Agricultural agency is no poster child for public service decentralisation

By Stephen Easton

Monday October 23, 2017

The controversial relocation of the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority — to the New South Wales electorate of embattled Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce — continues to be a poor exemplar of the public service decentralisation push championed by the Nationals leader.

The APVMA’s former chief executive left and its performance has suffered markedly since the moving process began, although it announced last Thursday that it had picked up the pace and finished off a record number of applications in the last quarter.

“We’ve experienced a particularly productive quarter and it’s promising to see applications moving through assessment and products making their way to market,” APVMA chief Chris Parker said in a statement.

Only about 58% of applications were finalised on time, showing performance in that regard “held steady” in Parker’s explanation.

“Our work in progress is also tracking well,” he added, as 74% of applications still being assessed have not yet failed to meet the deadline.

“These results are a step in the right direction and it’s important that we continue to build more resilience and predictability into our operations,” said Parker.

“The chemical industry relies on us to make efficient and effective decisions which is why I have commissioned an independent review to report to me and identify the underlying causes of delays in our assessment and registration process.”

One of his key industry stakeholders, CropLife Australia, has not been impressed with the regulator’s performance reports since the relocation process began and doesn’t find the latest figures much better, although it does acknowledge a “small” improvement.

The organisation says the latest KPI report shows “continued poor timeframe performance for registration of crop protection products” and a need for “urgent operational reforms” in the agency.

“The latest performance statistics indicate that practical efforts by APVMA management and staff have helped start the recovery process for timeliness of crop protection product registrations, however there is still a long way to go to reach what could be considered acceptable performance,” said CEO Matthew Cossey in a statement on Friday.

Cossey notes it would take “significant improvement” for the agency to get back to where it was this time last year.

“The APVMA’s continuous failure to meet its statuary obligated timeframes is unacceptable and comes at a massive cost to the plant science industry and the nation’s farming sector,” he said.

CropLife wants to see “a comprehensive package of regulatory reforms to support the internal improvements being undertaken by the APVMA” to make sure it can get its core work done, at the same time as relocating.

Whether that’s the answer or not, it is clearly not a very good look when the Nationals want other departments to show cause as to why they should not be relocated for regional development purposes, especially given the party claims to understand the agricultural industry better than other politicians.

“Until the APVMA can consistently finalise applications for crop protection products within obligated timeframes, Australian farmers will continue to be at a disadvantage to their international competitors,” Cossey adds. “Australian farmers are already losing hundreds of millions of dollars of possible improved productivity due to the delayed registration of critical tools.”

The shadow minister for Agriculture Joel Fitzgibbon also took the opportunity to stick the boot in last week, calling the moving process a “train wreck” after questions on notice from one of his colleagues revealed a digital strategy that is a key part of the APVMA’s wider relocation plans had fallen way behind schedule.

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