Canberra – don’t mend it, end it


Once in a while, regular like a clockwork, a well-meaning proposal pops up to decentralise public service by shifting the Canberra bureaucrats to the regions, so that they can be closer to the people with whose lives they are messing with on a daily basis. Or as The Canberra Times more politely puts it in this instance:

Hundreds of the Prime Minister’s public servants could be moved from Canberra to Australia’s red centre, under a plan proposed by Regional Development Australia.

The development organisation wants large numbers of bureaucrats from the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet who are working on “closing the gap” of indigenous disadvantage to be closer to the people they are trying to help.

Sounds like a good idea, doesn’t it? Particularly if you are on the political right you should be all for it, because stereotypically you don’t like public servants and you don’t like centralised power, right? Wrong. I’m here to tell you that even if you believe all that – stereotypically – this solution won’t work to make our bureaucracies more responsive to the general populace. Don’t take me wrong, most of Canberran servants of the people deserve to be exiled to Gin Gin or Cunnamulla, but I don’t confuse just punishment with a good public policy.

Let’s get something straight right away – Canberra was a mistake.

As far as I’m concerned, Sydney and Melbourne should have just played rock-paper-scissors or flipped a coin over which one will be the capital of Australia; failing that, New South Wales and Victoria should have gone to war with each other to settle the issue once and for all. The constitutional compromise they have instead achieved, as most compromises go, didn’t satisfy anyone and created more problems than it solved. Instead of having a proper, exciting, impressive, world-class capital we could all be proud of we have built a fake city on a fake lake to thrive on the fake business of government. Sucking taxpayers’ blood from all across Australia, Canberra has as much charm and warmth as an average vampire (don’t believe the “Twilight” and “True Blood” hype; they are popular entertainment, not science). Sadly, it’s probably too late to stick a steak through its heart – not that it has one anyway – and start anew.

My criticisms of Canberra are largely symbolic and aesthetic. Most people – including those who want to scatter its public servants to four corners of our continent – hate the national capital because they see it as a giant bubble, completely disconnected from the everyday life and concerns of the rest of the country, and with pitiful and expensive consequences for that.

Sure, distance doesn’t help, but bubbles are a matter of culture and mentality rather than location. Federal bureaucrats develop their own group-think, at odds with common sense, reality, and the mainstream not because they are so far from civilisation (“Survivor: ACT” or “I’m a Deputy Director, Get Me Out of Here”, perhaps? If you’re a TV producer, PM me) but because they are a self-selecting group who largely share the same socio-economic background, educational qualifications and, most importantly, a certain vision of life and politics. Canberra is not a place, it’s a state of mind. You can take a child whose gender I dare not assume out of Canberra, but you can’t take Canberra out of a child whose gender I dare not assume. “Canberra” can happen anywhere – it happens in all our state capitals, and it happens in other locations where any significant government presence exists. As Christ had said about his church, “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” And so it is with bureaucracy and its mindset.

By sending federal public servants forth to Alice Springs or other more or less exotic and desirable locations, you won’t pop the Canberra bubble, you will merely create a lot of smaller bubbles throughout the regional Australia. As Israelis and Palestinians will tell you, co-location doesn’t necessarily lead to a greater understanding. You can bring the ACT horse closer to the water from the fount of common wisdom, but can’t make it drink. The ACT horse is instead more likely to drill its own well (at the taxpayers’ expense)and open a cafe on top of it where it can enjoy its own organic carrot and paleo-hay. Relocating thousands of federal department and agency jobs to small town Australia will only make it more difficult to find qualified people for the positions, which if you are a libertarian might sound like a great idea to shrink the Leviathan, but we shouldn’t need to rely on subterfuge to achieve a smaller government. And those bureaucrats who will stick around to end up in Alice Springs or elsewhere will not suddenly see the errors of their bureaucratic, social democratic ways just because they are surrounded by ignoble savages who listen to country music, drink non-craft beers and vote National, any more than posting British colonial officers to Nairobi or Calcutta turned them into multi-culti trendies and Third World libers (though Burma did make George Orwell into a socialist).

Another argument for inflicting federal public servants on innocent bushies often comes from the National MPs and Senators who represent them (the bushies, not the public servants) and it posits that bringing well-paid white-cardigan-collar jobs to regional centres will boost their economies, struggling as they are with declining populations and/or depressed market conditions. You see, all those new residents will need new services to cater to their needs, creating countless opportunities for enterprising locals. This is akin to saying that sending in a locust plague and then paying for eradication programs creates jobs and boosts local small businesses, though that analogy is probably uncalled for and unfair to public servants – and to the locust – in their own ways. This is the worst of Keynesianism, where the government tries to stimulate the economy with, literally, the government. It’s a false economy too, not simply because like any other state subsidy it takes money from productive and profitable pursuits to spend it on those which are neither, but also because, even worse, unlike subsidised businesses in the regions, government departments in the regions don’t actually produce anything.

If you genuinely want to de-Canberrise Australia (a goal more worthy than de-carbonising our country) and decentralise the federal government, don’t devolve people – devolve power.

At least half of all the things that the Commonwealth government does at the moment should not be done at all by any government, or should be done on the state and local levels. We need to rebalance the Federation, and yes, bring it closer to the people. But you don’t do that by dispersing worker ants while the queen continues to rest inside the (capital) ant hill. State and local governments should have (sole) responsibility for a lot more areas than they currently do. This can be achieved by ending duplication and overlap and devolving power from the top down. Enough of eunuch governments painting the finger of blame up with the one hand, while holding the other one palm up as a begging bowl. This is not just a good public policy, but it is also the only right way to disperse the bureaucracy.

For as long as the departmental “head offices” stay in Canberra, all those decentralised into the regions will treat their fate as an exile, making the public service not just the usual shambolic (it might be the appropriate moment to note that I think Australia actually has one of the best performing public services in the world) but also demoralised. Do we really want the PM&C employees in Alice Springs living the public service equivalent of obsessive hunting, fornication and alcoholism lifestyle, that is the standard fate of colonisers in the hearts of darkness?

You might ask, what’s the difference between shifting education bureaucrats from Canberra to Bundaberg and having the Queensland state government, for better or worse now with sole responsibility for schools, having large regional offices in Bundaberg? Isn’t that merely creating smaller bureaucratic bubbles, as I pointed out before, and won’t it similarly be seen as an exile to woop-woop? The bubbles, like the poor, we will always have with us (to quote Jesus once again, probably because it’s the Holy Week); nothing will change that. But the difference – and the answer to the second part of the questions – is simple: the expectations.

When, whether as a bright and bushy-tailed graduate or a mid-career applicant, you know that the area of public policy you are interested in is the sole responsibility of the state or the local government, and that in turn invariably entails long stints of work outside of the capital city, you go into your chosen job or career with your eyes open. If you are into foreign affairs you will always end up in Canberra, but if you are interested perhaps in education, health, agriculture, infrastructure or social services, your work will be in one of the states, and likely in a smaller population centre.

This might not solve all the public administration problems – bureaucracies will always be more left than right wing, less efficient than the private sector, and less in tune with the general population – but it will reduce Canberra’s population by up to 50 per cent. And that’s a win in anyone’s books.