SUBJECT: Senate Inquiry into the relocation of the APVMA.
TUESDAY, 11 APRIL 2017
JOEL FITZGIBBON, SHADOW MINISTER FOR AGRICULTURE, FISHERIES, FORESTRY AND RURAL AND REGIONAL AUSTRALIA: Thanks for coming along. I’m joined today by Senator Jenny McAllister who is doing an excellent job today chairing the Senate Inquiry into the relocation of the APVMA. I do note that Senator Bridget McKenzie is the only Coalition Senator to turn up for this inquiry. So important do they see its adverse impact on the agriculture sector in particular. Bridget McKenzie though should have followed the lead of her colleagues and not turned up today to defend the indefensible - to defend this relocation which will have such an adverse impact on the agriculture sector. Today various industry stakeholders including the National Farmers Federation lined up to say that the relocation of the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority is a bad idea. It’s a bad idea that will adversely affect the farming sector and their ability to secure the animal medicines and the crop protections they need. It’s going to pose a threat to human health both in occupational terms and possibly in consumption terms. The chemicals which are regulated by the APVMA are used of course to spray, by necessity, the food we consume which is a really important reminder about the importance of the work the authority does. Of course, everyone who owns a cat or a dog or any other animal in this country should be concerned about the delay in securing the medicines their veterinarians need to treat their companion animals.
We believe this relocation now won’t cost $26 million, the cost will be more in the order of $60 million by the time Barnaby Joyce rolls out his digital plan. In other words his plan to let people work from their homes in Canberra rather then move to Armidale. We are reminded today that the workforce of the APVMA has all but been destroyed. There’s something like 90 per cent of expert scientists and regulatory lawyers unprepared to move to Armidale and of course we heard from expert witnesses that it will take up to if not more than seven years to rebuild the APVMA’s workforce. That is bad news for all stakeholders and is certainly bad news for the agriculture sector.
Why is the Government spending $60 million and threatening the livelihood of farmers around the country? Well the answers is, it’s all to save Barnaby Joyce in his own electorate, that’s the only possible explanation. Now Bridget McKenzie did her best to change the topic of the inquiry today. I remind Bridget McKenzie who complained that Orange Council for example wasn’t invited to give a submission. Under Barnaby Joyce’s policy, Orange City Council is not eligible to house or host the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority. Now Barnaby Joyce keeps talking about decentralisation. I don’t hear Malcolm Turnbull talking about it . This is not a whole of government policy. This is Barnaby Joyce’s policy to save himself in New England.
SENATOR JENNY MCALLISTER: I simply wanted to make some remarks around the workforce implications of the decision to relocate to Armidale. The APVMA relies on what are called scientific regulators. It’s a specialist expertise and involves using science in a practical context to make risk based assessments about products people want to use on farms and animals in Australia. It is a highly specialised workforce and it has taken years to build up that capability in the APVMA. What we are hearing from the witnesses is that up to 90 per cent of that part of the agency, those scientific personnel who are at the core of their functions are not willing to move to Armidale. What it means is that it’s a proposition that has the potential to strip the heart of the capability out of the APVMA an organization that is absolutely critical, as Joel has pointed out, for the functioning of the agricultural sector in this country. What is interesting is that we are starting to see evidence of a workaround, arrangements to allow these same personnel to stay in Canberra and actually do their work from home. It’s a workaround that would require a significant investment in digital capability, an investment that is yet to be costed and incidentally a workaround that is now evidence from witnesses this morning is that it will mean that perhaps only 120 people, south of 120 people actually move to Armidale. Even if you accept the premise that we ought to dismantle this entire organisation to benefit one town in one part of rural Australia, in one person’s seat, the jobs moving there are going south day by day. This is really the hallmarks of a policy that was not thought through, is being made up on the run and is going to have very serious implications for the functioning of the agriculture sector.
FITZGIBBON: Thanks Jenny. Any questions?
JOURNALIST: Mr Fitzgibbon, you’re estimating it’s going to cost around $60 million, where are you getting that figure from? You just said it’s not been costed yet. Where has that come from?
FITZGIBBON: As you know information to Opposition often comes off the back of a truck. I am very confident about my sources. It directly relates to the cost of the digital rollout. Just picking up on something Jenny said. Imagine if I’m a regulatory scientist with the APVMA and I choose to stay in my home town of Canberra, the digital rollout in my home could cost $100,000, probably more. If I move in a week’s time or leave the agency in a month’s time, that will be money wasted and an investment in that home wasted. Barnaby Joyce knows no bounds and is prepared to waste as much taxpayers’ money as is necessary to shore himself up in his own electorate.
JOURNALIST: Senator, what are some of the messages you are picking up from the farm stakeholders most clearly about the impacts they are going to suffer from the delay in the approvals of these chemical products.
MCALLISTER: The delay in approvals is very significant because of course people who are developing these products seeking approval to use them in Australia invest significant amounts of capital in a: developing a product and b: preparing the regulatory information so the regulator can make an assessment. These products are used in particular windows, they are seasonal, so as little as a few weeks delay can mean an entire twelve month seasonal window until the product can be taken to market and a return gained from that product. This is just one example of the kinds of implications for those people who are importing or manufacturing agricultural products and of course we heard from those same stakeholders that the flow-through impact in terms of agricultural productivity can be very significant indeed.
FITZGIBBON: In fact, if I can say, we heard from one witness today who suggested that some of the big multinational companies which supply crop protection and veterinary medicines might just give the Australian market a miss because it was all too hard. Imagine the impact that would have on the agriculture sector in particular.
JOURNALIST: Is that a common message that you have heard from the likes of the NFF and others?
MCALLISTER: I think that all of the agricultural stakeholders whether they are in the business of producing the products or using the products are concerned to see the capability of the APVMA be maintained or improved. Nobody has given evidence that a move to Armidale in any way assists the APVMA in improving its capability and that is the real concern. Most of the witnesses indicate their concern that the move will substantially diminish their capability.
JOURNALIST: Mr Fitzgibbon, there was again evidence of long running concerns about the APVMA, but I think the NFF said there was opportunity there for also a new model for reform. Did you pick up on that?
FITZGIBBON: We can always lift the standards of our regulatory agencies. In fact that was happening within the APVMA, I think it was the end of the September quarter, their throughput had dramatically improved but of course by the end of the December quarter it had dramatically collapsed again. They weren’t anywhere near meeting their statutory obligations as a regulator and we know the output collapsed once again because they were losing so many of their staff. In other words staff were packing up and leaving the organisation well before the move has become more formalised.
MCALLISTER: To put it another way, imagine if you took the budget allocation for the relocation and applied it to improving capability and performance in the APVMA.
JOURNALIST: I think that question was asked as well- is this $60 million Government money or is it APVMA self-funded by industry?
FITZGIBBON: I am glad you asked that question- the $60 million will be taxpayers’ money at a time when Malcolm Turnbull is telling us that Budget Repair is so important. Imagine how many mobile phone towers, roads and bridges $60 million could fund in rural and regional Australia. Instead Malcolm Turnbull and Barnaby Joyce are just throwing that money up against a wall. I will make another point about who funds the APVMA- Government doesn’t fund the operation of the APVMA – it is industry which funds the APVMA. It is a fee for service arrangement. They should have at least been consulted before Barnaby Joyce decided to save himself and pack the organisation up for Armidale.
JOURNALIST: If the Order was overturned now much of that $60 million do you think could be saved?
FITZGIBBON: Well we don’t know how much Barnaby Joyce has already wasted – we do know of course half were working out of McDonalds in Armidale so I suspect the capital expenditure is not too far advanced – I know it not to be. It is not too late for Malcolm Turnbull to intervene here and say to Barnaby Joyce enough is enough -we can’t have you wasting $60M of taxpayers’ money to save your own skin in Armidale while at the same time unravelling an important agency which goes to the heart of productivity in the agriculture sector.
JOURNALIST: All the stakeholders this morning seemed to feel it is a done deal and they are sort of committed to working with the APVMA to make it as smooth as possible. Isn’t this the best outcome or what do you want to get out of this?
FITZGIBBON: I want to make it clear I don’t accept this is a done deal. I am not going to sit back, and the Labor Party is not going to sit back, and allow $60 million of taxpayers’ money to used just to shore up Barnaby Joyce. Particularly when it is going to have such an adverse impact on the agriculture sector and others in the community. This is not too far advanced to stop it. No capital expenditure has yet been outlaid as I understand it. There is time for Malcolm Turnbull to intervene and say nice try Barnaby Joycebut enough is enough.
JOURNALIST: Senator, can I ask you one more question about the inquiry process. Has the reporting date of May 9 now been extended?
MCALLISTER: I will need to check on where we landed on the reporting date. We have been looking for opportunities to do regional hearings but coordinating Senators’ diaries is a challenge. I believe we have extended the reporting date to accommodate a regional hearing but I need to check the exact end point for that and I need to come back to you on that.
JOURNALIST: So there might be more regional hearings than the one in Townsville, or will that still be the only one? And if so, why?
MCALLISTER: At this stage I think we have time for at least one regional hearing. Townsville is one of the regional centres that we do think may be eligible for consideration under the Administrative Order as it is currently drafted and we are interested in seeing what stakeholders there think. We also had a number of representations from stakeholders in Townsville seeking a hearing in that city.
JOURNALIST: Why not in Armidale?
MCALLISTER: Well essentially there are more regional centres in Australia than Armidale. I think we have got a fairly clear indication that of course a relocation of this kind would benefit the city that benefits from it but there are many regional centres that so far haven’t received this kind of investment and I think it is important to hear from those centres as well.
FITZGIBBON: On that point can I say that Barnaby Joyce has perpetrated a hoax on so many regional communities. He has tried to turn this inquiry from one which is importantly looking at the Policy Order and the impact on agriculture to one about a broader decentralisation theme. He has perpetrated a hoax on hundreds of regional communities by leading them to believe somehow they could benefit from the relocation of the APVMA or some other agricultural entity when Barnaby Joyce’s own policy is that they can only go to four cities in this country: Townsville, Rockhampton, Wagga and Armidale. Interestingly beyond that , those other three cities had no opportunity to bid for the APVMA – so it is a hoax on all of these regional communities perpetrated by a guy to shore himself up in his own electorate. The other question is – what are these other entities that might be going to regional Australia? Barnaby Joyce has never named one – never named one. It is a very tight Policy Order designed to do one thing only and that is benefit him in his own electorate. Thank you.