Joyce on the defensive, for good reason
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Joyce on the defensive, for good reason

Barnaby Joyce was a mix of irascibility and defensiveness when he announced on Thursday that the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority would be moving from Canberra to Armidale if the Coalition was re-elected in July. "I as the minister have made the call, and I've got the backing of my government, and it's going to happen," the voluble Agriculture Minister told an audience at the University of New England's Armidale campus. "We're not asking people to move to Kathmandu or Timbuktu – Armidale is a beautiful city."

For Mr Joyce to be touchy and feisty by turns in the public arena is not uncommon, as his recent public squabble with Johnny Depp over two dogs brought illegally into Australia by the American actor's wife demonstrate. In this case, however, it might be argued there are good grounds for Mr Joyce's prickliness. While there are undoubtedly economic benefits to be had from moving government agencies to the regions, the merits of this particular transfer appear to fall some way short of the overall benefits. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull commissioned a cost-benefit analysis of the move earlier this year. It's unclear whether this is complete or not, but there's been no announcement. That Mr Joyce is forging ahead regardless tends to further weaken the logical rationale for a move.

Mr Joyce points out that the APVMA is a natural fit for the University of New England, with its strong focus on agricultural research, and that a move would drive on-farm innovation, agricultural productivity and rural exports. The APVMA employs some 175 staff, and Mr Joyce's department has estimated that by moving them to Armidale, the local economy will benefit to the tune of $16 million a year. As the Minister noted on Thursday, "We've always believed, especially within the National Party, [in] decentralisation – doing as much as possible to move things out to regional areas. Here's another statement of that action".

If decentralisation is dear to the heart of all National Party MPs, its popularity in government has ebbed and flowed according to fashion and political circumstance. The Tax Office and the Department of Human Services (urged on by Coalition governments) have been enthusiastic proponents of decentralisation in recent years, shifting staff from Canberra to Albury and Gosford, or to bigger cities like Sydney and Melbourne. The Department of Immigration and Border Protection, however, has been strongly of the view that all its staff should be housed under the one roof, close to Parliament House.

Setting up shop in the larger capitals allowed departments to tap into a highly competitive labour market, higher perhaps than exists in Canberra. That's not quite the case with smaller centres like Albury, however. And it certainly won't be the case with Armidale.

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The APVMA is a scientific agency charged with the testing and regulation of new pesticides and medicines, and with many of its (highly qualified) current staff indicating they won't leave Canberra, locating and employing suitable replacements from what is the small catchment area of New England will be difficult and protracted. And that prospect of disruption concerns peak industry bodies like the National Farmers' Federation and CropLife Australia, too.

Alleging that the APVMA is currently completing only 51 per cent of applications for pesticides on time, NFF president Brent Finlay said on Thursday that "we have real concerns this would slow further with a change in the authority's address". CropLife CEO Matthew Cossey claimed the likely operational disruption would "have a significant negative impact on national agricultural productivity".

Armidale is in Mr Joyce's federal seat of New England, and the timing of this announcement (in the middle of an election campaign in which former New England MP Tony Windsor is said to have reasonable prospects of regaining his old seat) has led to accusations of pork-barrelling. That may be unsporting: Mr Joyce flagged his plan to decentralise agencies in May 2015. And Armidale was one of two towns (the other being Toowoomba) selected by the department as a preferred location for the APVMA.

Mr Joyce's faith in decentralisation apparently remains unshakeable, despite the reservations of the NFF and CropLife Australia – and the fact that preparations by the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation to move from Canberra to Wagga have hit a major snag – no staff other than its chief executive are willing to move. The omens for a successful move by the APVMA to Armidale do not look good.