Like it or lump it, Barnaby tells staff: ‘you’re a servant of the people’

By Stephen Easton

Wednesday March 1, 2017

Australian cattle on a farm, Western Australia

A huge boost to brand recognition is probably not of much value to an agricultural chemical regulator, but the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority hasn’t seen many positive outcomes from its forced relocation to Armidale so far.

When the now-rather-well-known agency starred in Senate Estimates once again this week, the public learned the government would need to build a new building for it, which should please Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce, the architect of the plan and the Member for New England.

But a lot of the agency’s specialist staff decided not to move there, just as they said in a survey. Out of 100 key “regulatory” scientists, 20 have left and CEO Kareena Arthy told senators the relocation was “overwhelmingly” the reason for 48 recent departures, apart from a couple who had just moved on to bigger and better things.

Asked what he would say to staff who would prefer to stay in Canberra, Joyce said public servants could not expect to “determine [their] own agenda” and suggested they try starting their own businesses if they wanted to do that. The DPM also launched a website to rally his rural constituents behind the push for public sector jobs to “get out of the city” for regional development.

The APVMA was “not having a lot of success getting [new] people in who want to go to Armidale” for the long term, either, said Arthy, and was hiring short-term staff to fill gaps as crunch time was fast approaching. She hopes to open a small transitional office with around 10 staff by the end of March.

Staff shortages could really start to bite in a few months, she warned, and her latest KPIs have already made at least one key stakeholder peak body nervous. She rates staff morale as pretty good.

Arthy said they had reached out to similar regulators in other Commonwealth nations but was not surprised when they told her such scientists were in short supply for them as well.

Incentives to move, such as a 15% salary bonus, are on the table and Arthy is also asking some scientists if they’d like to work from home instead, which would require IT systems to be totally rebuilt, she said.

But it was Arthy’s comment that she and other staff have sat in the local McDonalds and used the free wi-fi to do their work when they have visited Armidale, ahead of the small transitional office being opened, that was most widely picked up as more evidence that the move is causing the exact kind of operational troubles the government was warned about.

The comment — which probably doesn’t necessarily mean Maccas was the only option — guaranteed the APVMA made headlines once again. Not that being really well-known is particularly helpful to a regulator of chemicals that go on plants and animals.

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