy. Members will be aware, for example, of the solar farm on the side of the Majura Parkway, and also of the wind farm outside Canberra which serves the ACT region. It is another reminder that investing in renewables not only reduces our carbon emissions and brings down the long-term cost of energy but also creates renewable jobs. It is a progressive, sensible measure from a progressive, engaged jurisdiction.

Canberrans have always been naturally internationalist. Australian National University Vice-Chancellor Brian Schmidt said that he could not have won the Nobel Prize in physics without the natural international inclination of the ACT, a jurisdiction where people think of themselves very often as being citizens of the world, where they are interested in what is going on elsewhere and where they are committed to open engagement, whether that is a commitment to trade, to migration, to investment or, indeed, to travel. The opening of Canberra airport to international flights through Singapore Airlines, linking Canberra up with Wellington and Singapore, has been an important step. Indeed, we can look forward, I hope, over coming years, to other international carriers connecting Canberra up to the rest of the world. Canberrans like travel and its benefits of broadening the mind, and of course they love coming home to the most livable city in Australia.

Yet all that livability and those great achievements in culture and sport and in progressive values are so rarely recognised by the Liberals. We have seen, since the Liberals came to office, massive cutbacks on the federal Public Service. When Labor was in office, we saw Public Service numbers rise, year-on-year, in every year under Labor, except for the final year, in which they fell by a couple of hundred. Public Service numbers rose under Labor because, as the population increases, you naturally need more public servants in order to do the job. Most public servants are involved in service delivery—things like Customs and Centrelink and family assistance officers—so it makes sense that the Public Service should modestly expand as the population modestly expands.

But, in contrast to that steady growth in Public Service numbers under Labor, we have had massive cuts in the Public Service since the coalition came to office. We had a promise that there would be no more than 12,000 Public Service jobs cut, but indeed there have been considerably more jobs than that cut from the Public Service. The lie that the Liberals will tell is that these Public Service job cuts were implemented under Labor, but it is simply not true, as I have told the House. Public Service numbers under Labor rose every year, year upon year. And for people like conservative Senator Zed Seselja to suggest that there is a secret plan for job cuts is simply not true. Labor increased the Public Service in line with the population; the Liberals cut the Public Service, more than decimating Public Service job numbers.

Malcolm Turnbull, the member for Wentworth, has continued to be just as fixated on attacking the national capital as his predecessor, Tony Abbott, the member for Warringah. They have looked to cut the Public Service—to rip jobs out of the Public Service. The worst offender on this has been Deputy Prime Minister Joyce.

Deputy Prime Minister Joyce has announced a plan to move the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority out of Canberra. There are many reasons to think that this is a terrible idea. One of the first is an independent cost-benefit analysis which found that the agricultural industry could lose up to $193 million a year, in part because the recruitment of new regulatory scientists to approve key agricultural chemicals could take up to five years. Most of those who work at the pesticides authority have said that they are reluctant to relocate to Armidale. That could well mean that the agency is unable to keep up with the rate of new product approvals. That would mean significant losses in crop values and for the chemical industry. It could mean the exit of key chemical companies from the Australian market. It could mean damage is done as the result of diseases to not only farm animals but also household pets. Yet the benefits are not there.

The independent report commissioned by the government says there is no material economic benefit of the agency being in Armidale rather than in Canberra. The government bypassed parliamentary approval of the relocation using extraordinary regulations to make the move happen. The result will be the loss of 365 jobs in Canberra and $4.4 million in costs to replace staff plus training costs; the agency not being able to relocate, recruit or replace key executives; reduced access to stakeholders; and the loss of technical staff, potentially 'seriously disrupting the ability of the agency to fulfil its purpose.'

As CropLife chief Matthew Cossey said,

Just relocation in itself doesn't achieve anything except interrupting the efforts being made by the APVMA to improve regulatory efficiency.

When asked about this, Deputy Prime Minister Joyce said,

If you did a cost-benefit analysis on the Sydney Opera House, well (you can say) that doesn't pay for itself either.

I am not sure how much Mr Joyce knows about the Opera House. It is one of the 20th century's best-known buildings in the world. It cost $102 million and now makes $60 million in annual revenue. If Mr Joyce could suggest another investment that would cost $102 million and would make $60 million in revenue every year, I do not think people would be booing. I think they would be cheering. If he could suggest an investment that would build an iconic building with 350,000 visitors, that would be a pretty good thing.

What we have instead is the pesticides authority being taken to Armidale, where the staff are now working out of McDonald's. That is right, because McDonald's has free wi-fi, albeit not very fast free wi-fi, APVMA staff are now, as we speak, sitting in Armidale Macca's doing their work. That is where Deputy Prime Minister Joyce's reasoning has ended up. Because he so wants to hurt Canberra, he is willing to have public servants working out of McDonald's in order to fulfil his vision of Australia. This is not a Sydney Opera House vision; this is a golden arches vision of Australia's future.

The Deputy Prime Minister has also launched a campaign to move public servants out of Canberra and into the regions, calling on his colleagues to identify Public Service jobs that could be taken out of Canberra. As my colleague Gai Brodtmann, the member for Canberra, has put it, Robert Menzies would be turning in his grave to see the result of a national capital built to the benefit of the nation now being turned into a crass pork-barrelling exercise in a desperate hope that the member for New England can get a few extra votes in his local region.

But it is not just Canberrans who are hurt when you rip Public Service jobs out of Canberra. It is also those who rely on those services. I pay tribute to the member for Chifley, Ed Husic, who gave an important speech on digital transformation and the problems that have occurred in digital transformation over recent years, under both Prime Minister Abbott and Prime Minister Turnbull, the so-called tech-head Prime Minister. We have seen a decision by the government to locate the Digital Transformation Agency in Sydney rather than in Canberra. The member for Chifley is a Sydney member, but he recognises that if you are going to do digital transformation in the Public Service then you probably want that agency to be in the same city as the Public Service. Putting it in Sydney is great if you want to do digital transformation for one of the councils or the state government in Sydney, but if you want to do federal digital transformation you need to put the agency in Canberra. I do pay tribute to the member for Chifley for that, because he recognises—as the member for New England does not—the benefits of a national capital and the benefits of centralisation.

If you look at other areas in the world in which terrific productivity is being enjoyed—areas like Silicon Valley and wine clusters such as you see in South Australia—you will see that these occur thanks to co-location; thanks to the ability of people to quickly get together for an informal chat or, in the case of public servants, for an interdepartmental meeting. This makes sure that we do not have silos forming, preventing the cross-pollination of ideas between departments. The idea of pork-barrelling Canberra Public Service jobs to the regions means that we get less cooperation, more silos, less engagement and more barriers between departments. It is bad for the great bush capital of Canberra and it is bad for public policy in Australia. Ours is a great city, and it needs a great government to defend it.

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Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.