18 April 2024

It's a wee bit too late to bring the APVMA back to Canberra, says Ag Minister

| Chris Johnson
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Agriculture Minister Murray Watt has rejected the recommendation to relocate APVMA back to Canberra. Photo: Supplied.

The Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA) will not be relocated from Armidale back to Canberra, despite a review into the troubled agency recommending that it should be.

APVMA was forced to move from Canberra to the NSW regional city following a 2016 order from former Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce, who was trying to shore up votes in his New England electorate.

The new headquarters were officially opened there in 2019 against strong resistance from the agency itself.

The forced relocation resulted in a high turnover of staff, including among the agency’s management ranks.

And it was all downhill from there for APVMA, which is responsible for the management and regulation of all agricultural and veterinary chemical products in Australia.

Agriculture Minister Murray Watts ordered a review last year into the agency, following revelations in a Senate Estimates hearing that a senior executive had urinated on colleagues during a 2021 Christmas party.

Law firm Clayton Utz conducted the review and found APVMA to be a government agency in disarray.

Its review uncovered a shocking culture in the agency – toxicity combined with a high level of incompetence – and one that was both captured by industry interests and subject to regular complaints of bullying and misconduct.

Clayton Utz’s report said the forced relocation of the APVMA “fundamentally changed” the agency.

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“If for no other reason than the APVMA had a very significant turnover of staff, including a change in CEO, associated with the relocation,” the review found.

“This turnover of staff would have inevitably resulted in a loss of corporate knowledge, a loss of corporate culture and a loss of experience and knowledge of what it is to work within the Australian Public Service.

“This may include practical awareness of foundational public service principles, such as the need to adhere to the APS values.”

It was in the realm of values that Clayton Utz found the agency to be severely lacking.

The reviewer found misconduct complaints permeated the entire organisation at all levels, and there was a serious lack of response to complaints and shoddy record-keeping.

“There were clearly cultural issues with the organisation given that, on average, there was a formal complaint about once every four to six weeks for five years,” the review said.

“There are also a significant number of complaints that refer to serious impacts for the persons involved, including numerous instances of employees having to take periods of stress leave or feeling unable to attend work due to mental health concerns.”

The review also found that while there was no evidence of any chemical products being registered inappropriately, registration approvals took far too long.

APVMA’s inaugural board chair Carrie Hillyard and its then chief executive Lisa Croft quit in the wake of the damning review.

The Minister then appointed retired senior public servant Ken Matthews to undertake a rapid evaluation of the findings of the Clayton Utz report and to provide advice on a range of issues, including an assessment of the legal structure of the APVMA.

Mr Matthews recommended that the agency be returned to Canberra.

However, on Tuesday (17 April), the Minister rejected that recommendation when releasing the Federal Government’s initial response to the Matthews review.

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“The disruption and chaos caused by Barnaby Joyce when he forcibly relocated the APVMA to his local electorate put a massive strain on the staff at the regulator and, according to the independent review, ‘has had serious impacts on the performance and culture of the APVMA’,” Mr Watt said

“We will not be making the same mistake. The APVMA will remain in Armidale, giving certainty to local workers and the local community.

“We do, however, intend to implement the rapid evaluation’s recommendation that we revoke the government policy order that required APVMA staff to be based in Armidale.

“Removing the order brings the APVMA in line with every other federal agency and recognises the fact that a number of current APVMA staff are not based in Armidale.

“This move will ensure the APVMA can deal with existing recruitment challenges and get the best people for the job, regardless of where they live.”

The government has also decided the APVMA will remain an independent statutory authority.

“While Mr Matthews has recommended the APVMA be moved into the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry and that the APVMA Board be abolished, I consider that retaining the APVMA as an independent statutory authority, with its own board, provides the best assurance of regulatory independence in the context of Australia’s agvet chemicals regulatory system,” he said.

“The government also believes that there are more efficient and effective ways to address the issues identified within the APVMA, some of which have already been implemented and are already having a positive impact.”

The Federal Government will release a full response to all recommendations made by Mr Matthews later this year.

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