RELOCATING the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA) from Canberra to Armidale won’t have an impact on the range of existing chemical products used by farmers.
However, critics are warning the controversial decentralisation move will adversely delay and negatively impact the availability of new ag-vet chemicals onto the local market.
Industry groups opposing the APVMA moving from Canberra to Armidale in the New England Electorate of Nationals leader and Agriculture and Water Resources Minister Barnaby Joyce will ventilate their frustrations at the first hearing of the Senate Finance and Public Administration References Committee’s inquiry into the Coalition’s controversial decentralisation policy in Canberra recently.
The APVMA will give evidence along with CropLife Australia, the National Farmers' Federation, Animal Medicines Australia and other groups that fear the move will hurt the farm sector’s profitability.
CropLife’s written submission to the inquiry outlined the deepest fears saying moving the APVMA to Armidale in northern NSW, “poses a real and genuine threat to the APVMA’s ability to perform its function”.
“This threat is simply through the significant loss of their existing, core, highly specialised regulatory scientific staff,” it said.
“There is in fact a serious national and global shortage of regulatory scientists which is why their loss poses an immediate, medium and longer term problem for the effective operations of the APVMA.
“It is important to recognise that CropLife supports, in principle, government initiatives that improve the economic activity in rural and regional Australia.
“Relocating the APVMA to Armidale in its current form, and in isolation will, however, not deliver a net benefit to the efficient operations of the regulator, the plant science industry or the Australian farming sector in the short, medium or long-term.”
Animal Medicines Australia (AMA) didn’t pinpoint any specific chemical products in the firing line but said it holds “deep concerns” that relocation was “undermining the capacity of the APVMA to administer the regulatory scheme for veterinary medicines”.
“While AMA recognises the efforts that have been made to date to help ensure that the risks associated with the relocation are minimised, it remains concerning that key risks – especially those relating to staff retention and recruitment – are now occurring,” the submission said.
But CropLife said the federal government’s own $272,000 independent cost-benefit analysis showed the move was “all cost and no benefit to Australia’s agriculture industry”.
It said the analysis determined that the potential impact of relocating the APVMA could cost the agricultural sector up to $193 million per annum, for crops alone.
CropLife said that analysis also identified key risks which included that the APVMA may be unable to relocate, or recruit and replace, key APVMA executive, management and technical assessment staff.
During transition and in the short term, the APVMA may not be able to sustain its rate of effort for registration of new agricultural and veterinary chemical products and unable to maintain and grow its capability in the medium term.
CropLife said many of the risks identified by the report are now being realised, without a comprehensive plan with specific mitigating initiatives outlined or implemented.
The industry group’s submission said steady improvements in performance by the APVMA have also been “obliterated” by the impact of the government’s relocation order.
“The APVMA recently released its October 2016 - December 2016 performance statistics, which showed a sharp drop in the regulator’s performance,” it said.
“This performance equals the abysmal performance 12 months ago when the regulator was struggling with the poorly conceived and drafted 2014 legislative reform.
“The poor result is more stark, as it follows steady improvements in previous quarters, which were raising hopes and confidence that the regulator would soon regulate in a new, significantly more efficient manner.”
CropLife said the most recent performance statistics showed that the APVMA only processed 50 per cent of crop protection product applications within statutory timeframes.
“This is a sharp fall from processing 82pc of crop protection product applications within statutory timeframes in the previous quarter and below the 57pc recorded in the 2015-16 December quarter,” the submission said.
“Thus, the number of crop protection product applications currently 'in progress' has also increased with only 69pc of those are still within timeframe, indicating that performance is unlikely to improve in the short to medium-term.
“These poor results reflect the significant loss of experienced regulatory scientists in critical assessment areas for crop protection products since the order was made.
“The loss of assessment staff confirms that the key risks that CropLife feared from relocating the APVMA are now occurring.
“A broad range of significant measures must be urgently implemented to minimise assessment staff losses, attract new assessment staff and streamline the assessment and registration processes.”
Most of the APVMA’s registrations are variations to existing chemical products to either; change formulation; add another crop type to the existing registration; or for another company to conduct a generic copy of an existing registration, to increase market competition.
A spokesperson for Bayer said they understood the federal government’s policy for decentralisation of Canberra-based commonwealth agencies - but it holds some concerns about maintaining the APVMA’s efficiency so new products can be approved in a timely manner, to benefit farmers.
The APVMA regulates farm chemical products including their active constituents for pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, insecticides and plant growth regulators.
Veterinary medicines include all substances that can be used to prevent, cure, or alleviate a disease or injury of an animal.
The independent cost benefit analysis report said in 2012-13, product sales of ag-vet chemicals amounted to over $3 billion, which comprised of just under $2.3 billion agricultural (pesticides) and $940 million veterinary medicines.
It also said the Australian market comprises 2pc of the world market for agricultural chemical products and 1pc for veterinary chemical products.
Mr Joyce has already announced decentralisation plans for other agricultural related agencies, including the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation moving to Wagga Wagga and the Grains Research and Development Corporation out into several regional locations throughout Australia’s cropping zones.
The Murray Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) is also making proactive moves to expand its footprint in non-metropolitan Australia, to increase community ties and stakeholder links.
Labor has accused Mr Joyce of pork barrelling his New England electorate via the APVMA relocation.
But asked recently about the MDBA moving about 10pc of its 300 employees to Basin communities, the Nationals leader said it was “a great first step”.
He said “other people talk about decentralisation but we actually do it” while citing the, APVMA moving to Armidale, the RIRDC to Wagga, and the GRDC to regional areas like Northam, Dubbo and Toowoomba.
“This is decentralisation – we’re actually doing it,” he said.
“What we’re saying to people quite clearly is that we’re providing the opportunity for jobs in regional areas where you can buy a house in a more affordable way, where we can grow those towns and have the largesse of government not only spent here (in Canberra).
“It’s very important that’s it’s spent in Canberra but to be also spent in other parts of our nation, to give other opportunities, so that a person can go to a regional town and with their wage, actually pay off the house that they buy, and actually give themselves hopefully a better quality of life .
“Some people talk about it and say that would be nice if it happens but we actually do it and make it happen.
“But when we do make it happen, who complains against it, the Labor party.
“The Labor party come out and say ‘oh well you know we don’t want decentralisation we want everything to be in Canberra’.
“I love Canberra – beautiful place – but there are other parts of our nation that need to be supported as well.”
The cost benefit analysis of the APVMA relocation said it would have an estimated economic cost of $23.2m and the potential identified by some stakeholders in the process included; co-location with the University of New England; enhanced proximity to end users and other agricultural researchers; reduction in property costs; and leverage of NBN infrastructure.