The Turnbull government’s plans to stimulate regional economies by moving federal agencies out of metropolitan areas got a slight boost this week, with indications that a slump in the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority’s performance has begun to turn around.
The agency’s move from Canberra to Armidale has been a poor adverstisement for the decentralisation policy, with indications that benefits to the town might be outweighed, at least in the short term, by a range of costs that industry groups say will flow on to farmers.
Since its controversial relocation to Armidale was announced, two lobby groups representing companies whose products are regulated by the APVMA have kept a close watch on the agency’s performance, which affects how quickly they can get new products to market.
By and large, Animal Medicines Australia and CropLife Australia haven’t been impressed but this week the tune has changed, as both applauded the APVMA’s December quarter performance and said it had done well in tricky circumstances.
While the APVMA is required to meet statutory timeframes for approving agricultural and veterinary chemicals, and it has been under-performing in this regard, the companies that produce them are not its only stakeholders. To “protect the health and safety of people, animals, plants and the environment” is its key purpose, after all.
Chris Parker, the regulator’s relatively new CEO, says the recent improvement came from “small changes to, and a renewed focus on, process and procedure in the agency’s assessment and registration areas” in a statement this week.
“I must recognise the commitment of our people who have worked tirelessly to progress the assessment of hundreds of agvet chemical products, chemical actives and permit applications,” Parker said, pleased to see a backlog of work was slowly being reduced at a time when the previously obscure agency had found itself in the spotlight.
“We’re headed in the right direction and I must thank staff for the resilience they’ve displayed to maintain and improve performance across a range of areas, despite the intense public scrutiny.
“There will continue to be volatility in the figures surrounding our performance, however the recent results demonstrate that improvements can, and are, being made at the APVMA with the current staffing profile.”
The KPIs show “the regulator is on the right path” according to Animal Medicines Australia executive director Ben Stapley.
“This is a significant achievement with the regulator under difficult circumstances as it prepares to relocate to Armidale,” he said in a statement on Wednesday.
“However, targeted reform is still needed to assist the APVMA meet timeframes for applications requiring major assessment.
“For the December quarter, while 71% of all veterinary medicine applications were decided within the required legislative timeframe, just 40% of major applications were determined on time.”
Major applications are more complex and take longer because they involve novel products that require more than the usual level of scrutiny from the regulatory scientists.
CropLife Australia chief Matthew Cossey was pleased to see on-time assessments of various pesticides and herbicides jump from 36% in the September quarter to 72% in the latest figures. But like Stapley, he hopes to see a similar acceleration of more complex major assessments, of which only 49% were completed on time for crop protection products.
“In challenging circumstances, the APVMA, under the direction of the Chief Executive Officer Dr Chris Parker, has improved the timeliness of crop protection product registrations as well as the overall performance of the regulator,” Cossey said.
“Although it is too early to tell if this performance is sustainable and ongoing, particularly during the physical relocation to Armidale, this level of improvement is certainly commended by the plant science industry.”
Cossey said it appeared a “renewed focus on process and procedure has been effective in reversing the recent downward trend in performance” for the APVMA. In Stapley’s view, “Better aligning regulatory burden with risk, streamlining routine variations and financial investment is needed.”
Regulatory reform follows relocation
The industry lobbyists have long called for further reform to speed up APVMA’s processes and so the downturn in performance that has coincided with the relocation process may have strengthened their position.
The slowdown led Parker to commission an independent review of the agency’s operational performance from the Canberra consulting firm Reason Group with a view to speeding up approvals. Yesterday the APVMA published the review and announced it had accepted all of its recommendations.
“The report outlines recommendations against three broad themes: improve the use of regulatory instruments; build more efficient assessment processes; and modify legislation, cost recovery and reporting methods to better position the agency to deliver,” Parker explained.
“The review confirms the fluctuations and volatility in our workload, and that the range in quality and complexity of applications we receive makes it difficult to meet the legislated performance measure of 100 per cent on-time assessments.”
This would have been music to the ears of the industry groups. Cossey had said in his statement, one day before the announcement:
“It is now more important than ever that the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources deliver targeted reforms that will free the APVMA from unnecessary and out-dated regulatory processes, helping the regulator to fully meet their statutory obligation of finalising 100% of application types within timeframe.”
Also on Wednesday, the Animal Medicines Australia boss argued: “A more efficient regulatory scheme will be essential if the planned relocation to Armidale is to succeed.”
The veterinary medicines peak body called on the new Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources, David Littleproud, to take the opportunity to push through “urgently needed reforms” and invest in the agency’s capability through newer ICT systems.
“Animal Medicines Australia looks forward to working with the Minister to develop a more streamlined and better resourced regulator and for the APVMA to have the tools and systems it needs to continue to improve its performance.”
However, Parker said the consultants’ report showed there was “no silver bullet” that could suddenly speed up the work of the regulator, which has had to provide significant financial support and incentives to encourage staff to move to Armidale.
“There are multiple factors contributing to delays in the assessment of agricultural and veterinary (agvet) chemicals in Australia and these factors must be addressed through a considered and coordinated program of reform,” he said.
“The priority right now is to prepare our people and operations for Armidale. So our focus is on implementing those recommendations that lay a strong foundation for the future APVMA operations in Armidale where further improvements will be made.
“We want to deliver an efficient and cost effective service for registrants and ensure access to safe and effective agvet chemicals for all Australians, and we will.”