Country towns need education and infrastructure not this thin slice of political pork

02 May 2017

Surely a decentralisation plan would help regional towns? If the Turnbull government had a considered plan, the answer could be yes.

But it doesnt, and the Abbott and Turnbull governments have cut more jobs in the regions in our regional Centrelink, tax and other government offices than they have created.

Given the debacle Barnaby Joyce's pork-barrel relocation of the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority has become, one might have expected a retreat. But Nationals senator Fiona Nash soldiered on during a recent press club speech, declaring full-scale war on our national capital and its public servants. That was just after telling her audience that regional Australia was already a better place to live and work, and just before blaming the media for not promoting that obvious fact. Just in case assembled journalists doubted her claim, she went on to point out that unemployment was lower in the bush and overall, the story is very positive.

Nash then declared that, if you live in the regions, you can send the kids to the neighbour's for half an hour while you go to see the doctor, implying that is not possible in our capital cities. And when you return to work a couple of days a week, your sister in-law or parents look after your kids.

Nash's enthusiasm and mixed-messaging was too much even for Joyce, who held a press conference less than 24 hours after her speech to try to limit the damage. Unfortunately, he only added to the confusion by declaring a minority of public servants safe, leaving a majority free to start worrying. Nash and Joyce say their threat to move departments that can't justify staying in our capital cities has been endorsed by cabinet, but Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is yet to comment.

Beyond Armidale in his own electorate, Joyce has not nominated any destinations for these yet-to be-determined departments and agencies. However, the unusual policy order he used to avoid any parliamentary veto of his pesticides-authority pork barrel says the recipient regional city or town must be no nearer than 150km from a capital city and within 10km of the main campus of a regional university that is recognised for research and teaching in the field of agricultural science. According to Parliamentary Library analysis, the order narrows the field to just two regional cities in New South Wales and two in Queensland.

Decentralisation can be good if it is properly planned and the effectiveness of the entity moved is not undermined in the process. The relocation of the pesticides authority ticks none of those boxes. Indeed, the government's own cost-benefit analysis says so. But that's all right: Joyce declared this no longer matters. The official cost of the authority's relocation is $26 million, but we know it to be closer to $60 million. Imagine how many teachers and skills training opportunities that could fund in the regional communities that need the extra resources the most.

That's a key point. The nature of employment is changing and, increasingly, higher levels of education and training will be needed to secure and keep a job. As well as telecommunications and strategic transport infrastructure, fully funding the Gonski needs-based school reforms is the best thing the Turnbull government could do for rural and regional Australia.

The alternative is more Centrelink offices in rural and regional towns already suffering double-digit unemployment rates. That's the real tragedy of Joyce's pork-barrelling.

This opinion piece first appeared in The Canberra Times on Tuesday, 2 May 2017