Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce has played down the expertise of the respected Productivity Commission, saying economic modelling should guide government policies on forced relocation of government departments to regional Australia but not determine final policies.
Opening a transitional office for the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority in Armidale on Thursday, the Nationals' leader said the agency's forced move from Canberra to his own electorate of New England would help build a stronger nation.
Outgoing APVMA boss Kareena Arthy, who announced her resignation last week, looked on as Mr Joyce removed a piece of A3 paper from a sign to officially open the office. Mr Joyce said her successor, yet to be appointed, would have the chance to reform the agency's structure, governing legislation and technology.
The Agriculture and Water Minister said he had "no problem" with the commission's report published last week, but expert analysis should not "rule you" in decision making.
The commission said most government assistance to struggling regions should focus on promoting employment skills and retraining, while forced relocations of public service jobs were often ineffective and not aligned with the strengths of local communities.
"If you had a Productivity Commission report into Canberra back in 1900, they would have said don't build Canberra," Mr Joyce told journalists.
"If you had a Productivity Commission report into Australia from England in the 1880s or in 1787 they would have said 'Don't go to Australia'. If you would have had a Productivity Commission report into public transport, you'd shut it down.
"These things are to guide you but they're not to rule you."
The authority's relocation comes at the start of a whole of government decentralisation push, led by Mr Joyce and his deputy Fiona Nash, who said last week departments and agencies would have to justify their continued presence in Canberra and other big cities or face similar forced moves.
Dozens of AVPMA staff have quit, while about 40 job applications have so far been lodged in Armidale.
Labor has slammed the process, while Victorian MP Cathy McGowan this week called for a parliamentary inquiry.
Mr Joyce has repeatedly talked down criticism, including suggestions Nationals ministers were wasting taxpayers money to build their political stocks.
"I bet you if we were to have a Productivity Commission report in five years time into shutting down APVMA in Armidale, this is what they'd say: 'Don't do it'."
Mr Joyce said the new pesticides authority boss would have to work hard to fill Ms Arthy's shoes as she moved to head the Enterprise Canberra agency.
The awkward setting follows evidence to a Senate estimates committee in February that Ms Arthy and her colleagues were working in a McDonald's restaurant with free internet access. She previously refused to tell MPs whether she would move, saying it was a personal matter.
The government cost-benefit analysis for the Armidale move found no material economic benefits from relocating from Canberra.
Mr Joyce has previously cited the building of the Sydney Opera House as a visionary policy, which would not pass a cost-benefit analysis, leading economists to point out a 2013 study showing the building had delivered $4.6 billion in economic benefits.
ACT Labor senator Katy Gallagher called the APVMA move "nothing but shameless pork barrelling"
"The organisation is now leaderless, losing experienced staff and is one that openly admits it won't be able to do its important job properly," she said. "Barnaby may see this as a win but its is a bad decision by a bad government and it shouldn't be celebrated."