Just 51 staff remain in the Canberra office of the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority after the controversial move to Armidale, with indications of an exodus from the science agency.
Just 14 staff relocated to Armidale in the 12 months to June 30 this year, according to the agency's annual report. Forty-two staff took voluntary redundancy on July 1.
Over the 12 months to June, 86 people were recruited, which suggests that fully half of the agency's current head count of 171 are relatively new.
The authority has been through massive upheaval over the past two years as it shifts to a newly built office in Armidale. The move has been marred not only by a reluctance of staff to move but also by controversy over the new location, after a suspicious fire razed the Armidale Club which operated from the site before it was leased to the government.
Also on Monday, NSW Police said the state coroner would review the fire in January. A suspect in the fire shot himself in an Armidale park the day after the fire. The initial coroner's report almost two years ago found the fire was deliberately lit but did not name a suspect, saying the man's death was a coincidence and there was no evidence tying him directly to the fire. After the site was chosen for the veterinary authority last year, with agitation from the former club owner, police reopened investigations.
The agency's annual report suggests a big increase in the travel bill in the past two years coinciding with the move to Armidale. In each of the previous two financial years, the agency spent just short of $200,000 on travel. In 2017-18 it spent $480,000, and in 2018-19 it spent $625,000.
Labor's Joel Fitzgibbon told parliament last week that he had seen agency head Chris Parker regularly at the airport.
"He was going to be located in Armidale, we were assured of that. He probably does have a house or a flat or duplex in Armidale I suspect. But I see him flying to Canberra a lot," Mr Fitzgibbon said.
The agency relied on the retention of regulatory scientists and lawyers in a unique area.
"Even prior to the relocation of the APVMA the authority was struggling to secure and retain the staff it needs, so you can imagine the impact when the former minister announced that he was packing the authority up and moving it to Armidale, so far away," he said. "Immediately, a very large number of people ... left the authority."
Former Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce, the architect of the agency's move to his home town, said the agency's capacity to do its work had not been impacted - and in fact it was improving, with agricultural and veterinary approvals being handled more quickly.
While the numbers suggest staff are not shifting from Canberra to Armidale, Mr Joyce said it had been "highly successful".
"For people that are there, they overwhelmingly say they are really happy with the move. They have got more money in their pocket and they get more time with their family," he said.
The annual report said the "separation rates" - the number of staff leaving - had been high because of the relocation. In 2017-18, 36 per cent of permanent staff had left; in 2018-19 23 per cent had left. The numbers don't count the staff members who left on July 1 this year or since.
The agency still looks to have fewer staff than two years ago, In June 2017 it had 217 staff, 173 of whom were full-time permanent. All but one worked in Canberra.
On November 13 this year, there were 171 staff. Of them, 146 are permanent - 39 in Canberra and 107 in Armidale. Twenty-five are 25 temporary ("non-ongoing") - 12 in Canberra and 13 in Armidale.
The agency had planned for up to 150 staff in Armidale by mid 2019; it reached 105. The agency said 15 people had joined the organisation in Armidale since July 1 and more recruitment was underway.
The agency had leased the Armidale site for 15 years plus two five-year extensions, according to the most recent annual report. The lease on the Canberra office, at 18 Wormald Street, Symonston, Canberra, ran until October 2020, and the lower occupancy from June 2019 this year meant "a provision for onerous property lease payments of $1.355 million being created which will be amortised over the remainder of the lease period", reviewed each year. The Canberra lease also required the APVMA to restore the premises to their original condition at the end.
Mr Fitzgibbon said the relocation to Armidale had "very, very eventful", with police still investigating the fire.
"Somehow the nightclub burnt down just at the right time for the Commonwealth to pick up the second block and build this new building in the electorate of the member for New England," he said.
While that might be a coincidence, "we do know, and this is not a secret, that the main suspect in the fire died very shortly after. So the police lost its key witness in the investigation".
Correction: Chris Parker is chief executive of the agency, on a fixed-term until the end of 2022. An earlier version of the picture caption named him as interim chief executive.