The agency at the centre of a controversial decentralisation scheme spearheaded by former deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce has convinced just eight of 170 staff to move from Canberra to Armidale.
Australia’s chemical regulator, the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA), said a further 14 staff are “considering” a move, two years after it was formally announced by the Coalition government.
“The risk associated with loss of staff are patently obvious,” the agency’s chief executive officer Chris Parker told a Senate hearing on Tuesday.
“The relocation is a challenge and there are risks we continue to manage.”
The agency has 190 staff – 90 of those are scientists the agency depends on to assess the safety and effectiveness of farm and agvet chemicals.
Asked by the ABC about the outcomes of Tuesday’s Senate hearing, former deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce, who pushed for the relocation of the agency to his electorate, said that staff who have left would be easy to replace.
“Fifteen jobs were advertised for the APVMA there, and there were 400 applications from all around Australia.
“The head of the operations will be in Armidale and over time more will move. That was the plan from the start.
“The vast majority of administration and employment will be in Armidale.”
Bending of relocation rules canned
Twenty six workers are already operating in Armidale, but that figure is expected to rise to 150 by mid-2019.
An interim office opened in Armidale in April 2017, while a larger, purpose-built office is under construction and due to be completed mid-next year.
Under questioning from Labor Senator Glenn Sterle, Dr Parker defended a controversial decision to keep 40 APVMA staffers in Canberra to ensure the agency maintains key staff.
“There were risks associated with maintaining the performance of the organisation – a statutory responsibility of mine – so I needed to put mechanisms in place,” he said.
The Opposition criticised the decision to keep dozens of staff in Canberra, saying it contradicted the rules the government established to justify the relocation.
In 2016, the Coalition issued an order that required the agency be located in a regional town within 10 kilometres of a regional university with agricultural science credentials.
The so-called government policy order defines a regional community as “a community that is not within 150 kilometres by road of Canberra or the capital city of a state”.
“With no choice but to start employing staff in Canberra again, Barnaby Joyce’s hand-picked CEO is claiming he has legal advice which allows him to employ locally – in breach of the government policy order Mathias Cormann used to force the relocation,” Labor’s agriculture spokesman Joel Fitzgibbon said.
“The forced relocation of the APVMA is a shocking pork barrelling exercise and one which threatens to do great harm to the agriculture sector.”
But while the agency has had difficulty encouraging Canberra scientists to relocate, it has found some success in hiring new staff locally.
“We have 26 [scientists] in total in Armidale, six of whom relocated from Canberra and 20 that are new recruits,” APVMA deputy chief executive Lisa Croft said.
The APVMA said while staff still have a few months to decide on whether they relocate or take a voluntary redundancy, it said it was confident it could hire enough new scientists to fill any gaps.
Mr Fitzgibbon challenged that claim, saying “If Dr Parker is having no trouble securing scientists, why is he now employing 40 scientists in Canberra contrary to the government policy order? It has become worse than a farce”.
A staff survey in February found up to 80 staff are expected to leave the agency rather than move to Armidale.
Will Labor reverse the move?
During the committee hearing, Nationals Senator Barry O’Sullivan reprimanded Senator Sterle for questioning APVMA’s lease on its new building in Armidale.
When Senator Sterle asked if the APVMA could break the 15-year lease on the Armidale office, worth $16.3 million, Senator O’Sullivan cut him off and asked “Are we seeing a little glimpse into Labor policy, post the election?”
Mr Sterle hit back, saying “I’m in my right to ask how rock solid this move is to cement long-term relationships in our regions.”
Mr Joyce cautioned the Opposition against reversing the decision if elected in the upcoming federal election.
“It will show absolutely and clearly to any person in regional Australia that Labor is a joke, that all they have is rhetoric and no heart in supporting regional Australia whatsoever,” he told the ABC.
“There are 4000 people in the Department of Agriculture, and we are talking about just 190 of them.