Local, Independant and Effective

Teleworking can unlock potential for regions to influence government

Posted May 25, 2017


Cathy has proposed another approach to decentralising the Australian Public Service - supporting telecommuting from the regions. 

Ms McGOWAN (Indi) (10:04):  I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

Colleagues, there are three points I would like to make as I stand here to speak to the Public Service Amendment (Supporting a Regional Workforce) Bill 2017. I would like to explain the gap that this amendment seeks to address, why this amendment is needed, and the benefit of this amendment not only to my community of Indi but also to communities across regional Australia.

The purpose of the bill is to support increased use of telecommuting—working remotely—in the Australian Public Service and thus supporting greater decentralisation of the Australia Public Service workforce into regional areas. The intent of the bill is to remove any discrimination against an otherwise suitable candidate based on their location or capacity to move to a major city. If the candidate is able to telecommute and meet the requirements of the position, with reasonable adjustments by the agency, then they should have the opportunity to do so.

The bill will encourage greater decentralisation of individual employees or positions, which would have a broad benefit to regional areas and allow agencies to attract the best and the brightest. This would result in a regional perspective in the development of policy and the work of the Australian Public Service.

This bill adds telecommuting to the employment principles of the APS and to the rules around the APS merit based promotion and selection process, removing any discrimination in this process on the basis of a candidate's location, if they are able to telecommute and fulfil the required duties.

Under the amendments, agency heads are also responsible for promoting, informing and facilitating the use of telecommuting by employees of the agency. If by telecommuting the employee is unable to carry out the inherent requirements of the work to be done, even if reasonable adjustments for the employee were made, the agency head will also be limited in directing an employee to carry out duties at a particular location. The intent is not to exclude persons located in metropolitan areas from telecommuting, but to make the act explicit in supporting telecommuting from regional areas.

The government have told us that they will be implementing a structured approach to decentralisation as a trigger for growth for regional Australia. Decentralisation is often considered a silver-bullet solution. It can somehow simultaneously relieve the congestion of the big cities while boosting the economic prospects of declining rural and regional centres.

The decentralisation discussion is always full of blue sky thinking but invariably the reality of rigorous process beyond an electoral cycle sees the conversation come to an end. There are as many supporters as not for decentralisation. There is a rich debate in my community about this topic. Some suggest that an active decentralisation policy where the responsibilities of Canberra are moved to the regions has never worked. They cite the seemingly impossible challenge of getting employers to relocate from big cities to regional centres as one of the clear indicators for decentralisation not working.

Colleagues, I am not one of those people. I am on the record as a strong supporter of decentralisation. But, in order for decentralisation to provide value, opportunity and benefit for those in both regional centres and small regional and rural towns, we need to consider decentralisation not simply in terms of bricks and mortar; we need a plan.

While many may criticise the Whitlam approach of the 1970s to decentralisation as being unsuccessful, the driving force of the approach was to identify a sector, in this case manufacturing where location was not a key determinant to success. This worked extraordinarily well in my communities of Albury-Wodonga. It is an approach that is not dissimilar to this government's call for innovation, for agility in the workforce, where location is not important and where the NBN will help us 'keep our big city jobs without the big city'.

It is this approach that provides the greatest chance of success for decentralisation. It is this approach that provides an opportunity for success to extend beyond the regional centres of Armidale, Orange and Wodonga. And it is this approach that provides an opportunity for telecommuting to play an integral role in the move towards a decentralised Public Service.

But, in order to make the most of these opportunities, telecommuting must be considered part of the normal. It must move away from a one-on-one negotiation between a staff member and their manager. Telecommuting must be considered as a legitimate way to meet the requirements of the role from the start.

A 2015 University of Canberra report, 'Smart Work in the ACT and Regions', commissioned by Regional Development Australia ACT and Southern Inland (NSW), found that telework, working from home or smart work is in theory encouraged by the Public Service. Australian Public Service Commissioner John Lloyd said that working from home arrangements were widely used and offered benefits to both employees and employers.

University of Canberra urban planning and design professor Richard Hu said that, while telework was the future for applicable jobs, cultural change was needed first. He notes that 'Canberra is a city more likely to have the practice of telework or smart work, but we do find some management culture, organisational culture in the public sector that presents to be a barrier for the practise of telework'.

Yet in April of this year the Australian Public Service Commission was reported as saying that full-time telework for individual employees has not been considered as an alternative to decentralising the agencies and divisions of the Australian Public Service. This is despite more and more people commuting to work from areas surrounding Canberra, including the South Coast, Yass and Queanbeyan.

The Regions 2030 statement speaks of the government's structured approach to decentralisation. It talks of its decentralisation policy. But we have yet to see this policy. But what we have seen is a call from Minister Nash to all agencies to justify why they need to stay in Canberra. The moving of the APVMA to Armidale, and an inquiry that was established specifically to look at this process, used as a recommendation for all moves the allocation of 10 jobs from the MDBA to Wodonga. And just last week there was the announcement that the newly established Regional Investment Corporation, with an initial workforce of 25, would be located in Orange.

These are not bad decisions but they are missed opportunities. Imagine if, instead of forcing departmental heads to justify why they need to stay in Canberra and not be expelled to the regions—almost as a form of punishment—they were truly able to select from the best and brightest without geographical limitations by encouraging telecommuting. Imagine if, instead of using the inquiry into the relocation of the APVMA to Armidale as a quasi-decentralisation debate, the government used the obvious interest in the process—more than 80 local governments, including those in my own electorate, put up their hand to be considered as a possible location—and this was used as a trigger for a thorough and rigorous inquiry process that addresses decentralisation in a holistic manner. Imagine if it was a process like this that identified Orange as the most suitable location for the Regional Investment Corporation.

I am not alone in wanting a strategic and coordinated approach to decentralisation. My colleague Ms Brodtmann has called on the government to commit to a cost-benefit analysis of its proposed decentralisation strategy and make that outcome available to the public. In a motion, she has called on the government to base decisions regarding decentralisation on open and transparent public consultation and ensure decisions do not come at the expense of effective government.

We know that the best decisions for regional Australia are made by those in regional Australia in partnership with government. So imagine the benefit when those in regions are part of the policy development. Imagine the benefit when it is the same people providing insight, experience and local knowledge when developing implementation programs. We know that there is a multiplier effect. I know from personal experience the cultural change that happens when people in country areas have good jobs, defined career paths, access to professional development and training, and access to greater minds. There is a multiplier effect for their family and their community. The impact of higher wages would have a lasting effect on our communities.

I believe telecommuting is the first step. If it could be adopted across the Public Service, there would be a cultural shift. So I call on the government, my colleagues opposite and all of those who represent regional communities to lead by example and invest in the people of regional communities. We have the innovation. We have the skill. We are getting the NBN. We are getting better mobile phone coverage. So now let's do the next thing and have employment and not let geography be a barrier to being part of the government of this wonderful country.


The SPEAKER:  Is the motion seconded?

Ms Sharkie:  I second the motion and reserve my right to speak later.

The SPEAKER:  The question is that this bill be now read a second time. The time allotted for the debate has expired. The debate is adjourned and the resumption of the debate will be made an order of the day for the next sitting.

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