Thursday, 28 November 2019
Agricultural and Veterinary Chemicals Legislation Amendment (Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority Board and Other Improvements) Bill 2019; Second Reading
I rise to speak on the Agricultural and Veterinary Chemicals Legislation Amendment (Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority Board and Other Improvements) Bill 2019. I move:
That all words after "That" be omitted with a view to substituting the following words:
"whilst not declining to give the bill a second reading, the House criticises the Government for repeatedly failing to legislate on agricultural matters in a timely manner".
At first glance, there is nothing particularly controversial about this bill, but it does indeed contain some quite controversial matters—the least not being the establishment of an advisory board for the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority and the relocation of that very authority from here in Canberra to Armidale, in the electorate of the member for New England, with all the consequences of that politically charged decision and led of course by the member for New England.
What a coincidence it is that the authority was not moved to the Hunter electorate, or to the Parkes electorate or to the Hinkler electorate or to the electorate of Lyne. No, it was moved to the electorate of the member for New England. I'm sure all those other members I've just mentioned—and the members for Nicholls and Maranoa—could have had the APVMA as well, but, no, it went to the electorate of the then Minister for Agriculture. I won't use his name, because that's unparliamentary.
But the core of this bill is to reform and make more efficient the process for regulating and approving veterinary medicines and the chemical sprays we rely on so heavily in the agriculture sector to protect our crops and our livestock, and of course to deal with invasive weeds and pests. That extends right through to domestic companion animals; when you take your pet to the vet, they use medicines which are regulated by the APVMA. So it is a very important institution. Of course, the opposition agrees with the components of the bill which are designed to streamline those processes and to maximise the benefit of the work of the authority for rural and regional Australia—for the agriculture sector and indeed for Australians more generally. As I said, we all benefit from a system that delivers these agvet chemicals, as we call them, in a timely and effective way.
The APVMA is a body which has always struggled. It is typical of a government entity—too often underresourced and with all the difficulties that come with that for those dedicated people who work in our Public Service. One of the interesting things about the APVMA, of course, is that it relies on the recruitment and retention of highly professional and trained regulatory scientists and lawyers who work in an area quite unique and rare. They themselves are rare professionals, and even prior to the relocation of the APVMA the authority was struggling to secure and retain the staff it needs.
So you can imagine the impact when the former minister announced that he was packing the authority up and moving it to Armidale, so far away. Immediately, a very large number of people—I don't have the numbers with me today, but I've cited them in this place before—left the authority. Some of them were easily replaceable because they were working in areas where that skill level is more common. But with respect to the regulatory people—the scientists, the lawyers—it was obviously a far more difficult task. If I remember correctly, it forced the authority to go on a global search for those professionals, because too many of them here in Canberra—who of course have partners also working in the Public Service or elsewhere in Canberra, and who typically had kids in schools here in Canberra—decided not to take up the offer to move to Armidale, but to stay here and easily secure a job anywhere they liked. Obviously there are some very big corporate players in this space that would give just about anything to secure some of the very, very competent, professional and highly qualified people we had, and still have, in the APVMA.
The extraordinary thing is that things got so bad at one point that the government decided to breach its own government policy order—the order which determined that the APVMA could no longer be based in Canberra. This is the instrument that was used to relocate the authority. The Minister for Finance said that the authority could not operate within 100 or 150 kilometres of Canberra—I forget—and had to be within so many kilometres of a regional university. Those distances were interesting, because it didn't leave too many options other than Armidale, as you could imagine, although there were a couple of other areas that should have qualified and did qualify. I think Toowoomba may have been one of them—I might stand corrected. There were a few options, but it was obvious from day one that it was always going to be going to Armidale in the electorate of the member for New England. Again, that policy order says it can't be in Canberra. The APVMA can't work in Canberra. They can't congregate in Canberra. I remind people that at one stage they were meeting in a McDonald's in Armidale, but they weren't allowed to congregate in Canberra. Then, of course, the government decided that it was not working, so, in breach of their own policy order, they started allowing some of these highly professional people to work in Canberra—surprise, surprise. I don't have an updated figure, but I think there could be up to 50 people now with the APVMA working here in Canberra in clear breach of the government's own policy order.
When we asked about this in committee, Dr Parker, the CEO—the member for New England's hand-picked CEO—informed us that he had legal advice to suggest he could do this. Now, have a think about that. I ask members—it's very nice to have so many of them here today—to think about that. The former member puts in place a policy order that says you can't work for the APVMA in Canberra, and when it doesn't work, as we predicted, the CEO starts employing people in Canberra. And when we ask in committee, 'How is this so?' the CEO says, 'Oh, I've got legal advice to say I can do that.' Well, the first question is: why did he need to do that?
I hear the member for New England interject. He says it's working very well. The first question is: why did he have to work outside the government's own policy order? If he has legal advice, you'd think he might like to share it with us, Mr Deputy Speaker. You'd think he might like to share it with us, but no, he couldn't do that. This is so typical of this government. We're not allowed to see the coalition agreement. The Australian people don't deserve to see the very agreement that allows this mob to form a government. No, we can't do that! Secrecy under this government has reached a new, low ebb. We couldn't see the legal advice. As we speak, we have 50 people working for the APVMA in Canberra because, as we predicted, they weren't able to establish the workforce in Armidale.
Police investigations are pretty topical at the moment. I haven't made any phone calls—I just want to make that declaration now. I haven't made any phone calls. There is an ongoing police investigation into the APVMA relocation in Armidale, because it seems, and I make no assertions, to find a block of dirt big enough to accommodate the building required—the building which no doubt is not quite full, because 50 people are still working in Canberra—they needed two blocks of dirt, not one. They had one block of dirt, but not two. The problem was there was a nightclub on one of them. They weren't able to build the complex on one block. They needed the two. I don't know about assertions about the coincidence—it may be just that—but somehow the nightclub burnt down just at the right time for the Commonwealth to pick up the second block and build this new building in the electorate of the member for New England. Because I've made no phone calls, and wouldn't dream of making a phone call, I don't know where that investigation is up to, what the substance of the investigation is and whether it's likely to come to any certain conclusions. I don't know because I haven't made the phone call. We do know, and this is not a secret, that the main suspect in the fire died very shortly after. So the police lost its key witness in the investigation, but it is ongoing. In fact, I think it may have transferred from the New South Wales police to the Federal Police. I might stand corrected on that. But the investigation is ongoing.
This relocation to Armidale has been somewhat of an eventful one—in fact, a very, very eventful one. The question is whether those who rely on the APVMA to ensure that they receive their ag chemicals in a timely way, have benefited in any way. Of course, the answer is no. The answer is clearly no.
By the way, I've seen Dr Parker regularly at the airport flying to Canberra. He was going to be located in Armidale, we were assured of that. He probably does have a house or a flat or duplex in Armidale I suspect. But I see him flying to Canberra a lot.
He might have the million dollar bill, city council style. Maybe they got the numbers confused. By any measure, the APVMA has only served a purpose for one person, and he's sitting over there, the member for New England. I'm probably doing him a favour, because no doubt he runs around Armidale claiming a victory for this wonderful thing that he did for his town.
We fight without limit for our communities, but we don't do it at the expense of the nation. We don't do it at the expense of our farmers. We don't do it at the expense of our vets and those who have companion animals. That's not what we do. We try to grow the country economically and share the bounty. That's what we do. What the member for New England got away with is a disgrace, and I hope this type of thing is never seen again in the rest of the history of this Federation.
This bill seeks to establish an advisory board for the APVMA. The member for New England has been sitting over there shouting out that the APVMA is working 'wonderfully' since its relocation in Armidale. I don't believe that's true, and there are plenty of numbers and metrics to show that that's not true. However, he can't have it both ways. If the APVMA is working so wonderfully, why does it need an advisory or governance board? Is it an advisory board or a governance board? Whatever it's called in the bill, why does it need this new board oversight? We had one of these once before—
An honourable member interjecting—
Thank you, it is a governance board. I think it was called an advisory board. The government of the day got rid of it—to be honest, I don't remember which one it was—because it wasn't necessary. This mob are always going on about red tape and duplication. We didn't need the advisory board and we don't need the governance board. What is it going to do? The EM is very poor at explaining it—something about the CEO not being able to undertake all the tasks and roles expected of the CEO.
I'll tell you what: Kareena Arthy, the former CEO, who is a highly respected public servant in this capital city, was doing it just fine. Before the relocation, she was bringing those numbers down at a rate of knots and making sure that agvet chemicals were being approved or otherwise in a timely and efficient manner. She was doing a fantastic job. She is probably the greatest loss as a result of the APVMA relocation. Kareena Arthy could do it okay; why can't Dr Parker? Why does he need an advisory board?
And here's the rub: the advisory board will cost $600,000 in the first year, and they say about $400,000 annually thereafter. Well, wouldn't you like to be on that board? It doesn't sound like there's going to be a lot of work. The question has to be asked, 'In the absence of any real explanation as to why we need this board, is this more jobs for the boys?'—or, in this 21st century, jobs for men and women? But they're only men and women aligned with the National Party. As sure as night follows day, watch for the appointments, watch for the relationships and watch for the paybacks! That's what this advisory board is about.
But who is going to pay this $600,000, and thereafter $400,000 annually? Is the government paying? No, of course not. Nor should it, because if the government pays then the taxpayer pays. And in the absence of any rational reason for having this board, we don't want the taxpayer paying. Nor should they. No, it will be the industry. The important thing to remember about the APVMA is that it's not government funded. It's a cost-recovery agency. The big chemical companies who seek to have their products approved pay for that privilege. So it's cost recovery; it's not paid for by taxpayers. Now they're being told, without any rational explanation or logical reason for having this board, that they're going to have to stump up another $600,000, and $400,000 annually, so that someone sitting over there can pay back a few mates and create a board for no reason.
The big challenge for the member for New England, when he gets to his feet—and I welcome his participation in the debate—is to tell us exactly what this advisory—sorry, governance—board is going to do, and declare and make a commitment now that he has no idea who the chair is going to be or who is going to sit on that board. We'll see; we'll test him! Is he prepared, in the face of contempt of parliament, to stand up in a few minutes time and tell us absolutely—give us an ironclad guarantee—that the chair of the new governance board hasn't already been selected? That's his big challenge today. That's all he has to do.
We know he agrees with the substantive matters in the bill; we all do. His only challenge, well, there are two, really, is to tell is what's happening up in Beardy Street—and I notice that they've changed the address. The APVMA was on the corner of Beardy and Taylor streets, but when I looked in the annual report today, it's just Taylor Street now. It's just Taylor Street, because they don't want to talk about Beardy Street. That's because the block of land which became vacant because of the fire is of course in Beardy Street. So he's welcome to give us an explanation, or may be some passing observations, about that incident, although it is a police investigation so he should be really careful. Once the police launch an investigation, you should stay out of it as a member of parliament! So I'm urging him to be very cautious in his comments. But he might want to reflect on the incident and talk about any relationships he might have with the owners of that site.
But the key thing he has to tell us is to give us the assurance that he does not know, given that the governance board isn't in place yet and won't be until this legislation is passed—it has to run the gauntlet of the Senate yet—who the chair of the governance board is going to be. That's the only test he needs to meet. I know he can't meet the first test; he's not going to persuade us that the relocation of the APVMA has been a good thing for our farmers. There is no way. Remember, he was going to have a centre of excellence in Armidale. I don't know what happened to that; it's just the APVMA. There is no centre of excellence and nothing else has been done.
He then wanted to run a regulatory scientist course for people who might work at the APVMA. You don't go to the APVMA after an undergrad; it doesn't work like that. But he might want to tell us about how well that course is going, because I think it's struggling as well, and it's certainly lacking government support and funding. Great idea. 'Give it to you and Ian, and best of luck,' he said, with no real support for the offer he made to the UNE. There's your challenge, Member for New England. You get up and tell us about the new governance board. Tell us what it's going to do and—if you know—who's going to be on it. If you don't know who's going to be on it, well, just say so.