Why Abbott's lighting fires in Geelong

Tony Abbott's suggestion that national disability scheme bureaucrats be used to fill Geelong's economic hole left by the Ford closure is clever, but also unlikely and confusing.

It comes as no surprise to hear that Tony Abbott thinks Geelong would be a great location for a new department to oversee the national disability insurance scheme, DisabilityCare.

Following last week’s announcement that Ford was to close down auto manufacturing in the city of 230,000 people, with the loss of 510 jobs, the Coalition has stolen a march on Labor as being Geelong’s saviour – though Abbott’s messages have been a little mixed.

He wants the city to continue to evolve as a city of learning (it hosts a campus of Deakin University), culture and medical research, and told reporters last week: “If the right decisions are made about the National Disability Insurance Scheme, it could be a city of administration too."

Jolly good. But then he also said on Friday: “The salvation of Geelong ... does not lie in the hands of big government, the salvation of Geelong lies in the hearts of great people."

So the city should be home to a huge government department overseeing the rollout of one of the nation’s biggest social reforms, but doesn’t need ‘big government’ to get going? ¿Qué?

And the ‘great people’ aren’t the public servants that would inevitably have to be airlifted in – perhaps he means the locals who’d serve them cappucinos in the morning and Bellarine Peninsula wines mid-afternoon when they knock off?

There are two important threads running through Abbott’s comments.

Firstly, Geelong is the major population centre of one of the nation’s most marginal seats – Corangamite, held by Labor’s Darren Cheeseman on a margin of just 0.44 per cent. Anything nice Abbott can say about the industrial town, and about its bright future “beyond the smokestacks”, as he put it, will help wrest it back for the Coalition.

The second thread will be important as the election campaign reaches its crescendo in August and September. The Coalition’s comments on relocating public servants out of Canberra look to be shrewd politics.

In early May Abbott told a Geelong radio station: “To the extent that we need public servants - and we certainly need some of them - why not try to locate as many of them as we can reasonably locate outside of Canberra?"

If this line is continued, that will allow Coaltion candidates to whip up excitement in many regional centres around the idea of an economic boost via the recession proof industry of public administration.

And though some commentators have argued this will never happen – because it’s very expensive to uproot existing departments – there is a second reason for banging the relocation drum.

If Abbott leads the next government, he is committed to eliminating up to 20,000 public servant jobs through ‘natural attrition’. Just how natural it is to threaten a comfortable Canberra bureaucrat with relocation to ‘bogan’ Geelong is matter for debate, but it would certainly cause some ‘attrition’.

Actually, Geelong’s a very pleasant city in parts. It has grand old pubs, a beautiful sea-frontage looking out into Port Phillip Bay, lovely homes along the banks of the Barwon River, new road to get residents to the Great Ocean Road stretch of coast, and a burgeoning arts scene. 

A few years ago I met a theatre director travelling by train from Melbourne each day to work in Geelong’s arts precinct. I asked him if he noticed much of a cultural difference between Melbourne and its denim-clad little sister. “Put it this way,” he told me. “When the Cat’s won the grand final, their fans celebrated by setting fire to cars.”

Surely not!

Abbott’s onto a winner promising to fill the economic hole left by Ford with public servants, and at the same time scaring senior Canberra bureacrats into early retirement. Whether it actually happens, under either a Labor or Coalition government, is still far from certain – a case of hot air beyond the smoke stacks.

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