Canberrans voice their concerns over decentralisation

I welcome the interim report of the Select Committee on Regional Development and Decentralisation and I welcome the fact that there were 21 submissions from Canberra alone—the biggest number of submissions from any town or city.

The next closest, in fact, was nine submissions from Melbourne and Sydney respectively. The sheer number of submissions from Canberra shows what Canberrans have always known. Despite the heartfelt speech that the member for Barker just made, I too want thriving regional economies. I too want thriving regional communities. Here in Canberra, we are part of the capital region. We are very proud of the fact that we contribute significantly. Canberra contributes significantly in terms of providing education services, providing health services and providing jobs here in our nation's capital for the capital region. We feel very proud of the contribution we make to the community around us—to Queanbeyan, to Murrumbateman, to Hall, to Yass, going out to Leeton, to Cowra—all around this area.

We feel very proud of the contribution we make, which is why I take offence at what the member for Barker said about this us-versus-them attitude of Canberrans towards regional communities. We want our regional centres to thrive, because it's good for Canberra and it's good for the capital region. So I really do take offence at his suggestion that we want to see their decimation, because that's certainly not the case. Those opposite do want to see the decimation of Canberra, but that's another conversation that I had earlier today, which the member for Swan, opposite, has heard.

When this idea, this thought bubble, was originally floated—from memory it was at the Press Club by the former minister—there was very little detail about what it actually meant. The member for Barker says that the committee has extrapolated and is now looking at private and public sector employment. The impression that we got here in Canberra was that this was all about moving government agencies. That, I'm sure, was the language that the former minister used at that time: government agencies from Canberra to the regions. I don't recall much discussion about the private sector, and how would that be within the government's remit anyway? It was all about moving government agencies from Canberra into the regions. That was the raison d'etre. That was the thought bubble behind this decentralisation process. Naturally, Canberrans went nuts about it, which is why we got all those submissions. Canberrans know what coalition governments think of them as public servants and of Canberra as the nation's capital. They've experienced it. They experienced it under Howard and they're experiencing it now under the Turnbull government. They know that the APVMA move, which was touted as the beginning of the decentralisation process, was blatant and shameless pork barrelling by the member for New England, and they know that the blatant and shameless pork barrelling that was the relocation of the APVMA was the thin edge of the wedge. This government's got form when it comes to Canberra and the national capital. Canberrans knew the APVMA was just the beginning—hence the number of submissions. Those submissions sent a very strong message saying, 'Hands off Canberra. We've had a gutful of what this coalition government has in store for us and what it's done already since it was elected.' Thousands of jobs have gone. There have been cuts to national institutions, next to zero infrastructure investment and now this decentralisation, which is a complete insult to our nation's capital and the capital region.

Australians trust their elected representatives to make well-reasoned and viable financial decisions. The decentralisation that began with APVMA is the perfect example of what not to do when it comes to public policy. The cabinet order made by the Minister for Finance which forced the relocation of the APVMA from Canberra to Armidale reinforced the blatant and shameless pork barrel moving of a regulatory agency to the Deputy Prime Minister's own electorate of New Zealand—sorry, that was bit of a faux pas, wasn't it?—of New England, irrespective of the cost. It ignored the recommendations of the $272,000 taxpayer funded cost-benefit analysis that was commissioned by the Prime Minister, which concluded, 'There were no strategic or other benefits to the move.' It ignored the advice from key industry associations such as CropLife Australia, Animal Medicines Australia and the National Farmers Federation, as well as the Turnbull government's own ACT senator, Senator Seselja. The committee inquiring into the cabinet order found:

… this government policy order is deficient in a number of key areas. This order is opposed by stakeholders, the agricultural sector, and the regulator itself on the basis that it is 'all cost and no benefit'.

It went on:

The lack of clarity regarding the decision-making process and the absence of a transparent selection process leads the committee to conclude that there is only one obvious driver for the decision, and that is political self-interest.

The Senate committee recommended the order be revoked and the APVMA relocation be paused until the authority concluded its review of its business model, but this didn't happen.

In my submission to the select committee, I recommended that any decentralisation policy or decision made by the government commit to a cost-benefit analysis of its proposed decentralisation strategy and makes the outcome of that analysis available to the public, because it was really difficult to get an understanding of the analysis here. I also recommended that the government act in accordance with the outcomes of such analysis. If that had been the case with the analysis on the APVMA relocation, it wouldn't have gone ahead. As a result of the shameless pork-barrel proposal for the relocation of the APVMA to New England, on-time approvals fell to 24 per cent in June last year, which was well below the peak of 82 per cent in September the year before. That agency has been decimated. According to last year's figures, 50 of its 175 staff had left and 20 per cent of the highly specialised staff—with hundreds of years of experience and expertise between them—had gone. As a result of that, what do we have? That freefall in approvals.

In my submission to the select committee, I also recommended that decisions regarding decentralisation should only be subject to an open and transparent public consultation process that takes into account the outcome of a cost-benefit analysis. I recommended that the Turnbull government acknowledge—I wish the member for Barker was in this room—that just 38 per cent of the Commonwealth government's administration is located in Canberra and that further decentralisation has the potential to decimate the ACT. Sixty-two per cent is outside Canberra. How much does the government want to move outside Canberra? There's only 38 per cent of it here. How much does it want to move outside Canberra? And what effect is it going to have on my community and on the community of the capital region—or on the member for Hume's community and the member for Eden-Monaro's community? I recommended in my submission that the government stay true to the vision of Sir Robert Menzies, that self-confessed apostle of Canberra. And I asked and recommended that any decentralisation policy or decision be based on a demonstrated net benefit to the nation and not at the expense of the Canberra community and the Canberra economy and the capital region.

In my submission, I quoted a letter from Heather Henderson, the daughter of the late Sir Robert Menzies. She said:

Why are we taking this retrograde step, scattering our government?

Why are we spending millions to become less efficient?

She also said:

Recently I heard Barnaby Joyce say "There is a chemistry when people meet face to face".

Exactly so.

Modern communications are brilliant, but real personal contact remains vital.

She confessed she was the daughter of Sir Robert Menzies, the founder of the modern Liberal Party, the person who, despite his scepticism, established and invested in this nation. Decentralisation will unpick that legacy, the Menzies legacy, and denigrate his vision for our nation's capital. (Time expired)

The DEPUTY SPEAKER: I note to the Federation Chamber that adjournment is normally set at approximately 7.30, but, with the compliance of those in the room, we'll continue with the member for Indi.

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