VICTORIAN Nationals Senator Bridget McKenzie is calling for the Senate inquiry into decentralisation to be held in regional areas; including Armidale in northern NSW where the government policy is attracting the most intense public controversy and focus.
Senator McKenzie said regional community groups and stakeholders had responded positively to a vocal campaign led by her party leader Barnaby Joyce seeking to attract submissions.
Nationals members claim about 800 submissions have been received for the 'get out of the city' campaign that will now be passed onto the Senate inquiry for processing.
Senator McKenzie said more than 160 individual contributions had been also been received which would eventually be published on the inquiry’s website.
It’s understood the 800 submissions driven by the Nationals’ campaign are based on a form letter that stakeholders have signed.
The individual contributions won’t be made public and nor will the final number carry any additional weight for the Senate Finance and Public Administration References Committee inquiry’s ultimate considerations on final recommendations.
The form letter supporting the Nationals’ decentralisation push says “Regional Australia deserves its fair share of government services and opportunities; and that includes being able to access quality public sector careers just as much as any capital city”.
“I’m concerned that the Labor Party is trying to put a stop to decentralisation: trying to put a stop to moving some government departments from the capital cities to the regions,” it says.
A move to relocate the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA) into the Armidale region of NSW in Mr Joyce’s New England electorate is causing the government the most headaches and is strongly opposed by farm groups.
The Senate inquiry is yet to list any public hearing venues or dates.
But Senator McKenzie said she’d written to other committee members requesting some public forums be held in regional areas, including Armidale where views about the APVMA’s co-location at the University of New England, at a centre of agricultural excellence, could be heard.
“Given the strong interest around moving the APVMA to Armidale, I think it would be appropriate for the committee to hear both sides of the debate; not just the Canberra view of the world,” she said.
Senator McKenzie said the strong sentiment underpinning the large number of public submissions meant the Senate inquiry needed to go “out on the ground in the regions and hear direct from those people” about their support for decentralisation.
“I would hope the committee can hold more than one hearing in the regions, as well as one in Canberra,” she said.
“There’s a broad range of views and proposals from stakeholders that deserve to be heard.”
The inquiry’s submission deadline was March 10 and the report is due to be tabled on May 9.
One of its terms of reference is to consider the APVMA’s ability to perform its functions from its new location, and any consequent risks to: human and animal health; productivity and profitability to the agriculture and fisheries sectors; chemical industries; and Australia’s trading reputation.
Amid warnings about the growing danger of heft job losses at the APVMA and drain on technical expertise for assessing registrations on farm chemical products, Shadow Agriculture Minister Joel Fitzgibbon has taken a nasty swipe at his opposite number.
Last week on Sky News Mr Fitzgibbon said Mr Joyce was relocating the APVMA to Armidale where “senior staff are now working out of McDonald’s”.
“They are issuing a new menu by the way which will include the pork barrel burger,” he said.
The APVMA’s inquiry submission said on November 25 last year, Mr Joyce announced the government had approved $25.6 million to fund the APVMA’s relocation to Armidale.
The submission said previous staff surveys had suggested only 10-15 per cent of current staff may consider relocating to Armidale.
But it also said the APVMA can establish a digital solution that will support a large proportion of regulatory scientists working remotely from anywhere in Australia, “working collaboratively and seamlessly connected to the Armidale office”.
However, the APVMA submission said there was a “high risk” of impacts on business continuity throughout the transition period from anticipated staff departures - particularly the possibility of losing highly skilled and experienced staff.
It said the lengthy time it takes to train new starters and the re-tasking of existing staff to support critical work underpinning the transition, were also high risks.
“The ability of the APVMA to meet legislated timeframes will be affected during the transition to Armidale,” it said.
“The APVMA continues to look at ways to improve the efficiency of business systems and other measures to reduce the burden on staff in performing their duties.
“The APVMA also recognises the potential uncertainty for applicants in knowing when their applications will be finalised.
“Work is underway on mechanisms to more easily provide applicants with expected completion dates, including ways to communicate any uncertainty around timeframes.”
The APVMA said more than 11,000 pesticide and veterinary medicine products were currently registered in Australia, including products for treating crop and garden diseases and pests, and medicines for treating agricultural and companion animals.
The submission said Authority also handled over 5000 applications each year and takes a systematic, scientific, evidence-based approach to making decisions about whether a chemical or proposed use for the chemical meets statutory criteria.