APVMA Armidale move may need overseas recruitment

Barnaby Joyce has defended the move of the APVMA to Armidale.
Barnaby Joyce has defended the move of the APVMA to Armidale.

The national pesticides authority may have to hire staff from overseas to make its move to Armidale work and avoid a drain on its skills, a new report says.

A business model prepared by consultants for the agency, forced to move from Canberra under a Coalition government order, says the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority should look outside Australia to fill permanent jobs.

New agency boss Chris Parker did not rule out hiring staff from overseas, saying it already employed people from abroad. 

"We will continue to employ the best person for the job advertised and they will be based in Armidale," he said.

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The agency, which had a horror run of deteriorating performance levels in 2017, said it accepted parts of the model including that it should attract and retain staff to make its relocation successful.

It expected a "modest" number of its Canberra public servants to move to Armidale.

New England MP Barnaby Joyce, the driving force behind the APVMA's move, has argued it would create jobs for the electorate and used the relocation as a re-election platform in his recent by-election after he was caught up in the dual citizenship saga.

Public service legislation allows recruiting from overseas, saying an agency boss must not hire non-citizens unless they considered it appropriate.

The proposed business model also poured cold water on a staffing solution the agency has touted for its controversial move north, saying remote-working staff who don't want to relocate would be unable to take most of its roles.

Outgoing APVMA boss Kareena Arthy and New England MP Barnaby Joyce at the opening of the interim APVMA office at Armidale in April 2017.

Outgoing APVMA boss Kareena Arthy and New England MP Barnaby Joyce at the opening of the interim APVMA office at Armidale in April 2017.

"Only some of the functions currently performed are suitable for remote working, and it is highly unlikely that this would be a long-term viable arrangement for the bulk of the staff involved in the function," it said.

The pesticides authority will also have to outsource more of its work to external scientists for the relocation to succeed, the Pegasus report said.

"Given the likely availability of experienced assessment staff, a higher proportion of scientific assessments would be provided by external reviewers," it said.

The APVMA has finalised its business model and said it considered the Pegasus report along with views of staff and its executive.

It expects up to 150 employees will work from Armidale after its move finishes in 2019. 

Labor agriculture spokesman Joel Fitzgibbon said the document, released close to the Christmas shutdown, confirmed the pesticides authority's move would pose an enormous cost to the government without any regard to the adverse impacts on farmers and other end-users. 

"It proposes a re-invention of an organisation which is not fundamentally broken," he said.

"The so-called 'operating model' looks more like an exercise in crisis management. It identifies all of the problems caused by the relocation but instils no confidence they can be overcome."

Mr Fitzgibbon said the model showed the regulator's work would be partly privatised and that many staff would work from Canberra contrary to the Coalition's own policy order.

The total cost of the relocation, previously estimated at $25.6 million, was unknown given the government had not released the expenditure needed for remote working, he said.

An e-working trial would start early next year and show how many roles the authority could fill with staff working remotely, Dr Parker said.

The APVMA headquarters in Canberra.

The APVMA headquarters in Canberra.

Meanwhile, the APVMA has started advertising for a deputy CEO, a position which will be based in Armidale.

Mr Joyce said the latest job opportunity marked an important milestone.

“This is further proof of The Nationals’ commitment to boost growth, drive employment, pursue policy of decentralisation and land jobs in regional areas like the New England,” Mr Joyce said.

“The Coalition committed to create a new home for the APVMA in Armidale and the Coalition is delivering.

“The APVMA has six staff based in Armidale already and by February 2018 that number is expected to more than double to 15 employees.

“In 2019, they anticipate 150 APVMA employees will work from the permanent premises in Armidale, creating real jobs for the region.

“The APVMA has advised only a small number of specialist staff will be eligible for e-working positions, which in today’s digital age, is commonplace in many workplaces to improve efficiency. But I must stress, the majority of the APVMA workforce will be based in Armidale,” he said.

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