The Turnbull Government’s controversial relocation of the federal pesticides regulatory agency from Canberra to Armidale has come under intense scrutiny at a Senate Estimates hearing this morning.
The Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA) is the Government body responsible for assessing and approving important crop protection chemicals and animal medicines for use in Australia.
Controversy surrounding the forced move to Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce’s regional NSW electorate was heightened two weeks ago when the agency posted its worst ever performance figures, showing that it now is taking longer than ever to register new products.
The relocation was an election commitment made by Mr Joyce leading up to the July 2016 election.
The APVMA’s performance results for registration of pesticides dropped sharply to 82pc in September 2016, then to 50pc in December 2016 and most recently to just 30pc in the March 2017 quarter.
The March result was the worse performance statistics in the history of the regulator.
The trend in the current quarter “is holding steady” with the March quarter, APVMA executive director Alan Norden said.
The performance results compare to a longer term 10 year performance rate of 90-95pc.
However, Mr Norden later added some context which painted the APVMA’s most recent performance in a more positive light. He said the APMVA’s approach to performance reporting had changed when new legislation was introduced in 2014.
An independent analysis showed that prior to 2014, the APVMA took eight months on average to process product applications. In the current period, applications were actually averaging within seven months, he said.
Labor Senator Kim Carr fired questions at APVMA staff in search of proof the Government’s relocation of the agency was responsible for the drop in performance standards.
Mr Norden said the drop in results was partly due to a spike in applications received during the March quarter – in that period the APVMA had 192 applications to process, the highest quarterly numbers for at least 18 months.
Senior APVMA staff also told the senate estimates hearings in Canberra that 31 of 201 full time positions were currently vacant, about 15pc, including 13 regulatory scientist roles.
The APVMA is currently employing 82 regulatory scientists, which compares to a long-term average of about 100, the hearing was told.
The agency’s staff turnover rate in 2015-16 was 18.7pc, an increase of 8.8pc from the previous year.
The APVMA’s Stephanie Janiec said people left for a variety of reasons, including promotions to other agencies, retirement, concluded contracts or resignations to pursue opportunities elsewhere.
Anything to do with the agency’s forced relocation, Senator Carr asked?
“It is difficult for me to answer, we don’t collect that data,” Ms Janiec said.
She said the APVMA was undertaking a range of recruitment activities and initiatives to fill vacancies. The process had been quite successful and she envisaged a large portion of the roles would be filled.
Mr Norden said the loss of staff in certain areas has had an impact on the agency’s output.
Questioned about previous media comments by a former APVMA CEO that it would take five years for the agency to rebuild capacity, Mr Norden said that was “a realistic number”.
He also acknowledged that staff vacancies were having an impact on the APVMA’s processing time frames.
“We are looking at recruiting and we’re looking at processes as well to address that,” he said.
Senator Carr said it was impossible to rip an important scientific agency out of Canberra to another location without impacting industry and individuals affected by the change.
He also expressed concern that the APVMA’s processing delays could pose a biosecurity risk.
However Mr Norden said the APVMA had a very stable and well equipped area with experienced staff to deal with exotic pest and disease incursions and to issue emergency use permits for outbreak situations.
Labor Senators also directed questions at why Armidale was chosen, and whether any other locations were considered.
Armidale was the only location considered, Department of Agriculture staff explained, because that was specifically the location identified in the Government’s pre-election commitment.
“The development of the general policy order followed the Government election commitment to relocate the APVMA to Armidale,” a DAF spokesperson explained.
“Once government was returned the Department, as we would do for all election commitments, we prepared advice on how best to implement it.
“That resulted in a cabinet process, the outcome of which was release of a general policy order to bring about the relocation.”
Was Toowoomba even an option, Senator Carr asked?
“Not in the context of delivering the election commitment,” he was told.
“The election commitment was very clear to relocate APVMA to Armidale.”
APVMA staff said the agency opened a transitional office in Armidale on April 27.
Two staff members are currently working out of the centre, and it was expected that 150 or more will be working from Armidale when the transition is completed in 2019, at a total cost of $25.6 million.
While APVMA jobs would be moved to Armidale, staff could be not compelled to make the move, Ms Janiec said. Positions for those who did not want to move from Canberra would be found in other Government departments.