The following is, for the most part, a copy of a comment I posted on The RiotACT  in response to the story about a discussion paper from the Federal Liberal Party about having lower taxes in, and moving bits of the federal public service to, regional areas and specifically northern Australia. The comment seemed substantial enough to warrant a blog post of its own here.
Once upon a time it made sense to have a bureaucracy which was centralised to the place where parliament was located. These days, in the age of electronic communications, there really is no need to have so much of the public service located in one place.
Yes, moving large parts of the public service out of Canberra may have detrimental short-term effects on Canberra’s economy, but the public service does not exist to keep Canberra economy ticking over, rather it exists to serve the interest of all Australians and, as such, should be willing to serve Australia’s interests in whatever location is of most benefit. That said, given that the federal government is largely responsible for Canberra’s economy having such reliance on the public service, the federal government should give due consideration to Canberra when planning changes which would impact on Canberra’s economy. Canberra’s interests should not be the only consideration, but they should at least be considered.
I do firmly believe that the nation’s interests are best served by a distributed public service. We have large populations in coastal areas which are, in some cases, overpopulated and under-served by infrastructure, while we also have massive sections of the country which are either underpopulated or uninhabited, but could very easily cater to the needs of part of our population, and should probably be built-up now if we are to expand in to them as the population grows so as to avoid further stretching the resources of existing overpopulated areas.
It would be silly to expect the private sector to build these areas up on their own. Economic incentives will help to attract the private sector, but the whole process will be much faster and much smoother if some public servants move in to these areas as well, and increase the market demand in the areas in the process. I would see no problem with granting public servants in these areas the same economic incentives (tax cuts etc) as private sector people/businesses who set up in these areas.
Some parts of the public service probably should keep a presence in Canberra, but hypothetically speaking (and without figuring out which acronym the various departments use as names this week) it does seem silly to base Immigration and Customs so far from a coastline; Indigenous Affairs so far away from the majority of their clients; Air Services Australia and CASA so far away from major airports (with apologies to Stephen Byron whose airport serves a purpose but is not as big as our major coastal airports) etc.
Apart from the idea of basing some departments in locations which are closer to the people with which they work the most, it seems logical to me to not have a centralised public service simply for cultural reasons. It happens in every industry that if the majority of your time is spent dealing with people in your industry, your mindset becomes based around your industry. A centralised public service lends itself to this in that, by having so many public servants and departments in one place, it is easy to think more about government than about the people whom the government is supposed to serve. Having a less centralised public service would, in my view, make it easier for the public service to work in a more efficient manner for the benefit of the general population.
It also strikes me as ironic that by decentralising the public service, the NBN would be an even less necessary proposition than it already is, as the extra population in regional areas combined with departmental data needs would result in a demand for high-speed internet services in regional areas which would be very attractive to the private sector.
Admittedly the whole idea would inconvenience some public servants, and the costs of moving people may be difficult in the short-term given the government’s current financial state, but the long-term benefits would far outweigh the short-term costs, and surely the long-term benefit of the nation is what our public servants should embrace.