WOOLGROWER groups have endorsed relocating Australian Wool Innovation (AWI) out of its Sydney head office and into the regions, despite staunch resistance from the industry’s marketing and research body.
AWI Chair Walter Merriman recently caused a major stir after telling Senate estimates hearings in Canberra the nation’s wool couldn’t be promoted to big international wool-buyers from a “tin shed” situated at remote locations like Dubbo.
AWI CEO Stuart McCullough also said AWI wouldn’t be making any submission to the Senate inquiry that’s underway into decentralisation and due to report on May 9.
But in its contribution to the investigation, the Australian Wool Growers Association (AWGA) expressed clear backing for moving core industry services out of the big city and into dedicated wool production regions.
In its Senate Finance and Public Administration References Committee inquiry submission, ahead of the March 10 deadline closing, AWGA Chair Robert McBride said the national sheep and wool representative body ”fully supports and endorses” the Turnbull/Joyce government relocating government agricultural bodies to regional areas.
Mr McBride said in particular, his group urged the government to locate AWI at Goulburn or Dubbo in NSW and to relocate the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA) into the Armidale region of NSW.
He said AWI’s relocation would bring 80 new job opportunities to regional areas of NSW; especially in Goulburn where a new wool selling centre would also be relocated.
“It makes much sense for AWI to be located in (the) same building as where the nation's wool is sold to its customers,” the fifth generation western-NSW woolgrower said.
“The cost savings to AWI and its levy payers will be enormous, allowing more local on-farm research as well as freeing up more funds for overseas wool marketing efforts.
“Currently, all wool marketing is either conducted in the EU or China via the Gold Woolmark in China and HRH Campaign for Wool in the UK, so it makes no difference where AWI to is located in Australia.
“We commend the Turnbull/Joyce government for such affirmative and positive action to support regional Australia and boost local jobs and bring wealth to regional communities.”
Mr McBride said having “farmer focussed” employees would make the APVMA a more “ag friendly” organisation with more decentralised focus on more “expeditious” farm product registration timelines, to benefit the Australian farming community.
He said the APVMA’s current product registration record was “woeful” and a “hindrance” to further investment into Australia for new productive on-farm products, by overseas and local companies.
“Regional communities are suffering with low employment opportunities forcing many leave their homes to seek work in large cities, having to leave families to seek higher incomes and opportunities to suit their profession,” he said.
“Relocating government bodies to regional areas would boost local economies, a virtual economic stimulation in areas badly needing such help.”
WoolProducers Australia indicated it won’t be making a submission to the Senate inquiry but provided a position statement to Fairfax Agricultural Media that expressed conditional backing for the controversial move.
WoolProducers said it supported the investigation into decentralisation of service provision with the aim to reduce operational costs, better align with constituent needs and boost regional economies, “on the proviso that any moves to decentralise services must not be to the detriment of the delivery and provision of these services”.
In its submission, Animal Medicines Australia Executive Director Ben Stapley said his group did not oppose policies to position government agencies to regional and rural locations - but was against the APVMA moving from Canberra to Armidale.
“AMA is very concerned that the relocation of the APVMA will have a serious, negative impact on the APVMA’s performance,” the submission said.
“Recent weeks and months have confirmed that key, significant risks to APVMA performance are now occurring.
“Significant actions need to occur now to mitigate these risks.”
AMA said the government policy order to relocate the APVMA had resulted in uncertainty and insecurity for the Authority’s employees which was having a “serious impact” on its ability to attract and retain suitable staff.
“Regulatory scientists are highly specialised and in high demand both in Australia and globally,” it said.
“Loss of these staff fundamentally undermines APVMA assessment and approval performance.
“This puts the regulatory scheme for veterinary medicines at risk; and flow on impacts for livestock and animal production industries reliant on access to the latest veterinary medicine innovations will be significant.”
AMA said it accepted that eventually the APVMA may ultimately effectively operate from Armidale - but the government’s relocation policy must result in a regulator that offers an improvement over the status quo.
It said for some other agencies that have been relocated like the Grains Research and Development Corporation, a regional location may be most appropriate.
But in the APVMA’s case, the adoption of a relocation policy was “highly unlikely” to result in a superior performing regulator and would incur “significant and enduring costs” to applicants and farmers during the transition from Canberra to Armidale, in particular due to the opportunity cost of delays to registration and availability of new innovative products, it said.
“On this basis AMA does not support relocation of the APVMA,” the submission said.
The Tasmanian Farmers & Graziers Association told the inquiry it wasn’t opposed to decentralisation of government agricultural research agencies - but the rationale for any change must be clear and undertaken on a case by case basis.
In its submission, CEO Peter Skillern said the TFGA did not support the diversion of R&D funds paying for the relocation of offices and “ultimately would not support decentralisation decisions that are made without clear rationale”.
“While the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation has moved to regional NSW, we would ask; has the $1.2 million saving added to the outcomes generated from RIRDC to farmers and the agricultural industry?” he said.
“Before further agencies are forced to move we would counsel the government to hold fire and study the RIRDC move in more detail to see if this has been good for levy payers, the industry and the regional community.
“Before further relocations of government agencies out of Canberra or other cities occur the Commonwealth need to ask; what are we trying to achieve or what is the regional problem?
“In the case of the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority proposed move to Armidale have these questions been answered?
“The government must comprehensively consider the risks in implementation versus the potential benefits in close consultation with the sector before further structural changes, such as decentralisation of agencies, occur.”
In its submission, Cooperative Research Centres Association CEO Tony Peacock said regional location of CRCs didn’t cause disruption to existing organisations as they are temporary companies, established for seven to 10 year periods - although some have had multiple terms up to 25 years.
“If Senators wish to encourage regional development through location of new businesses in an area, CRCs may be an effective means to do so,” he said.
“It is important that a critical mass of suitable businesses and academics exist (or can easily be attracted) in the area.
“If these circumstances exist, a CRC can be a significant boost to a local economy.”