The Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority’s latest performance figures show the folly of Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce’s decision to move the agency to Armidale, according to one of the regulator’s key industry stakeholders.
CropLife Australia, an industry peak body representing the agricultural chemicals and plant science sector, says the APVMA’s latest performance figures are “of deep concern” and is calling on the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources to “take urgent action” to manage well-publicised risks associated with the relocation.
CropLife was one of many organisations that opposed Joyce’s decision to shift the APVMA to a major centre in his own electorate, after disregarding a cost-benefit and risk analysis commissioned by his department, and in the face of strong indications that the move would create instant workforce headaches for the agency.
The figures released on Thursday show the APVMA’s “timeframe performance” for registrations of pesticides dropped sharply, from 82% completed within the specified timeframe in the September quarter of last year to 50% for the December quarter.
The veterinary medicines side of the equation shows a small improvement, however, with the KPI for the agency’s speed in getting products through the registration process improving from 84% to 87% in the same period.
The clear slowdown in the pesticides registration process meant the APVMA’s overall timeframe performance went down from 83% to 69% while another related key performance measure, “work in progress still within timeframe” dropped from 79% to 74% overall.
The agency explains “one in four applications being considered by the APVMA were overdue at the end of 2016. As the APVMA clears the overdue applications, it will (negatively) impact on timeframe performance in future quarters.”
CropLife Australia chief executive Matthew Cossey praised the APVMA as “an independent, scientifically competent and technically proficient regulator” in the robust statement, but strongly criticised the sudden slowdown:
“This disappointing performance means farmers will have delayed access to the latest innovative crop protection farming tools, less choice in crop protection products, and will pay more due to the cost impost that these regulatory delays cause. This adds just another hurdle for our farmers being able to compete globally and seriously undermines the plant science industry’s capacity to support the nation’s farming sector.”
Cossey said the regulator had “only just recovered” from delivering “an all time performance low” one year ago and blames “ongoing issues relating to efficiency and operational performance” as well as Joyce’s decision to relocate it:
“It is clear that urgent and significant action is required to address the impacts that the proposed relocation of the authority is already having, as well as investment in creating a world-leading next generation regulator that is significantly more efficient.”
DPM Joyce rallies the troops in lieu of evidence
Joyce, on the other hand, hopes populism will win the day over boring bureaucratic thingamajigs like public service KPIs, hard-headed economic analysis and risk management.
The Nationals leader and Minister for Agriculture welcomed a Senate inquiry set up by his political opponents to press the government over the issue as a chance for his party’s supporters to launch an organised barrage of demands for more public service jobs be transferred to their own towns:
“We have been trying to get Labor to engage in the conversation about decentralisation, which is growing jobs into regional Australia and relocating government agencies out of major cities.
“Every town that has ever wanted Centrelink or a tax office, every town that has ever wanted a Centre of Excellence, every town that has wanted an agency such as the Grains Research and Development Corporation or the Murray Darling Basin Authority, now is the time to make your bid.
“Every Council, Chamber of Commerce, [Country Women’s Association] and community association in every regional town is invited to make a submission to this inquiry, to tell Canberra and the Labor Party, why regional Australia deserves Commonwealth agencies bringing well-paid, skilled jobs to your area.”
Joyce said the Nationals “believed in” decentralisation as a way to put more tax dollars to work outside metropolitan areas and suggested the benefits of “housing affordability and a better environment for families” would make a tree change appealing to public servants.
Joyce said the recent relocation of the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation from Canberra to Wagga Wagga would save the government “about $1.2 million per year, including $266,000 in rent alone” and his colleague, Minister for Regional Development Fiona Nash, chipped in her own opinion on sending bureaucrats to the bush.
“Public service jobs are a huge driver of downstream jobs, especially when placed in regional and rural towns,” claimed Nash in the joint call to arms, which appears to be aimed at a narrower audience than the general public.
Joyce said it was “time for every town in Australia to tell Canberra why they deserve an injection of government investment” and called on “regional groups” to “put forward their own research into what vibrancy decentralised jobs would breathe into regional communities”.
CropLife Australia’s CEO said statements from Joyce foreshadowing funding to create a centre of excellence for agricultural chemistry in Armidale, where there is a University of New England campus, were welcome. He added:
“However, that will all be for nothing if in the meantime the regulator’s performance puts Australia’s farmers a generation behind in the essential chemistry for modern farming.
“It’s important to remember that farmers access of crop protection products directly underpin more than AUD$18 billion of Australia’s crop production.”
For better or worse, Australia’s modern agriculture industry is heavily reliant on the products made by the companies CropLife represents, as Cossey suggests. And some of those products take a staggering amount of research and development, he adds:
“It now takes over 11 years of research and development, requiring the testing of more than 140,000 compounds, costing more than US$286 million to bring just one new successful crop protection product to the market, and a third of those costs are directly related to regulation.”