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Editorial

Barnaby Joyce's crusade may end up hurting the bush

Barnaby Joyce wears his idiosyncrasies on his sleeve, which in an era of blow-dried politicians who speak in platitudes while carefully remaining on message, is a refreshing trait. However, the Agriculture Minister plumbed new depths of eccentricity on Friday by claiming the endorsement of former TV presenter Don Burke for the Coalition government's bid to relocate the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority from Canberra to Armidale.

The one-time Burke's Backyard star, who appears to share the the same politically conservative views as Mr Joyce, appeared in a video asserting that the authority's imminent move to the Northern NSW Tablelands city would be the "best thing the APVMA has ever done" and that it would be "in the absolute centre of country activities which will keep a balanced focus".

The endorsement may have carried weight if Mr Burke had more extensive professional qualifications in agricultural and veterinary chemical products or expertise in the economics of decentralisation. But this professional horticulturist turned TV personality doesn't appear to have either, and what public credibility and name recognition he does possess has faded due to the fact that he last appeared regularly on screen in 2004.

That Mr Joyce saw fit to bother with his PR nonsense is surprising since the Turnbull government issued a new regulation this week stipulating that any corporate Commonwealth entity with agricultural policy responsibilities must be located in a regional community or close to a regional university's main campus. And to make explicit that Canberra doesn't count, the regulation defines regional community as "not within 150 kilometres by road of Canberra or the capital city of a state".

The regulation effectively bypasses the need for Parliamentary approval for the APVMA's move to Armidale, and may clear the way for other research and development authorities to be relocated from Canberra. It also absolves the government of any requirement to justify the decentralisation plan on cost and efficiency grounds – which is handy for Mr Joyce as he's offered little evidence that affirms the wisdom of the move. Indeed, a cost-benefit analysis of the APVMA conducted last year was so underwhelming that Mr Joyce refused to publicise the findings until yesterday.

The cost of the Armidale move has been put at about $24 million, but suggestions are that redundancies triggered by the unwillingness of staff to relocate will push the bill much higher. An APVMA staff survey held last year found only 14 of 110 people would relocate to Armidale, and enthusiasm for the move among the agribusiness and veterinary medicines lobby has also been faint. They argue that the authority's research outcomes are enabled not by proximity to primary producers but by closeness to people in industry, government and the research sector (of which there is a critical mass in Canberra).

Mr Joyce's commitment to "redirecting" Commonwealth jobs and money away from Canberra may play well in the bush, but he risks penalising those of his constituents who rely on good agricultural research outcomes.