The chemicals our farmers use to protect their crops from pests and disease are critically important to our agricultural productivity. Indeed, they are important to the global community, we could not feed the growing masses without them. And while they are not universally popular, they are necessary, at least until the next generation of technology comes along. Interestingly, genetically modified crops will be part of that technology mix. But that is a subject for another day.
The Australian Pesticides & Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA) is the Australian Government statutory authority responsible for the assessment and registration of pesticides and veterinary medicines; and for their regulation up to, and including, the point of retail sale. It sits within the portfolio of the Minister for Agriculture Barnaby Joyce.
The APVMA’s vision statement reads – “To be recognised nationally and internationally as a best practice regulator of pesticides and veterinary medicines that has the respect and confidence of governments, the community, the rural sector, chemical users and the chemicals industry”.
Its mission - “To protect the health and safety of people, animals and crops, the environment, and trade, and support Australian primary industries through evidence-based, effective and efficient regulation of pesticides and veterinary medicines.”
The independent assessment, approval and regulation of these chemicals is a big job and at the APVMA, it keeps 160 experts very busy. Indeed this staffing number is small compared with organisations in the European Union and the United States, even when measured proportionately. So it’s efficient too.
Of course the APVMA is not without its critics, what bureaucracy isn’t? Particularly when charged with juggling so many different interests – consumers, farmers and chemical companies. It appears to me it does a pretty darn good job given its limited resources and all the challenges it faces.
Those challenges are about to become somewhat more difficult. Barnaby Joyce is forcing the APVMA to move to Armidale in his electorate. Of course, he hails it as a master decentralisation plan which – along with his decision to move his ministerial office from Sydney to the same town – will energise the Armidale economy.
The reality is somewhat different. For a start, Barnaby is not only asking the APVMA to move, he wants the organisation to pay for the move from its own over-stretched budget. Worse, there is little doubt many of the APVMA’s best won’t make the move. That will cost the APVMA dearly both in expertise and in redundancy payments.
At Senate Estimates it was revealed that if the APVMA was forced to move it would need to break its six year lease in Canberra which it estimates will cost approximately $2.6 million; money that would be better spent undertaking its mission statement.
Furthermore, as Minister for Agriculture, whenever I needed to speak with the experts at the APVMA they took the short ride to Parliament House. The same occurs now when I need advice as the Shadow Minister. Having the APVMA based in Canberra allows for better accessibility to the organisation, not just by politicians but also by other like type organisations. Under Barnaby Joyce’s plan, that trek will be somewhat longer and yes, the cost will come out of the APVMA’s budget.
We all like the idea of decentralisation but as a concept, it is not without its challenges. Well planned and executed it can work. History sadly tells us that more often, it fails. That’s largely because the professionals who serve in our Canberra-based government departments and agencies like living in Canberra and are often committed to the national capital. Many for example, have children in Canberra schools. Losing these staff members could lead to a decline in the intellectual capital and corporate knowledge that currently exists within the APVMA.
As professional and committed public servants, you are not likely to hear from those who work at the APVMA. But you can be sure they are not happy. Worse, you can be sure many will not make the move. That is also true of those at the Research and Development Corporations that Barnaby is also forcing to leave Canberra. Watch this space, it won’t be pretty and the losers will be well beyond those directly affected.
This article was first published in FARMONLINE on Monday the 4th of May2015.