Time to Bring the Department Together

timetobringthedepartmenttogether

In 2009 the WA Government built the state of the art Chem Centre at Curtin University, in 2016 GRDC funded a new $46m crop research facility at the Curtin campus, in 2018 the State Government funded a new $11m grains research centre in Northam and in 2020 a $8m Ag Machinery Training Centre at Muresk.

By now it should be obvious to all that the focus of the majority of ag research and development in Western Australia is based either in Northam or at Curtin so why is yet again the government rerunning groundhog day and searching from one end of Perth to the other for a new Ag Department site?

Word on the street is everyone from the Minister down is running in circles attempting to identify a building to replace the existing M.A.S.H. offices in South Perth, that old Korean War era hospital that has been the home of the Department since the 1960s.

From what I’m hearing out of the confused fog of government, the deep thinkers in the Emergency Planning Unit that prepares the State for doomsday scenarios and which lies bunkered down in a top secret location on the top floor of Dumas House, consider the old Ag building would make a perfect Covid secure hospital.  Sounds mad but then we live in mad times.

Problem is there are currently 700 people working from that site who will need relocating and no government in 30 years has been able to match their needs of labs and desks into a ready made building despite countless attempts.

Not to say that it’s impossible, before they got the boot, the previous Liberal National government had the Ag Dept locked and loaded to be moved to a new site next door to Curtin Uni, In fact the decision had made it through cabinet and the government had handed over the 20 Ha to LandCorp to commence work on a massive redevelopment.

But, the election of the McGowan government saw the plans for a new $300m Ag HQ and a massive Subi Centro like property development dumped as the new administration searched for short term savings while desperately looking around for ways to fund their railway line to the never never of outer city marginal seats.

Three years later the government is now stuffed as they have no major shovel ready projects to push the button on during these tough economic times. (Anyone remember what happened to Roe 8 and 9).

Obviously, they failed to learn from the mistakes of the Rudd / Gillard Government and the Global Financial Crisis that all governments should have shovel ready projects ready to roll in case the economy needs a bit of stimulus.

The best they can come up with was last week’s announcement of a Plan for the Wheatbelt which outlined a long list of projects for the bush as part of the $5.5 billion state stimulus package.  Problem is the media gurus in the Premiers office confused the Wheatbelt with the rest of the regions to bump up the dollar figures, end result the spin ends up being bigger than the dollars.

Once you strip away the $220m for repainting state houses in country towns, the $10m for the clean energy fund and the $23m for tree planting, out of the $280m or so in the package it leaves about $80m to flow to the states grain belt communities. 

On my calculations this includes $35m in new road funding to widen 400km of road shoulders, $8m for Muresk and training, $8m for grains connectivity and the maintenance brough forward for 210 state houses. A welcome funding boost no doubt, but not really a fair share of the $5.5 billion the government is apparently spending.

Let’s face it, if the government had been listening to the concerns of farmers and wheatbelt regional communities over the last few months they would have pumped most of the funds directly into local councils to upgrade gravel roads.

A $100m injection into shire road funding with the dollars being conditional on training of local youth and regional unemployed as heavy machine operators utilising the new Muresk Machinery Institute, would have been a godsend to the regions and to farmers, as these roads and skills are desperately needed by the ag sector. 

But for some reason the Department of Agriculture and Regional Development is not getting the needs of the industry through to Treasury, so we end up with clueless painting and decorating recovery projects that will not address long term regional issues like transport and access to experienced skilled workers.

I actually suspect it’s not DPIRD or the Minister that are the problem, its Treasury. For years they have been slashing the old Ag Department’s budget and ignoring their calls for a new Headquarters.

The end result is what should have been a major stimulus land development project worth billions, is nowhere near shovel ready, nor is there any movement on a new headquarters for DPIRD next to Curtin, the natural home for the Department.

Instead we have the Director General of DPIRD, great bloke he is (and smart), no doubt in despair at the advice he is getting from his fractured department. Most of whom want to go nowhere, while a few want to go south, others to the coast and the rest to the CBD.

That’s what happens when you have three agencies under DPIRD that continue to operate as three agencies. (Election promise idea for the Libs – promise to separate the departments back to stand alone agencies).

In short, the government has run out of time and now there is only two solutions for a new home for what should be one of our most important government departments, either to break the Department up and spread it around the city in short term rentals and exacerbate the existing internal confusion.

Or go begging to the property developers to find a stand alone building in the CBD to house all 1000 of the Departments desk jockeys in the one building, miles from their labs. Neither would be a good outcome.

DPIRD should not be in the CBD nor should it be spread across the city. The whole thing is a mess.  How can this government possibly say that it takes the $8 billion dollar renewable agricultural and fisheries portfolio seriously along with the 550,000 people who live in regional WA if its lead department is treated like a second class citizen to be shopped around town.

The only way this can be fixed is if the Minister marches upstairs or is it downstairs to the Treasurer’s office and tells him to add $300m to the budget bottom line in October and put back on the drawing board a new building at Curtin University.

To sweeten the deal, I suggest the Minister offers to move 200 admin staff to the regions particularly marginal or key regional seats like Geraldton, Albany, and Bunbury. Nothing like a bit of self interest politics to focus the party’s mind. 

In fact, the government can use such a move to help smooth over the embarrassing past decision to kill off the previous governments plan to move the headquarters of Parks and Wildlife and 300 public servant jobs to Bunbury.  That decision was another blow for regional WA along with the failure to build their one Ag related election policy the Boyanup sale yards.

This is a chance for the ALP to at least go through the motions of supporting regional Western Australia by locating half of DPIRD’s 1600 staff in the regions, as there is absolutely no reason in this era of digital offices why Albany or Bunbury cannot become the admin hub of DPIRD.

As for the location of the building that will be home to the remaining 800 city based workers, from everyone’s perspective the more you think about it the more the Chem Centre on Curtin campus makes so much sense as the logical neighbour for the Ag/Fish/Food/Regions Department.

The building is high tech and fit for purpose and linked to a big university that specialises in agriculture, marine science, food and the environment and has deep links to Muresk. 

No doubt Curtin would jump at the chance to dust off past offers made to government to allow them to redevelop part of their vast estate, they might even build the new building for the government.

Just think of the size of the redevelopment area if you combine the 20 ha of Ag Dep land with Curtin’s reams of vacant land – maybe it’s even big enough for a viable rail line!

What we don’t want to see is the Department continued to be split up across Perth. Already some of them are located in the CBD, others are in Fremantle, Hillarys and Vic Park.  What was the point of bringing the three Agencies together if they cannot centralise under one roof. 

As it stands if this happens it will be ripe for the picking by Treasury come the inevitable post-election departmental budget cuts via the dreaded efficiency dividends.

The Minister needs to put her foot down and tell the Treasurer to tell his Department to back off.  Its time to stop the spin on how much they are spending in the Wheatbelt, stop raiding Royalties for Regions, fund some real regional development schemes like roads and build an iconic home for the Department.  Anything less will be just another nail in the coffin of the old Ag Department as an Agency.

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