20 January 2017

Few people have heard of the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA). Fewer people know where it is or what it does.

What they should know is that Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyces determination to move the authority from Canberra to his electorate could pose a threat to our health, farm productivity and profitability, and the natural environment.

The APVMA is a Commonwealth government regulator. Its main role is to ensure the chemicals farmers use to spray food crops and the medicines given to farm and other animals are not harmful to human or animal health. But its not just farmers.

If you spray bindii weed or tomatoes at home, youre using a chemical approved by the APVMA. When your local council is spraying weeds on roadside verges, the APVMA is keen to ensure the health of a nearby water course or childrens park is not being unacceptably affected by the runoff or spray drift.

Based in Canberra, the authoritys staff review data provided by the big multinational chemicals and pharmaceutical companies and, if satisfied they are both safe and efficient, they register them for use for certain purposes.

Joyce has justified the move saying the APVMA would be close to a university that has expert knowledge in this area.

There is no undergraduate course that delivers all the qualifications and expertise needed to work for the APVMA as a regulatory scientist or lawyer. Its a very specific area of expertise, which takes many years of training post-grad. According to the APVMAs CEO, if these professionals are lost to the organisation, it will take up to seven years to rebuild the workforce.

Sadly, thats what is about to happen. The professionals who work within the APVMA live in the Canberra region and typically have their children in local schools. More often than not, their partners also work in Canberra. Staff surveys show only a small number of these 200-odd highly employable people are prepared to make the move.

In addition to the $26 million of taxpayers money Barnaby Joyce intends to spend on his apparent pork barrel, the Agriculture Minister is now throwing more money at the project in the form of incentives for staff. Its not likely to be enough to make them change their minds.

The chemicals and pharmaceutical companies arent happy either. Along with the peak farming groups, they have been highly critical of the move. Given the companies operate in huge international markets, some may simply decide the Australian regulatory regime is just too difficult to justify what is a relatively small market.

That decision would be a very harmful one for our farmers in particular.

Last year, Joyce was forced to commission an independent cost-benefit analysis on the move. In short, it spelt out the madness of the relocation. Sadly, the minister appears to have ignored its findings and for many months refused to release it.

So why is this happening?

Is it because Barnaby Joyce struggles to secure the votes he needs in Armidale to retain his seat in Parliament the town he wants to host the APVMA?

Is his party so desperate to maintain a united front it would put human and animal health, plant health and the health of our environment at risk?

Joel Fitzgibbon is the Member for Hunter, Shadow Minister for Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries and Shadow Minister for Rural and Regional Australia.
This opinion piece was originally published in the Daily Telegraph, on 20 January 2017.