Amid a hail of criticism, the federal government is pushing forth with contentious plans to move the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA) from Canberra to Armidale in northern NSW.
About $25.6 million has been signed off by the government to enable the move, satisfying an official policy order requiring the regulatory authority to shift at least 150 kilometres away from Canberra.
Peak crop protection industry body CropLife has vented its disappointment about the move, but will work with the federal government to make it happen, “for the sake of Australian farmers and farm productivity”.
CropLife chief executive officer, Matthew Cossey, said the Armidale plan lacked any initiatives that would make the regional city a genuine Centre of Excellence.
“Simply relocating an agency from one building in Canberra to one in Armidale does not make a Centre of Excellence,” he said, emphasising it was also critical to retain the continuity of senior management at APVMA, many of whom don’t want to move.
“While we recognise Deputy Prime Minister, Barnaby Joyce, is acting with good intentions, just relocation in itself doesn’t achieve anything except interrupting the efforts being made by the APVMA to improve regulatory efficiency.”
Mr Joyce, also the Agriculture and Water Resources Minister, said the move cemented The Nationals’ plan to create Centres of Excellence in Agriculture in regional Australia.
It also delivered on the Coalition Government’s commitment to decentralise metropolitan-based agencies which have a regional focus and provides some agricultural agencies with unprecedented engagement with farmers, growers, scientists and research experts.
Armidale is in the heart of Mr Joyce’s New England electorate.
It is also home to a CSIRO research base, the Beef Industry Centre of Excellence; the Australian Sheep Industry Co-operative Research Centre; Australian Poultry Cooperative Research Centre, a Meat and Livestock Australia office; the Institute for Genetics and Bioinformatics, Animal Genetics and Breeding Unit; Institute for Rural Futures and the National Centre of Science, Information and Communication Technology and Mathematics Education for Rural and Regional Australia.
Mr Joyce said Canberra-based staff concerned about moving to “one of the most welcoming communities in NSW” would be supported by a transition team and an advisory committee to oversee the relocation.
“From the researchers who develop chemicals the APVMA regulates, to the farmers who use them, this move puts APVMA regulators at the heart of where boots hit the dirt in country Australia,” he said.
He said the move promised to modernise the APVMA, with a fresh digital strategy.
It would also provide unprecedented opportunity to young scientists on the Northern Tablelands, with new University of New England courses being developed to complement the hub of excellence, such as the new regulatory science course commencing in 2017.
“Relocating the APVMA is an important next step to bring more quality jobs and expertise to Armidale and the surrounding region – an area with a strong history in agriculture, now has an even stronger future in agriculture here,” he said.
“Young regional scientists have been contributing to the APVMA for some time, but now they will also have access to a world-class opportunity on their doorstep.”
Plans for the move, announced in June, have been opposed by unions and the National Farmers Federation (NFF).
CropLife complained relocating the farm chemical regulator was not an idea generated from any stakeholder consultation and there had been no initiatives or associated funding to truly deliver a genuine centre of excellence.
“We believe a relocation in and of itself will have negative consequences for Australian farming productivity,” CropLife’s Mr Cossey said.
There, are however opportunities to deliver structural changes and initiatives that would leverage technology to streamline APVMA and associated regulatory operations.
”Direct funding for an online regulatory assessment platform, necessary for the development of a next generation regulator, is missing, as is any structural reform in-line with the 2014 National Commission of Audit or the 2008 Productivity Commission Research Report Chemicals and Plastics Regulation that could have delivered real regulatory efficiency.
“Co-locating the minor use and specialty crop program with the University of New England would leverage the network of university researchers and deliver more sustainable management practices while alleviating existing economic and regulatory market failures, similar to successful international programs such as the IR-4 in the US.”
The federal opposition has branded the idea as blatant pork-barrelling to New England voters and claims the move will cost millions of dollars in staff redundancies and re-employment costs, plus a tenancy breach of contract penalty when the APVMA’s leaves it current office site.
The move has, however, won the support of horticulturalist and television personality Don Burke, of Burke’s Backyard fame, who played a role in the original APVMA’s establishment more than 20 years ago.
He said moving to Armidale was “the best thing the APVMA has ever done”.
“It puts you in the absolute centre of country activities which will keep a balanced focus of the APVMA,” Mr Burke said.
“It’s primarily focussed on country activities.
“What they are looking at are all the chemicals that go into all the crops and all the animals that finish up in us.
“They need to be in touch with people, particularly the country. I believe in this move, I really do. ”
Mr Joyce tried to assure staff who were concerned about moving to Armidale that the tablelands centre offered a great work and lifestyle environment and the government would work in partnership with the committee to ensure the smoothest transition possible.
“Armidale has NBN, excellent cafes, art galleries, a university, cathedrals, quality health services, small bars, quality schools and a welcoming community,” Mr Joyce said.
“The APVMA’s move is part of a wider decentralisation strategy to grow the regional presence of agricultural agencies.
Also on the move are the Murray Darling Basin Authority, which is relocating to Toowoomba and the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation to Wagga Wagga, while the Grains Research and Development Corporation will have offices to Toowoomba and Dubbo.
CropLife said it was imperative the government now worked with key stakeholders the farm chemical sector and the NFF to ensure the delivery of outcomes that would enhance Australian farmers’ productivity.”
“The Deputy Prime Minister needs to ensure regulatory assessments of crucial agricultural products are not affected by this relocation, for the sake of farmer productivity,” it said.