NATIONALS leader Barnaby Joyce says the Rural Industries Research & Development Corporation is coming to Wagga Wagga and more decentralisation moves can be expected under Coalition policy.
Mr Joyce met with RIRDC stakeholders in Wagga on Friday with local Riverina Nationals MP Michael McCormack to discuss the mechanics of the agency shifting bush, from Canberra.
Under Coalition policy, the RIRDC has been relocated to the largest inland city in NSW which has a population of more than 55,000 and sits on the Murrumbidgee River acting as an intense agricultural hub, especially grains and livestock.
But Mr Joyce has been criticised by the Labor Opposition for pushing the RIRDC and others out of Canberra, including the Grains Research and Development Corporation which is the biggest RDC with an annual research budget of about $200 million.
After some pushback, the GRDC eventually agreed to a “hub and spoke” relocation model, retaining a central head office in Canberra and various regional offices throughout core grain growing States like Dubbo in NSW.
However, the RIRDC Board agreed to move its entire operations 250kms west to Wagga in regional NSW while former GRDC Managing Director John Harvey will also take the helm, with Craig Burns stepping down.
The Board has agreed to a phased transfer process that’s due to be completed by July 1 next year.
Mr Joyce and Mr McCormack spoke to media in Wagga on Friday as they met with the RIRDC’s core stakeholders to discuss the transfer of operations and 21 staff.
Mr McCormack said the meeting would help establish the RIRDC’s relocation structure and to “see what spin-offs there are for agriculture and other start-up businesses”.
Another major battle still undecided over shifting the Australian Pesticides & Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA) from Canberra to Armidale in Mr Joyce’s New England electorate – but he said decentralisation was a policy the Nationals “will always fight for”.
Mr Joyce said his party wanted to “make sure we move the jobs out to the regions where the people who they affect, live”.
“It’s great to have the RIRDC being moved to Wagga Wagga,” he said.
“This will be a great outcome for those in the industries that the RIRDC supports such as the rice industry which is very pertinent to this part of the world.
“I want to make sure that in talking with those people involved in the RIRDC that we have this section of the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources working at its very best.
“We know that we have to be at the forefront of research and development and technology to make sure that our agriculture industries are as good as they can possibly be.”
In this term of government, Mr Joyce has also come under fire for implementing the decentralisation policy which led to the Fisheries RDC’s head office being moved to Adelaide.
But he told media in Wagga agricultural exports were now second to iron ore as the nation’s biggest export industry and the outlook was also positive with record cattle and sheep meat prices, and other aspects of the agricultural economy “turning around” because of new Free Trade Agreements and nine new live animal export destinations including seven major ones.
“I’m looking forward to other forms of decentralisation so we can help other areas in other towns throughout our nation,” the Agriculture and Water Resources Minister said.
Mr Joyce said with approval given, RIRDC stakeholders were now in the process of holding discussions to work out when the agency would arrive in Wagga which was “part of the process of government”.
“It’s moving - it’s coming to Wagga,” he said.
“I don’t want to get sort of completely and utterly definitive but I’m making sure it’s happening as quickly as possible and that was happening, if we had an election or not, because it’s the policy of the Nationals and a policy of the government to decentralise
“Once more, it’s a promise we made and a promise we delivered on.”
The RIRDC manages 30 different industries like tropical fruits and truffles with the former Managing Director saying finding an ideal location was “pretty difficult”.
He also said the cost of moving two thirds of its people to Wagga had been calculated at $1.4 million with no new funds provided to pay for the move.
“If we are not given new funds to fund that the only way we can fund it is to reduce the R&D spend,” Mr Burns told Senate estimates this year
Shadow Agriculture Minister Joel Fitzgibbon has said relocating the APVMA to New England is a “mad move” which would produce serious adverse outcomes for farmers as scientists and other professional APVMA staff chose to seek a job elsewhere.
Mr Fitzgibbon has also said Malcolm Turnbull’s intervention in the matter – in saying Mr Joyce’s proposal be subject to a cost-benefit risk analysis – would deliver a result that a kindergarten student could answer.
He said Mr Joyce had recently sought stakeholder comment on what the terms-of-reference for the analysis, “to drag the process out beyond the election”.
“Pork-barrelling is bad enough, but when the inevitable outcome is bad for the Minister’s own sector it becomes a case of Barnaby Joyce putting his own political interest ahead of Australian farmers,” he said late last month.
Mr Fitzgibbon said the minister’s determination to move the chemical regulator out of Canberra and into his electorate would be a “disaster” for the agriculture sector.
“I say to Malcolm Turnbull: you must now intervene and stop this craziness,” he said.
“The chemical regulator’s customers are not farmers, they are the big multinational chemicals companies which obviously sit within our capital cities, including Canberra.
“The APVMA staff are largely highly technical people, professionals, scientists and the like, living in Canberra, have their kids in school in Canberra and we are already seeing they are looking around for new jobs.
“Now the loss of that expertise in the APVMA is going to be very, very bad news for Australian agriculture.
“Already the chemical registration process is slowing down because people are effectively taking time off work worrying about where their employment future lies.”