As recent articles have reported, the Department of Immigration and Border Protection is considering moving its 4000 employees out of Belconnen. Tender documents have revealed the department is looking to lease 80,000 square metres of building space in one precinct.

More recently, the Department of Finance assumed responsibility for this decision as part of a broader accommodation review announced by the Federal Government. Finance has promised to take local interests into account, a line hailed as indicating success in the campaign against the move in the media and by some community groups.

This would be premature.

For a start, neither Finance or Immigration can explain how the concept of a ‘local interest’ can be incorporated into a tender process that assumes a level playing field for respondents. And even if Immigration stays in Belconnen (as it rightly should), it’s only a matter of time before another rogue Departmental Secretary thinks it’s a good idea to try something like this again. Just back in 2013 there were similar rumours of Centrelink employees being moved out of Tuggeranong.

The impact caused by Departments leaving town centres can be devastating. Think about what would happen if Immigration left Belconnen:

  • There would be an estimated $41 million annual loss to businesses in the Belconnen town centre, with further job losses and shop closures inevitable. The new apartment buildings being constructed in the area would become less appealing for buyers.
  • The two most likely locations for a relocated Immigration department are Civic and the airport. Either way, the thousands of employees living northside will have to squeeze through the chokepoints at Civic and/or Russell in morning and afternoon peak hour traffic. More cars on the road means more delays and more stress.
  • Assuming that most employees live near Belconnen, any shift could increase typical commute times by up to an hour per day. Quite aside from the additional transport costs, this move completely ignores any commitments that its employees might have outside work, like school pickups for children. The public service should be a model employer, and to consider acting in this way sends a message that the needs of its employees don’t matter.

The Federal Government is by far the largest employer in the ACT. Precisely because of these large potential impacts, the local governments of most cities with a single major employer remain in constant conversation about employment and investment decisions. Yet the ACT Government remains strangely disengaged about this whole affair, and appears to be just hoping that things work out.

I have been campaigning over the last few months for an improved and permanently agreed process for handling Commonwealth department relocations.  Any such process should routinely include conversations with affected staff, the Chief Minister, and the local community.

If the Department of Immigration needs all its workers in the one location, moving 4000 Immigration workers to another location after 40 years in Belconnen isn’t the way to go. It would be far better to move the 1500 Customs workers to Belconnen. As this would have a smaller but noticeable effect on the economy in Civic, a cautious approach is still necessary. This is a good opportunity for the Department of Finance and the ACT Government to trial a more consultative approach.