Just 10 scientists expected to stay with APVMA under forced relocation to Armidale
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Just 10 scientists expected to stay with APVMA under forced relocation to Armidale

The nation's agricultural chemicals and veterinary medicines regulator will be lucky to hold on to 10 of its 103 scientists under Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce's plan to move the agency to Armidale.

An internal government document outlining the "strategy" behind the forced relocation has been made public after the Senate ordered Mr Joyce to publish documents analysing the effects of, and transition plans for, the change.

Forced relocation:  Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce.

Forced relocation: Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce.

A cost-benefit analysis previously released shows the change could cost $26 million in moving costs and remove up to 189 jobs from Canberra, costing the ACT economy an estimated $157 million.

The relocation strategy was released after cabinet approved the move last week and Mr Joyce said the move and timeframe were "locked in".

"The relocation strategy is not a final document, but forms the basis of a body of work to ensure the smoothest transition to an exciting new model for the delivery of services to the agricultural sector," he said.

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The strategy document shows that, at most, 10 of the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority's 103 regulatory scientists can be expected to leave Canberra bound for Armidale in Mr Joyce's New England electorate.

It estimates just 100 of the authority's 200-odd workforce can be expected to go to Armidale, in what will be a relocation mainly of the agency's "scientific leadership".

"The CEO, executive, key management roles and staff from case management, call centre, application administration, corporate, legal, licensing and compliance will be based in Armidale, along with those regulatory scientists wishing to be located in Armidale," it reads.

"While many regulatory scientists will be operating remotely, the scientific leadership will be based in Armidale."

While the number of staff in Armidale could grow to up to 150 "over time", the strategy shows it will take at least two and a half years before the Armidale office could be expected to be operating, drawing out the uncertainty facing existing staff until after the next federal election.

Despite internal plans to give the regulatory scientists who stay on "incentives" to move, or as a second option, create a "virtual science network" to maintain access to the scientists, that access was one of the "highest risks" with the Turnbull government plan.

"Regulatory scientists have highly specialised skills that are in short supply in Australia – recruitment is difficult even in Canberra," the strategy reads.

"It takes between two to five years to train a regulatory scientist (on top of their university degree) to assess applications and make appropriate recommendations against the legislation.

"The decision makers, or delegates, are executive level officers who typically have seven to 10 years experience."

The strategy said the virtual network of scientists meant it would "not be constrained by the availability of scientists in Armidale".

But, given the current scientists working at the APVMA live in Canberra, it could see some staying put in the national capital and working via the internet to the "leadership" based in Armidale.

The strategy also showed that "very few" of the authority's 30 case management and administrative staff – listed as "a critical function involving considerable corporate knowledge" – could be expected to leave Canberra, as they "would be easily able to find similar roles in Canberra".

"In the long run, it is expected that the majority of this team would be recruited from the Armidale region," the strategy reads.

The agency has already begun recruiting staff on short-term contracts as well as contractors and consultants "where appropriate" to ensure the work can continue to be completed as highly skilled regulatory scientists in Canberra seek other work.

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Across the agency, the strategy confirms that "a large number of staff are expected to take a redundancy package", the terms of which will be finalised during enterprise agreement negotiations, while others have sought to be redeployed or retire.

The authority's 27 staff working in legal, compliance and licensing roles may, if they were not prepared to move, need to work remotely as "a transition measure", while the government is also investigating outsourcing the work of the authority's seven specialist lawyers altogether.

Daniel Burdon

Daniel Burdon is a reporter for The Canberra Times

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