Australia's food safety could be at risk from the federal government's tough approach to bargaining with its public servants in the Agriculture Department, according to Australian Veterinary Association.
The professional body says there is already a shortage of government vets, who are vital to safeguard the livestock industryAnd the shortfall is set to get worse as the department tries to crack down on pay and conditions of its veterinary workforce.
The AVA has come to the defence of its members working for the federal government with the vets' group expressing alarm over a proposed new enterprise agreement that would spilt the veterinary workforce and reduce by $21,000 the wage of a junior vet starting out with the department.
But Agriculture has defended its proposal, saying it would actually enhance career progression for its young vets and was developed after talking to its workforce about what it wanted.
The proposed new wage deal, which would have covered more than 4400 public servants at the Agriculture Department, was rejected in a department-wide vote in December by a wafer-thin margin of just 62 votes.
Agriculture looks set to move to a new vote after making some tweaks to its offer and increasing the "front loading" of its pay deal
But the AVA's President Robert Johnson is not happy, warning the department's plan will weaken the government veterinary workforce and potentially the nation's bio-security and livestock industry.
"Government vets provide services that protect biosecurity, public health and food safety," Dr Johnson said.
"They are as integral to government decision-making on agriculture as doctors are to policy in the medical system.
"The AVA's workforce modelling report...showed that Australia is already heading towards a significant under-supply of government vets.
"Reducing pay scales and classifications for veterinary officers will only make this situation worse and it will be our livestock industries and public health that will pay the price.
"We believe the government needs to be proactively employing more vets.
"It's also important to invest in the development and retention of those already working in Australian government roles so their expertise is not lost."
Agriculture has proposed a new set of pay scales for its vets, which would reduce starting salaries by up to $21,000 at the most junior level.
Vets working in export abattoirs would be exempt from the changes, with insiders saying the department is fighting shy of potentially disruptive industrial unrest in the politically sensitive sector.
Dr Johnson said that Australia's food and livestock trades were based on the expertise and risk assessment skills of vets.
"Multi-million dollar decisions rest on the internationally-trusted signature of Australian vets," he said.
"We're very concerned about the impact these proposed changes will have on protecting livestock industries from disease, and our ability to respond when there's an animal health crisis.
"Under-valuing these many contributions of government vets opens the door to risks that we just can't afford to take."
Technical union Professionals Australia added its voice to the criticism, saying the proposal would leave the Commonwealth less well-equipped to protect vital industries.
"The proposed changes to the veterinary stream, and the long-term attrition of expertise and professionalism in the department will lead to a downgrading of the Australian Government veterinary service," union official Dave Smith said.
In an email sent to all Agriculture staff on Monday, senior public servant Tim Chapman hit back at claims by unions that the department had halted bargaining talks.
"I want to make it absolutely clear that, despite what was said in the CPSU's bulletin last Friday, we have not terminated bargaining," Mr Chapman wrote.