Relocating public service jobs from Canberra is 'absurd': Dennis Richardson

Efforts to relocate public servants from Canberra are "absurd" and should target Australia's largest capital cities instead, former leading bureaucrat Dennis Richardson says.

The ex-ASIO director-general and former secretary of the Foreign Affairs and Defence departments criticised decentralisation projects targeting the national capital, saying most public servants already lived outside the city.

Mr Richardson has also denounced anti-Canberra rhetoric that painted the city as a "bubble", describing it instead as a medium-size regional centre interconnected with nearby country towns.

Dennis Richardson at his home in Canberra. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

Dennis Richardson at his home in Canberra. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

Asked about efforts to decentralise the public service and move bureaucrats to the country, he said any "logical" approach would relocate public servants from the CBDs of Sydney and Melbourne, and to a lesser extent, Brisbane.

"Only around 40 per cent of Commonwealth public servants live and work in Canberra," Mr Richardson said.

"It's simply absurd to be moving people out of Canberra when you have almost 60 per cent of public servants living outside of Canberra and too many of them living and working in the big cities."

Mr Richardson rejected comments that people living in the ACT belonged to a "bubble", saying they were part of regional Australia.

"The 'Canberra bubble' is created by the politicians who are elected right around the country who happen to spend a hundred days or so a year in Canberra," he said.

"They create the bubble, but it's their way of avoiding accountability by referring to it."

Nearby regional towns didn't criticise Canberra because they were interconnected with it, backing its sporting teams and using services linked with the ACT, he said.

"We don't have to be told what regional Australia is or isn't," Mr Richardson, who lives in Canberra, said.

"We live in it, we are part of it."

Mr Richardson, speaking last week ahead of his appointment as a companion of the Order of Australia on Monday, also said the growth in sources of policy advice for governments was a "good thing".

He said the increased competition for public servants giving policy advice - including from consultants - was something to embrace for the bureaucracy.

"Things change and there's always a tendency to look back and become nostalgic and think that everything in the past was better than now. That's not right," he said.

"Most things are better today than what they were 40 years ago."

The public service's hierarchy was less rigid and more bureaucrats felt able to speak more freely.

"I think it's a healthier work environment with a better gender mix, and by and large your younger people coming into the public service today are better educated with often more experience than what was the case 40, 50 years ago, so I think the quality is certainly there," Mr Richardson said.

"The degree to which the public service is prepared to look at itself critically and continually push itself to improve I think is a very good thing."

The federal government has promised to move more bureaucrats from Canberra by shifting Murray Darling Basin Authority jobs to four regional towns.

The pesticides authority's tumultuous move to Armidale from the ACT, ordered in 2016, is also due to finish in mid-2019.

Portfolios have to review their staffing in country towns yearly after the Coalition embedded the decentralisation project into its budget cycle.

New Decentralisation Minister and western NSW-based MP Mark Coulton on Monday did not rule out moving more public servants from Canberra, but said it wasn't going to be a focus as he tried to bring more employment to regional areas.

Decentralisation was about more than relocating bureaucrats, and skills shortages in the regions needed solving, he said.

Mr Coulton said the ACT's population and economy was growing.

"I don't think moving a couple of hundred bureaucrats out is going to be the death of Canberra," he said.

Mr Coulton, who described Canberra as a "wonderful city", said drought had struck his electorate and large parts of regional Australia.

"I'm not bashing up Canberra here, but I'm saying we just need to keep some perspective," he said.