Most disasters are only seen through the rearview mirror. In the case of the pesticides and veterinary authority's forced move from Canberra to Armidale, it was right there in the front windscreen, flashing its lights on high beam. From the moment then agriculture minister Barnaby Joyce decided to move the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority from the capital to the heart of his own northern NSW electorate, it was rounded on as a bad idea. Not only was it seen as the start of an "unpacking" of the public service from Canberra, insiders warned it would hollow out the agency and lead to performance issues. Critics have now been vindicated by a damning strategic review of the struggling agency, which has traced its issues back to the decision to uproot. That review - prompted by the shocking revelations about culture at the Armidale agency, involving a senior manager and "private urination incident" - has now raised the question of the agency returning home to Canberra. Mr Joyce launched his plan in 2016 amid a broader Coalition movement to decentralise the federal public service from Canberra, pushing government bodies to regional Australia and stimulating local economies. Labor, then in opposition, argued it was "blatant pork-barrelling". "Armidale has NBN, excellent cafes, art galleries, a university, cathedrals, quality health services, small bars, quality schools and a welcoming community," Mr Joyce said in 2016, spruiking the benefits of the move. Beside him was celebrity gardener Don Burke, host of Burke's Backyard, providing a glowing endorsement of the relocation. He had played a key role in setting up the agency in an earlier life. His endorsement was later clouded, when Mr Burke faced allegations of sexual assault and bullying. "This is the best thing the APVMA has ever done, to go to Armidale," Mr Burke declared in a now-deleted Facebook video of the men. The strange alliance between the pair seemed to crumble later that year, with The Canberra Times revealing Mr Burke had made his support for the move contingent on the introduction of an external advisory board. Ghosted by the agriculture minister, Mr Burke warned him in a letter if he didn't hear back soon, "my conscience will force me to discuss this entire matter in the media the next time that I am contacted by them". Mr Burke denied any strain in the relationship, saying he "adored" Mr Joyce. The Facebook video was uploaded on the same day a cost-benefit analysis revealed the decision would ultimately rip $101.88 million a year from the capital territory's economy, as well as a total 365 jobs. It would not slow the plan, and in fact Mr Joyce had already told Sky News: "If you're going to premise it on the cost-benefit analysis, we wouldn't do it." On November 26 2016, the day those figures were released, Mr Joyce, Akubra atop his head, scowled from the front page of this newspaper, above the headline: "Barnaby's backyard". When APVMA was eventually relocated in 2019, just 12 of its Canberra-based staff were convinced to move. The slate of redundancies added up to $2.4 million. Staff who did move reported having to work from McDonald's, as they awaited a suitable office. Even chief executive officer Kareena Arthy deserted the agency, joining the ACT public service. A satellite office remained behind, set up in the Canberra suburb of Symonston to house the 45 remaining staff left in the national capital. A strategic review of the agency released last week, examining its performance between 2019 and 2022, found it had been hollowed out by the move to Armidale. "The high volume of employee turnover in recent years, including immediately following the relocation of the agency from Canberra to Armidale, has likely contributed to challenges for the APVMA," the review by Clayton Utz found. Mr Joyce has defended the move to regional Australia: "Labor says they believe in regional Australia ... but straight away they attack the APVMA even as a small, small example of decentralisation, they demand that they follow the edicts that have been laid down to them that everything reside in Canberra," he told ACM last week. The case exposed the deep tension between Canberra and its role as the national capital. "The decentralization of Canberra, and therefore, the inevitable dilution of Canberra as the national capital was sort of at the heart of everyone's concern," Robyn Hendry, a former Canberra Business Chamber chief executive officer, said. "At that time, it was seen that if you start sort of unpacking Canberra and its role as the national capital, that would have detrimental effects going forward both as a vibrant hub of employment and centre of influence and power." Government agency moves are a constant source of anxiety for Canberra, which grows around the major employment hubs. Though decentralisation didn't eventuate as locals had feared in 2019, the city does face a new existential crisis after COVID-19, as flexible and remote conditions sweep through the bureaucracy. An APS declaration that all roles can be flexible, where it suits agencies and individuals, will pose new challenges for Canberra. Whether the troubled agency will return home is yet to be seen. Agriculture Minister Murray Watt has not said whether he will reverse the move, telling journalists last week he would wait for yet another report, into the agency's structure and governance, to be released. "No decisions have been made about any of those matters, and I'll wait to get Ken Matthews' report," he said. Whatever its fate, the APVMA saga will be remembered as a cautionary tale about the risks of uprooting a department, especially for politically motivated reasons. Many knew it was a huge risk and said so loudly. But, with Mr Joyce in the driver's seat, the plan trundled on. The mess of the eventual crash is still being swept up. We've made it a whole lot easier for you to have your say. Our new comment platform requires only one log-in to access articles and to join the discussion on The Canberra Times website. Find out how to register so you can enjoy civil, friendly and engaging discussions. See our moderation policy here.