Last week the Government’s agricultural policies came under the scrutiny of a Senate Estimates hearing. What emerged was further evidence that Barnaby Joyce is all over the shop. His various thought bubbles, public statements and failure to consult with neither his department nor industry is leaving the sector’s stakeholders bewildered. The Senate hearings also confirmed the Abbott Government has no vision or strategic plan for Australia's agriculture, fisheries and forestry sectors.
The Minister's most dangerous thought bubble is his threat to relocate a number of Research and Development Corporations (RDCs) and the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA) out of Canberra. We learned during Estimates that the cost of relocation to these agencies will be upwards of $40 million dollars. But the cost is sure to grow. Sadly Departmental officials could not provide a thorough analysis of the cost and impact of each move due to uncertainty around staff losses, redundancies and the flow on impacts of lost capacity and capability.
The Grains Research and Development Corporation said that they are predicting a loss of 90 percent of current staff. A workforce made up largely of people with PhDs, people with technical understanding in areas of research and development investment such as molecular biology, genetics, farming system, soils and crop protection.
Disappointingly, Government Senators exhibited no real concern about this loss of capacity and capability or how this would impact on the continuity of current or on future research projects. Instead, we watched with horror as Bill Heffernan, the Committee Chair, focused on the day-to-day running costs and where staff members sit on the plane when they travel for work.
This lack of concern points to a complete lack of understanding by the Government and Barnaby Joyce of the inevitable impact on agriculture research and development in Australia. His driving motivation appears to be the political popularity of this thought bubble. He has no regard to the collateral damage that will be incurred. This is reinforced by the fact that Barnaby Joyce has not even met with the RDCs or the APVMA to hear or understand their very real concerns the impact of his decision.
But we should not be surprised by Barnaby’s lack of concern because he is a Minister who often makes definitive public statements on various issues that are simply not true and require a tidy-up by his staff or departmental officials.
Exhibit A is Barnaby’s various statements about the release of the White Paper from “imminent” on 3 March 2015 at the ABARES conference in Canberra to his comments on Sky News on 17 May 2015 that “We could announce it [the White Paper] tomorrow; we could have announced it last week. I want to the dust to settle [on the Budget]”.
When Labor’s Senator Doug Cameron asked about the release of the White Paper during estimates - making reference to the Minister’s statements - Senator Colbeck stepped up, not to defend his Minister’s statements (how could he?), but to provide another excuse saying that “The White Paper is going through its final stages at the moment. I do not think it is too far away, but I do not have a final date”. Obviously with the White Paper timeline, vagary is the best option. All Departmental officials were left to add was "this is a difficult question”.
Exhibit B is his now well publicised Hansard change, an act designed to hide the manner in which he had embellished the effectiveness of his failed drought policy. What we did find out during Estimates was that there is still outstanding documentation relating to this matter and the sacking of Dr Grimes.
Exhibit C is his backflip on tax depreciation. Having originally over-stated the value of the proposal, the Minister was dragged to a policy change to a measure which would have extended assistance to those with cash and profit, but not until after June 30, 2017.
Exhibit D is the backflip on his attempts to abolish the position of Inspector General of Biosecurity, an attempt he still hasn't explained.
The jury is back on the Minister's performance and the verdict is not good. As one industry player told me; "people were prepared to give him time but for many of us, his time is up".
This article was first published in FARMONLINE on Monday the 1st of June 2015.