POLITICAL brawling has erupted over the eligibility of regional centres that can potentially benefit from the decentralisation of commonwealth farm-related agencies, under the government policy order administering the Coalition’s relocation plans.
The policy order is subject to ongoing scrutiny in the Senate Finance and Public Administration References Committee’s inquiry that held its first public hearing in Canberra last week, with another due in Townsville next month.
Ahead of that forum, which also interrogated the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (AVPMA) being moved from Canberra to Armidale in National’s leader Barnaby Joyce’s northern NSW, New England electorate, Labor released research it commissioned into the order, by the Parliamentary Library.
Shadow Agriculture Minister Joel Fitzgibbon said that independent examination demonstrated that Mr Joyce's determination to relocate the APVMA from Canberra to his own electorate “is no one than a pork barrel exercise”.
“The Library's examination of the Policy Order which has been used to give effect to the move has shown that only four regional towns; Armidale, Bathurst, Rockhampton and Townsville would be eligible,” he said.
“Three are in National Party or LNP seats, the fourth is Herbert, a marginal electorate the Coalition is desperate to win back.
“None of the other three towns were given a chance to bid for the APVMA.”
Mr Fitzgibbon has also urged Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to intervene on the APVMA relocation amid fears the loss of specialist, scientific regulatory staff will exacerbate further delays in approving ag-vet chemical registrations for the Australian market, impacting the farm sector’s profitability.
Witnesses at the first Senate inquiry hearing also said the APVMA relocation was already hurting the market with chemical companies choosing not to register products locally and instead preferring international sales destinations, due to uncertainty and delays.
Speaking to media on the vexed topic, Mr Fitzgibbon also said Mr Joyce had “perpetrated a hoax on so many regional communities” due to the policy order’s criteria.
“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 said.
“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.”
Labor Shadow Assistant Minister Lisa Chesters also continued her party’s attack on the Coalition over the decentralisation policy, accusing Victorian Nationals Senator Bridget McKenzie of using the inquiry to distract from scrutiny over the APVMA relocation by shifting its focus to the broader issue of shifting government agency jobs into rural locations.
She held a media conference outside of Senator McKenzie’s office in Bendigo after the hearing, to draw attention to the policy order.
Ms Chesters said the underpinning regulations – or government policy order - restricted corporate Commonwealth entities from operating within 150mms of Australia’s national or state capital cities and within 10kms of a regional university main campus.
“Senator McKenzie’s attempts this week to suggest Victorian regional councils like City of Greater Bendigo are being ignored by the Senate inquiry is just political spin and hypocrisy,” Ms Chesters said.
“Despite many regional councils making submissions, only four qualify under the policy order which currently only applies to the APVMA.
“The four regions are Armidale, Bathurst, Rockhampton and Townsville, all of which are in NSW and Queensland.
“No regional areas in Victoria qualify.”
But Senator McKenzie said she’d now commissioned her own research and submitted instructions to the Parliamentary Library which would provide a more “reasonable and concrete” analysis of the policy order.
During the Senate hearing, Senator McKenzie faced-off against three Labor members who she said had based their “entire attack on this modelling which I would argue does not accurately reflect the interpretation of the legislation or a common sense interpretation”.
She said the ALP’s instructions underpinning the library’s analysis took an “overly rigid approach to what the policy order has said”.
It assumed Melbourne ended “way beyond where anybody in Melbourne thinks it would end”, to measure the 150kms, she said.
“If you drill down into the modelling done by the Opposition – by the Parliamentary Library – rather than take the 150kms from a capital city parameter, it’s actually 150kms from the outer limit,” she said.
“With Melbourne for instance, it doesn’t include regional centres like Bendigo because they’ve taken such an expansive definition of where the city of Melbourne ends.
“The line they’ve drawn on the map, showing the library’s analysis, of where Melbourne ends, is really generous.”
Senator McKenzie said also if regional satellite university campuses were added to the Opposition’s analysis criteria, covering study in areas like agribusiness or farm management, and not just full agricultural science degrees at major campuses, the number of eligible locations would far exceed four.
“Any modelling is only as good as the assumptions you feed into it,” she said.
“The Labor party has only used modelling covering universities that offer a bachelor of agricultural science degree and have excluded those that may do courses on irrigation, agribusiness, plant science etc.
“So if it’s not exclusively named a bachelor of agricultural science, it’s excluded from the Labor party’s modelling.
“But there’s a whole plethora of courses out there in the regions across a whole swag of universities and 256 satellite campuses where the university proper is not included, in the Labor party’s commissioned research.
“I think we need to take a common sense approach to what is considered to be a country campus.”
Senator McKenzie said Ms Chesters was also “trying to justify the fact she’s using false figures”.
“I would prefer to let the facts speak for themselves, rather than play a tit for tat game of petty politics,” she said.
“The results will speak for themselves and I am very comfortable and confident with our policy settings.
“The three premises developed in the order are appropriate, if you apply common sense, which the Labor party hasn’t done and again its political point-scoring at the expense of regional jobs.
“I think it’s sad they can’t get behind an order, adopted by the government to promote and assist with the appropriate relocation of government agencies and departments, outside of capital cities.”
Under the order, a corporate Commonwealth entity with agricultural policy or regulatory responsibilities must be located: in a regional community within 10kms by road of the main campus of a regional university recognised for research and teaching in the field of agricultural science.
Also, it says a regional community means a community not within 150kms by road of Canberra or a capital city of a State.
During the hearing, Senator McKenzie said submissions had also been received from close to 200 people across the country and 85 from regional councils.
A statement from Mr Joyce said 88 per cent of the published inquiry submissions had supported decentralisation.
“It is disappointing though to see that of the 85 councils and 28 regional development associations that made submissions, not one was invited to the Canberra hearing,” he said.
“Bendigo, Ballarat, Cessnock and Lake Macquarie councils all put in submissions supporting decentralisation, but have not been backed up by their local Labor members.
“The only option for the Shepparton Council to attend the Townsville hearing some 2470kms away is a full day of flying - the Whyalla and Eyre Peninsula Local Government Association would be looking at a similar journey and the WA shire of Narrogin is 5100kms or a 7 hour flight away.
“Meanwhile, the town of Armidale, which is at the centre of this debate, has been refused a hearing to present the community’s case on the benefits of moving government jobs to regional areas.
“Every dollar spent in country small businesses helps to create more jobs, higher wages and better confidence in regional Australia.”
Mr Joyce said the Murray Darling Basin Authority, the Grains Research and Development Corporation (RDC), Fisheries RDC and the Rural Industries RDC have all instituted moves to increase their regional presence.
At the Senate hearing, Deputy Secretary of the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources David Williamson was asked about the policy order and said, “broadly speaking”, it was about enacting the government's election commitment, which talked about centres of excellence in regional centres near regional universities.
“We thought distance was a decent proxy to establish 'regional', particularly in contrast to capital cities,” he said.
“Nobody was picking particular locations.
“It was clear that this was not about capital cities.
“Those distances were used, as I say, as a proxy to give effect to the election commitment.”
Asked how many locations met the criteria, Mr Williamson said “I could not tell you that - we have not done that analysis”.
Asked about the Parliamentary Library analysis’s where only four locations met the criteria, he said he was “broadly aware” of it but “I have not seen it or seen the assumptions that underlie it”.
“I am happy to take a look at it and come back to you with advice,” he said.
Labor ACT Senator Katy Gallagher said, “I just find it staggering that you would draft a legislative instrument with specific criteria and you cannot tell your minister how many places it applies to”.
“Presumably, the finance minister signs it without knowing either,” she said.
“Surely he has an interest in whether this instrument is right, how it applies and the basis on which it is made, though.”
Mr Williamson said the government had agreed to provide $25.6 million, over six years, to support the APVMA relocation.
He said the government's focus on implementing the election commitment had been informed by the independent cost-benefit and risk analysis undertaken by Ernst & Young and the APVMA's own relocation strategy, “which it is now implementing”.
“Our submission notes that any major organisational change, such as relocation, inevitably poses a range of challenges and opportunities both for the organisation itself and for affected stakeholders,” he said.
“For us, this highlights the importance of robust planning, resourcing, communication, consultation and innovation.
“Our view is that the work that the APVMA is now taking forward in implementing this election commitment - supported, of course, by the department - has a focus on those issues.”
In light of the ongoing resistance by APVMA staff towards moving to Armidale, National Farmers’ Federation (NFF) AgVet Chemicals Taskforce Chair Reg Kidd told the Senate inquiry about the relocation experience of the NSW Department of Agriculture in shifting to Orange from Sydney 25 years ago, where he participated in a workforce planning group.
Asked if there was any consternation at the time, he said “Was there ever”.
“I think the best way of putting it is, ‘We'll all be (rooned)’, said Hanrahan’,” he said.
“That was the attitude - that you would need snow chains to get kids to school and to move out of the area.
“Many of the staff said that they were not going to relocate and that we would not be able to get staff to replace them and a whole host of other things that I completely understand.
“Well, as you know, that department is growing again now with the realisation of just how important agriculture is to the Australian economy.
“There is a number of new initiatives and it is a super department now.
“I think, in total, there are about 900 people, and I think it would be fair to say that if you asked any of them if they would move back to Sydney, you would have a riot in Orange for the first time.”