ANIMAL Medicines Australia (AMA) Executive Director Ben Stapley says the appointment of Australian Pesticide and Veterinary Medicine Authority (APVMA) acting CEO Dr Chris Parker comes at a critical juncture in the national farm chemical regulator’s transition from Canberra to Armidale in northern NSW.
Shadow Agriculture Minister Joel Fitzgibbon questioned Federal Agriculture and Water Resources Minister Barnaby Joyce’s appointment of interim CEO Dr Chris Parker yesterday – a move necessary following Kareena Arthy’s recent resignation with the APVMA relocating as part of the government’s broad decentralisation agenda.
“While Dr Parker appears well qualified for the role, his political pedigree was no doubt a factor in his selection,” Mr Fitzgibbon said in relation to the incoming interim CEO’s previous work as a political adviser for two Agriculture Ministers in the Howard government.
But Mr Stapley refused to buy into the political wrangling, saying he was focussed on managing APVMA relocation risks and unlocking reform opportunities that could see approval rates cut through innovative business changes, like a new digital strategy driven via the relocation planning phase.
“We’re welcoming the new CEO and note he has capacity as a veterinary clinical scientist which will be accepted by our members and we’re very much looking forward to working with him,” Mr Stapley said.
But Mr Stapley said the APVMA relocation was now at a “critical stage” as it moved from the planning phase into the implementation phase in coming weeks.
“We’ve got a number of plans which have been developed for staff retention, for accommodation and for a new digital strategy and it’s now really important that those plans be implemented in a timely and effective manner,” he said.
“We’re very much keen to ensure we provide stability for the staff in the APVMA and allow them to focus on their work and get some really great approvals through for our members.
“One of the risks would be for the interim CEO to start reinventing the wheel for the relocation plans which are already in place, which have been developed in consultation with industry and with farming stakeholders and we’re pretty confident that they’re going to deliver us a better regulator, at the end of the day.”
While little detail of the digital strategy is known publicly, it’s understood it may have an estimated $20 million price tag that would be covered by the government rather than industry, in addition to the $26m already budgeted for the APVMA move.
At the recent hearing of the Senate inquiry into decentralisation, CropLife Australia CEO Matthew Cossey said his group did not agree with the relocation.
But Mr Cossey said his group was continuing to work “enthusiastically” with the government, APVMA and Agriculture Department on the concept of a centre of excellence, with the University of New England, “incorporating a next-generation regulator with a structurally modernised operating model and a new digitally based capability”.
He said he’d not seen any costings for the digital strategy specifically but it was “mentioned recently that they are still being worked up and finalised as we speak”.
Mr Cossey said CropLife had long advocated a new online assessment capability to allow the regulator, irrespective of where they operated from, digital tools that allowed them to do assessments and use scientific assessment and risk management resources from anywhere around Australia “and, in fact, the world”.
“Our companies that we represent struggle with the same HR challenges as the APVMA,” he said.
“There is not just a national shortage of regulatory scientists; there is a global shortage.
“Our view is that this regulator, if it is to be a next-generation, efficient regulator, needs to be able to draw on those resources wherever they are to assist them to do that work, not just as part of relocation but, in fact, as part of dealing with workflows, excess capacity or excess number of applications at one time.”
Mr Stapley said whatever digital strategy was ultimately implemented, it had to ensure the regulator had the capacity to deliver chemical product assessments more efficiently and effectively, and at a lower cost and more transparently for industry.
“If the digital strategy was implemented the way we want it to be, we would expect to see reductions in the timeframe and also the cost of getting applications through the APVMA,” he said.
NFF: Dr Parker’s work history makes him “logical choice”
National Farmers’ Federation (NFF) President Fiona Simson said Dr Parker’s experience made him a logical choice for the position.
Ms Simson said Dr Parker had a unique mix of skills and experience having been a farmer, a veterinarian and a high-level bureaucrat, “three lines of work that I believe will stand him in good stead in this role”.
But she said Dr Parker had a challenge ahead of him to lead efforts to put the regulator back on track in terms of performance in the midst of its relocation to Armidale.
“Last week, the March quarter approval results revealed some of the worst statistics in the history of the regulator,” she said.
“The NFF has longed expressed reservations about the relocation of the APVMA to Armidale and the potential for negative impacts on its ongoing services, performance and business.
“We want to see more done to ensure the regulator’s performance does not continue to deteriorate during the transition period.”
NFF told the senate hearing the proposed digital strategy could also assist staff with potentially working remotely, while the APVMA’s central operation was based in Armidale.
Victorian Nationals Senator Bridget McKenzie said at the hearing the APVMA’s digital strategy could allow not only scientists employed by the Authority, but others located in Ballarat, Bendigo and Wodonga, to access and participate in the regulatory process and ensure lag time is minimised.
Mr Fitzgibbon said Ms Arthy had joined the “mass exodus” from the APVMA’s professional ranks since Mr Joyce forced its relocation from Canberra to his New England electorate.
He said Mr Joyce wanted a CEO who was willing to say “the crazy taxpayer funded pork barrel has merit and is prepared to drive the move without complaint or challenge”.
“But given the APVMA is fully funded by the chemical and medicines manufacturing companies who pay application fees, Dr Parker must be fearless in his role in ensuring the Authority has the capacity to do its important work,” he said.
“Dr Parker is interim CEO and Labor demands a full transparent and proper process for the selection of the new APVMA CEO.”
Dr Parker will replace Ms Arthy whose resignation becomes effective on May 31.
He is also a practiced veterinarian, has managed a family farm in WA and SA, worked for an agricultural chemical company and been a board member of representative bodies, including WoolProducers Australia.