All of Canberra are about to have a conversation about dislocation and loss of community that is sadly, very familiar to the people that live and work in Belconnen. Following on the recent Nationals ‘decentralisation’ policy announcement by Fiona Nash, last week rural Victorian MP Cathy McGowan followed up with further support for decentralisation and pork-barreling for rural and regional electorates. This week Queanbeyan Palerang Administrator Tim Overall seeks to slice some pork for his area.
These political exercises have real impacts on real people and the communities they live in. In 2015 Belconnen’s immigration workforce of over 3500 people was suddenly faced with forced relocation. The head of the newly merged Department of Immigration and Border Protection was determined to combine the Civic and Belconnen workforce under one roof. It was very nearly a done deal however where logic and numbers failed, politics prevailed.
That workforce will remain in Belconnen for the foreseeable future. The Civic based workers will move to the Airport.
As the largest employer in Belconnen, losing 3500 workers would have devastated Belconnen and its economy. The APVMA was not so fortunate, and it is being relocated to Armidale. At least its shell is, most of it’s workforce are not.
Can the same political will that saved Belconnen, be found to stop the new relocation policies that the Nationals are about to deliver to their Turnbull government partners?
Changing the federal governments mind about relocating the DIBP workforce required a sustained bi-partisan political effort from local politicians at the territory and federal level. Senator Seselja, as a member of government, carried much of the unseen heavy lifting at the political level.
Importantly local ALP members Andrew Leigh and Gai Brodtmann and Senator Gallagher supported his efforts. The Assembly worked overtime to keep the Belconnen workforce, in Belconnen. Large local businesses also exerted pressure. This unity was instrumental in ensuring Belconnen kept its people.
The recent announcement by Nationals Fiona Nash of a long-term plan to forcibly move public service departments to rural and regional areas is a rerun of the APVMA and Belconnen relocation battles, on a much larger scale. It would be better for the Nationals to focus on growing jobs and attracting business, than stealing those jobs from Canberra.
The ruinous effects of these forced relocations will be hard for our economy to recover from if they occur. A resurgent Belconnen town centre faced economic uncertainty and a halt in business investment until the DIBP decision was resolved. The ACT does not need to go through this uncertainty at a territory level over the next few years.
As the town centres of Woden and Tuggeranong demonstrate, when departments relocate thousands of full time employees just disappear. The local businesses small and large that are built on these workforces suffer and many close. The lasting effects ripple throughout the community as families move away from the communities they are part of.
It isn't just jobs and careers that are impacted. There will also be a mental health toll on workers and their families that will accompany the political conversation about forced relocation and the uncertainty of people’s futures.
While the APVMA had a much smaller workforce than the several thousand Belconnen immigration employees, relocating the APVMA has had a similar disruptive effect. The constant stories in the media about politicians arguing about a person’s future, will be incredibly stressful and won’t lead to positive mental health outcomes.
It isn’t just employees that suffer, their families are also impacted. Many of the immigration employees had moved to Belconnen with their families. They form a vital part of the community with kids in schools and sporting groups. Spouses and partners are faced with difficult employment choices. For DIBP employees facing relocation, many felt they were unable to speak publicly about the relocation, fearing that it would impact their jobs and future career prospects. The very people impacted felt intimidated.
It is noticeable that even now, even in the wake of the disastrous APVMA move, senior APS leaders remain silent as they are being walked to the gallows of their careers.
While the Belconnen relocation was fought off, the APVMA move can now be seen as a test run for a broader Nationals political campaign that is focused on appealing to their regional electorates, at the cost of Canberra. If the APVMA move had been an overwhelming success, it could be argued that there is merit in the Nationals policy, but it has been anything but a success.
The industry bodies did not support the relocation. The skilled scientists have largely resigned or found other positions in Canberra, with the administrative staff forming the majority of the minority of staff that decided to relocate. Just this week, the organisations leading executive resigned instead of relocating. If an organisations leading assets are it’s people, the APVMA move shows that the box may have been relocated, but it is empty inside.
The cost has approached 60 million, and the benefits are unlikely to eventuate. The workforce and corporate memory needs to be rebuilt, and broken corporate culture must be restored, before the APVMA approaches a level of performance it was achieving before its politically motivated relocation. This template cannot be applied Canberra wide, it will be disastrous not just to employees and their families, but to the Australian public that relies upon services provided and delivered from Canberras workforce.
Senator Zed Seselja, who worked hard to keep the immigration workforce in Belconnen, inexplicably voted for the APVMA to relocate to Armidale. It is not yet clear what the real motivation of the Liberal government in appeasing the Nationals on this much larger relocation strategy would be.
Although no details on the departments that will be forced to relocate have yet been revealed, it’s likely that the Liberal government will face similar resistance from stakeholder bodies and the public service departments themselves.
With territory and federal representatives of Canberra united in opposition to the Nationals policy, it will be interesting to see if Senator Seselja will again vote for local departments to be relocated. The Belconnen community prevailed in its fight against forced relocation because all sides of politics worked together for the sake of its community.
Sir Robert Menzies created a centre of excellence for public administration that has served our nation well. Our highly educated and professional public service workforce is a national asset. To destroy this to appease a political ally, with a policy that will not work, is morally wrong.
Damien Haas is a former Chair of the Belconnen Community Council. He has a background in public transport and urban planning lobbying. He was involved in the campaign to reverse the Belconnen DIBP relocation decision. These are his own views and not that of the Belconnen Community Council.