Senate debates

Tuesday, 13 June 2017


Finance and Public Administration References Committee

5:50 pm

Photo of Janet RiceJanet Rice (Victoria, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak to the Finance and Public Administration Committee report Operation, effectiveness, and consequences of the public governance, performance and accountability (location of corporate Commonwealth entities) order 2016. It was a report into what effectively was the relocation of the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority. The report was very clear in what an inappropriate thing this was for the government to be doing. There was so much useful information that came through the reporting process. Firstly, it focused on the whole relocation that was going ahead and that it was basically only occurring because of pork-barrelling by the Deputy Prime Minister. Fundamentally. It was a report done into the cost effectiveness of this relocation and it found that the relocation had a negative net present value and cost-benefit ratio of below one. The report showed that the only way that the relocation of the APVMA could work was with a decentralised model that allowed people to work remotely—that is, many of the regulatory scientists who are working for the APVMA are going to continue to work out of Canberra. So, rather than have a functioning authority operating here in Canberra, we are going to have an authority in Armidale. The bulk of the regulatory scientists will work from home, in offices that will have to be wired up with all of the necessary internet facilities and security, just so they can continue to be public servants working here in Canberra.

The report found that other things were being woefully disregarded in this move. It found that the plans for training a whole new generation of regulatory scientists, which is what is needed, is woefully inadequate for dealing with the shortfall of expertise that is being experienced right now, let alone what is going to be experienced if the APVMA move to Armidale. We have seen dramatic declines in the rate of completions of reviews of products, and we still have no idea how much this is hurting the agricultural industry. We know it is up-ending people's lives. Either we have people here having to work in substandard conditions, where they are currently working for an authority that is working effectively together, or their lives need to be up-ended. The lives of hundreds of public servants here in Canberra will be up-ended for no purpose other than propping up an election commitment from the Deputy Prime Minister.

The report also showed the deeper problems that lie behind the selection of Armidale as the site for the relocation. Of course, as we now know, Armidale is in the electorate of the Deputy Prime Minister, the man who was responsible for ordering this relocation. Think back to the last election when this was Barnaby Joyce's thought bubble. He was under a tonne of pressure in the last election. He had Independent Tony Windsor threatening to take back his old seat. The Deputy Prime Minister needed to pull something out of the hat to try to convince his electorate that he was working hard for them, and this was his thought bubble, the rabbit that he pulled out of a hat, regardless of the fact that the cost-benefit analysis did not make sense and the fact that the main people who work with the APVMA, their clients, are not in rural Australia. They are here in Canberra. They are the other government departments and the pesticide companies. They are not dealing with regional Australia. Agencies being in regional centres makes sense when their client base, the people they relate to, are also there, but with the APVMA that is not the case.

Then we get to the fact that, even if they were going to move to a regional area, how was it that Armidale was selected? When Minister Joyce asked the CEO of the APVMA whether she thought it would be appropriate to move to Toowoomba or Armidale, she told him that Toowoomba would be preferable due to the proximity to the existing research infrastructure, yet Armidale was selected. The commitment to Armidale was made in the thick of an election campaign, well before any cost-benefit analysis was done. It was the most atrocious way of making a really important government decision. There are still so many questions. Despite the questions that our committee asked, there are still so many questions remaining unanswered as to how and why Armidale was selected.

Finally, the operations of our committee were then constantly derailed by certain senators, who wanted to paint this committee as a witch-hunt against decentralisation and against regional Australia. This could not be further from the truth. We are not against the move of the APVMA to Armidale because we are against decentralisation. The Greens support decentralisation when it is done properly, which requires a proper assessment of the appropriateness for the relocation of each institution and working on a proper, local community led, holistic plan for the sustainable growth of our regional cities and towns. You do not do decentralisation just by picking up one entity and moving it at random because it happens to be a certain powerful politician's own electorate.

The APVMA relocation is not a proper plan, but it is an election pork-barrel that is going to hurt our farmers, hurt our national science capacity and hurt the integrity of our Public Service tradition. So that is why we agree with the majority report to recommend to revoke the public governance, performance and accountability order and to launch a proper inquiry into an evidence-based decentralisation policy. We are also calling for the APVMA to remain in Canberra while there is still time: there is still time to pull back from the brink for the APVMA; there is still time to rescue the performance of the APVMA, to get it back working effectively, to regain staff, to work on a proper plan for training regulatory scientists.

If the government had done that thorough analysis, it is very clear from the evidence presented to our committee that the recommendation would be that the APVMA is best suited here in Canberra. We want to see that undertaken, and we want to see this broader inquiry into decentralisation. Regional Australia has got so much potential, but there are so many things that are holding it back. It is not that the APVMA is in Canberra. The things that are holding regional Australia back are things like having adequate transport infrastructure, having adequate community services, having adequate broadband access. They are the sorts of things that we need to be addressing if we are going to do decentralisation properly in this country. That is the sort of sensible, evidence-based decision-making that people expect of governments—not thought-bubble pork-barrelling election commitments that are throwing up the effectiveness of our science and putting a really valued institution at real risk. I really do recommend this report to the Senate, and I think everyone should have time to read it and realise just what is at stake and to realise that there is still the potential now to pull back from the brink and keep the APVMA in Canberra. I seek leave to continue my remarks.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.