Last week the Morrison Government released and responded to the “Moss Review” into the capability and culture of the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources (DAWR).
The review was commissioned in response to revelations of animal cruelty in the live sheep export sector. DAWR is the regulator of the live export trade.
The report’s findings were nothing short of extraordinary. It painted a picture of abject policy failure and budget savings measures which gutted the capacity of the DAWR to undertake its key tasks. It exposed a culture within the regulator which favoured the industry and profits over animal welfare standards and left key staff too scared to report breaches.
Culture comes from the top, in this case Barnaby Joyce who was the Minister of the day. In the case of the regulation of live animal exports, the culture manifested in at least two ways.
First, regulation and enforcement became light-touch. Second, those within the regulator who were concerned about the Minister’s approach were either too fearful to come forward or believed there was no point in doing so.
The concerns raised by this damning report extend well beyond animal welfare. How could a key area of public administration become so dysfunctional? Beyond Barnaby Joyce, where were the other members of the Cabinet who must have surely known things were not well in the Agriculture portfolio? It is not as if there was a shortage of obvious red flags. Joyce’s summary dismissal of the Department’s Secretary in 2015 and the Ministerial Hansard doctoring controversy which sparked it should have been the first of them.
The forced relocation of the AgVet chemicals regulator (APVMA) to Barnaby Joyce’s own electorate should have been the second red flag. The relocation proceeded despite warnings from the Government’s own cost-benefit analysis of the inevitable adverse impact on the regulator’s performance and the huge hit on the Budget. So complicit was the Cabinet that - knowing Joyce couldn’t force the APVMA to relocate – the Finance Minister signed an executive instrument known as a Government Policy Order (GPO) to give effect to the relocation. Farcically, Joyce’s handpicked CEO of the APVMA is now operating in breach of the GPO by recruiting staff to work in Canberra, the APVMA’s original home base. He recently told Senate Estimates hearing he has legal advice which allows him to do so. It’s bizarre.
The third red flag should have been the 2015 Agriculture White Paper. The White Paper had an unusually long gestation period. It is no secret the delay was caused by push-back from other portfolios as one by one, politicians and public servants alike raised concerns about the more loopy ideas being promoted. The final document was a sanitised version but a number of now failed initiatives made the final print, including a poorly thought through attempt to encourage the embrace of multi-peril crop insurance. The White Paper lacked any overall strategic plan for the agriculture sector.
The fourth ignored red flag was the creation on the Regional Investment Corporation (RIC). This is the entity spruiked as “Barnaby’s Bank”. A $28 million capital outlay is fitting out accommodation for 32 staff in the NSW town of Orange, the seat the National Party lost at the NSW 2016 state by-election for the first time since the Country Party’s Charles Cutler won it from Labor in 1947. The key role of the RIC is to perform a function which was already being performed by state-based rural adjustment authorities.
The fifth red flag should have been Joyce’s erratic Parliamentary performances where he constantly claimed credit for higher commodity prices, embellished the scope of policy initiatives like the Carp Eradication Program, and spoke incessantly about dams everyone knew he would never build.
But the big question is, how did the Westminster system allow this all to happen? Were Canberra’s most senior public servants raising concerns with whoever was Prime Minister of the day? If so, why were their concerns ignored? Alarm bells should have become deafening when Joyce insisted he be given the water portfolio. Particularly when the Murray Darling Basin settlement almost collapsed. It has been suggested the portfolio was allocated to Joyce as part of the Coalition Agreement. We don’t know for sure because the deal entered into to secure National Party support remains a secret.
Why has political expediency been allowed to take precedence over the integrity of our system of government? These are just some of the questions which need to be answered to restore faith in Australian politics.
- Joel Fitzgibbon, Shadow Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry