NATIONALS Deputy Leader Fiona Nash says party leader Barnaby Joyce has shown “absolute courage and vision” and been “very bold” in relocating the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA) from Canberra to Armidale, in northern NSW.
The APVMA is set to be co-located at the University of New England in an agricultural centre of excellence where it will train dedicated regulatory scientists to conduct assessments of ag-vet chemical applications.
However, many specialist staff members that conduct the regulatory approvals for new farm chemical products or changes to existing ones have indicated they won’t be making the move from Canberra and some have already left the national chemical watch-dog, further threatening its capacity.
Despite industry’s resistance to the APVMA relocation, Senator Nash - who is also the Regional Development Minister - said her party leader and the Agriculture and Water Resources Minister, Mr Joyce, had made a “clever” decision.
“I don’t think it’s embarrassing for the government,” she said.
“I think Barnaby showed absolute courage and vision and was very bold in making the move to Armidale with the APVMA.
“One thing I have found in 12 years in this job is that you need courage to do things.
“You actually have to bite the bullet and you actually have to say ‘we are going to do this’ because not everybody is always going to agree with you 100 per cent of the time - no matter what you do.
“I think it was a very smart and a very clever decision and one that's going to be of great benefit for Armidale and the people in the regions.”
Senator Nash fended questioning about the controversial APVMA relocation during her speech today at the National Press Club in Canberra where she announced a new process to help expand and bolster the Coalition’s decentralisation push.
She also outlined her intention to work with business groups to look at ways to expand the location of corporate entities, in regional areas.
Senator Nash said by mid-year she would - in consultation with others - create a criteria for government ministers to assess which departments, functions and entities in their portfolio were suited to decentralisation.
She said all portfolio ministers would be required to report back to the federal cabinet by August on which of their departments, functions or entities were suitable.
“Departments will need to actively justify if they don't want to move, why all or part of their operations are unsuitable for decentralisation,” she said.
“The Minister for Finance will, in consultation with others, develop a template for business cases for decentralisation to ensure a consistent approach across government.
“Relevant ministers will be required to report to cabinet with those robust business cases for decentralisation by December.
“It's important for government to lead by example and invest in rural, regional and remote Australia.
“Creating long-term careers and breeding confidence in those communities and we're doing it.”
Asked if the targeted agencies would be subject to a cost-benefit analysis, like the APVMA was, Senator Nash said “there will indeed”.
But when asked if those reports would be released, she said, “We'll see it first and then we'll get back to you”.
A report by Ernst & Young from August last year said overall, the analysis of costs and benefits associated with the APVMA’s relocation to Armidale found that the economic benefits for the Australian economy were “modest”.
“This is because the strategic and operational benefits of having the APVMA operate out of Armidale appear to be limited,” it said.
“This is not to say that the APVMA could not operate successfully from Armidale over the longer term if key risks are addressed and transition is executed appropriately.
“While a number of potential benefits of relocation were identified, the majority of potential benefits - apart from a possible reduction in property costs - are not anticipated to result in material economic advantages for society.”
WA Labor Senator Glenn Sterle has described the APVMA relocation forging ahead – despite the cost-benefit analysis findings – as the “dopiest decision….that I’ve ever, ever heard”.
Shadow Agriculture Minister Joel Fitzgibbon has also described the APVMA moving to Armidale in Mr Joyce’s electorate as a pork barrel “sham”.
But Senator Nash said today she’d be going across the new whole-of-government decentralisation policy and approaching it in a “very sensible and measured way to ensure that we do it appropriately”.
“It will very much be about balance and it won't be at all costs,” she said.
“I think anybody that knows me knows that I'm pretty measured and balanced and sensible in how I make my decisions and it’s not things at all costs.
“But what it is, it’s about determining the appropriate departments, parts of departments, agencies that can move to the regions.
“It will be a very balanced approach but we’re not going to leave any stone unturned in looking for those agencies, the entities, the departments and part of departments that could be relocated to the regions for the benefit of the regions.”
Senator Nash said Mr Joyce had been leading the decentralisation debate and “fighting so hard for regional Australia” and in her view, decentralisation was about “fairness”.
“Rural, regional and remote Australians deserve the careers, flow-on benefits and jobs offered by departments and their agencies just as much as capital city Australians do,” she said during her Press Club address.
But she said government decentralisation was only part of the puzzle and corporate decentralisation also needed to be focussed on as it had been a “huge success” in some areas.
“Mars in Albury Wodonga has been a huge economic driver for that centre,” she said.
“Macquarie Bank’s agricultural arm set up offices in Orange and Albury Wodonga and they say to find people willing to move from Sydney and I quite, was ‘really easy’.
“Agriculture has a fantastic future in this country and it’s great to see even the big corporates are starting to recognise this.”
Senator Nash said last week she also had a very productive meeting with business groups about corporate decentralisation.
She said Jennifer Westacott from the Business Council of Australia and Peter Strong from the Small Business Council had offered to be “very involved and facilitate meetings” with companies regarding decentralisation.
“We need to identify what those barriers are and then we need to find solutions,” she said.
“There was a suggestion a database listing the strengths and natural advantages of Australia’s regions as they relate to business would be helpful.
“This would include local work force skills and intellectual capacity, local infrastructure, including transport links, natural advantages like, say, climate for a wine region or access to reliable irrigation water, and established local industries and businesses which an arriving business could work with or service.
“Businesses interested in establishing in regional Australia could look up which part of the nation is best suited for them and save costs as rents, rates and set-up costs are far cheaper in the country.
“Corporate decentralisation is a long-term project and I intend to work hard on it.”
Senator Nash said moving government functions to the regions meant more people in towns, more customers in shops, more students in schools and more volunteers for the local fire brigade.
“Well-managed decentralisation is a smart tactic in the housing affordability battle as it relieves pressure on capital cities and creates the lure of quality careers in the country,” she said.
“Decentralisation means more career opportunities for our children in the bush so that they can stay in the region they grew up in.”
Senator Nash said some departments and functions were not appropriate to move away from Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra.
But she said there were “countless” successful examples of government decentralisation, including the New South Wales Department of Primary Industries in Orange.