Agriculture stakeholders turn on department over APVMA relocation

By Stephen Easton

Friday May 12, 2017

The most high-profile example of Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce’s push to move public service jobs to regional centres is really not working out so well for some of his key stakeholders as Minister for Agriculture.

As The Mandarin reported in February, pesticides manufacturers are keeping a keen eye on the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority’s KPIs and are alarmed to see the figures going south as the agency packs up and moves north from Canberra to Armidale.

Joyce has repeatedly presented the relocation as an appropriate and well thought-out example of his public service decentralisation policy in action.

February’s numbers looked bad to CropLife, the peak body representing the plant science and agricultural chemical industry, but it now says the latest performance statistics released yesterday are the worst ever.

Pulling no punches, CropLife chief executive Matthew Cossey accuses the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources of “simply looking busy and shirking responsibility” for the past three years, rather than fixing other “mistakes” he said it had made long before the relocation was ever proposed.

He describes the relocation as “an arbitrary government decision that had no endorsement or support by anyone in the agriculture industry” that will be a “complete failure” unless a “comprehensive package of reforms” is immediately deployed to rescue the regulator. Animal Medicines Australia, representing another key industry stakeholder group, has also called for a “comprehensive intervention” to improve the situation.

“Excessive loss of key specialist staff, due to the Government’s relocation decision, has led to the failure of the regulator to meet its obligated time-frames for more than two-thirds of product registration applications,” Cossey said in a statement.

“This means that farmers are missing out on a significant number of important agricultural products, putting them at a massive disadvantage to their international competitors.

“This relocation is crippling the plant science industry in Australia but the real victims will be Australia’s hard-working farmers.”

At the start of the year, the agency warned that since one in four applications under consideration were overdue at the end of 2016, the process of working through those would slow its performance in future quarters. Yesterday it confirmed that prediction was accurate, and the slowdown will keep flowing on:

“Timeframe performance dropped in the March quarter 2017 as the agency increased its focus on addressing overdue applications, particularly in the pesticides area. This is likely to continue into future quarters as the agency continues to prioritise work on those applications which are overdue.”

Cossey suggested “failing APVMA operations” could cost farmers and the agricultural industry billions of dollars in lost revenue over several years, based on Joyce’s own cost-benefit analysis of the move to Armidale. Even if that’s an over-estimate, it’s not the sort of thing Joyce and his department want to be blamed for.

The industry body had offered advice and tried to help with the process, despite its opposition to the relocation, which it still hopes can be reconsidered to stop the crippling brain drain it claims has afflicted the APVMA.

“This latest performance report surely signifies that it is time to stop and reconsider the decision to relocate a crucial agricultural regulator that is dependent on technical scientific specialists for which there is a global shortage.

“Urgent action is now well overdue to save the regulator from getting to the point of not being able to register agricultural chemical products in timeframe at all. The Department’s promised and long-overdue regulatory fixes are now three years behind schedule and these changes are about fixing the Department’s last mistakes and aren’t specific to addressing the disaster we are facing now.”

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