17 July 2023

Fundamentals were lost when chemical authority forced out of Canberra, review finds

| Chris Johnson
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Agriculture Minister Murray Watt

Agriculture Minister Murray Watt ordered the review of the APVMA. Photo: Supplied.

A federal government agency that was forced to relocate from Canberra to Armidale appears to have come unstuck because of the move, according to a review that has claimed the scalps of its bosses.

The board chair and the CEO of the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA) have quit in the wake of a damning review into the agency, which uncovered a toxic corporate culture and a high level of incompetence.

Former Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce ordered in 2016 that the APVMA be moved to Armidale, NSW and new headquarters were officially opened there in 2019.

The move was resisted by the agency and widely perceived as a ploy to help Mr Joyce shore up votes in his New England electorate.

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

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

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Following revelations in Senate estimates last year of an APVMA executive urinating on colleagues at a staff Christmas party, Labor’s new Agriculture Minister Murray Watt ordered a review into the whole organisation.

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

The review’s report says the forced relocation of the APVMA “fundamentally changed” the agency.

“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 where Clayton Utz found the agency to be severely lacking.

The reviewer found complaints of misconduct permeated the entire organisation at all levels.

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 having been registered inappropriately, registration approvals were taking far too long.

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In releasing the review to the public on Friday (14 July), Senator Watt blamed the former Coalition government for the agency’s woes.

“The matters identified by the review are very serious and point to systemic problems with the administration and governance of the APVMA,” the minister said.

“Concerningly, the review found serious allegations of chemical industry capture of the APVMA, which appears to have played a key role in the organisation not performing its full regulatory responsibilities.

“The report also found that former agriculture minister Barnaby Joyce’s decision to move the regulator to Armidale resulted in a loss of corporate knowledge, a loss of corporate culture and a loss of experience and knowledge of public sector values…

“Our first course of action will be a rapid evaluation of the APVMA’s structure and governance.”

That evaluation will be conducted by highly regarded former departmental secretary Ken Matthews, who will report to the Minister by 30 September this year.

“Based on this review, I am confident of the safety of Australian food and fibre,” Senator Watt said.

“However, we need the best possible regulatory systems, to provide Australian farmers, the community and trading partners with confidence and trust in their regulatory bodies.

“Both the CEO of the APVMA and Board Chair have tendered their resignations from their respective roles in recent days.

“Acting arrangements are in place while a nationwide search will be conducted for their long-term replacements.”

Original Article published by Chris Johnson on Riotact.

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