Regional Australia needs a real jobs plan, not more pork barrelling

CPSU representatives appeared before Senate Finance and Public Administration committee yesterday (11/04/17) looking into a recent Government decision to relocate the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA) from Canberra to Armidale.

The CPSU is opposed to the move and has called for the decision to be reversed.

Hearing highlighted many problems with the decision with many stakeholders expressing concerns including staff, scientists, industry representatives and other experts.

The whole inquiry underlines the fact the Turnbull Government has no real national plan for regional public services and jobs.

The CPSU was represented by Nadine Flood (CPSU National Secretary), Rupert Evans (CPSU Deputy Secretary) and CPSU workplace delegate and regulatory scientist Ron Marks.

Ms Nadine Flood, opening statement: The Community and Public Sector Union represents people working in the Australian Public Service, including in the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority. Our community legitimately expects that government provide properly resourced, transparent and accessible public services that support people, industry and the national interest. Our community also expects legitimately that government locate jobs in regional communities as well as capital cities to support local people and local communities. It is a concern we share.

The APVMA is the Australian government authority responsible for the assessment and registration of pesticides and veterinary medicines. Our members in the APVMA value and take pride in the work they do. It is work that is incredibly important to human and animal health, agribusiness, agricultural workers and the profitability of primary production generally. Indeed it is difficult to think of an agricultural industry function that is not impacted on by the important work that dedicated APVMA staff and our members do every day: from assessing the cancer risk to farmers and farm workers when they use certain chemicals, to assisting with the voluntary recall of contaminated agvet chemical products, to ensuring Australian primary producers do not miss out on using the latest products facilitating increased crop yields.

Unfortunately, we appear here today to say that the APVMA is an agency that has been damaged. Highly valuable skills are being lost every day as staff leave the organisation to find stable, in most cases Canberra based employment. Service standards are falling and the cost to industry is rising, as is the real consequential stress on the APVMA staff left behind. Indeed, there are very real prospects and fears that the compulsory move of this agency to Armidale and the means by which it is being done will lead to short- and long-term damage to the agricultural economy and producers of products for use in agribusiness. Those are concerns held by our members. Due to the way the move of the APVMA is being handled, staff morale is low and falling. The ongoing uncertainty is having a corrosive effect, with 90 per cent of CPSU members indicating they have negative feelings towards the move.

Since the announced move to Armidale, many experienced staff have left. From July 2016 to mid-February 2017, 48 staff left the organisation—almost a third of their 176 employees—and the same number the previous financial year. Twenty of those leaving since the middle of last year were regulatory scientists, and the government lost in this case a total of 204 years of experience, which is a very large loss in a small organisation. In particular the loss of 20 out of 100 regulatory scientists has created a significant skills gap. The loss of experienced regulatory scientists does not just affect work but has meant the APVMA cannot train effectively those replacements.

The loss of staff has been particularly felt in the pesticides assessment area, which is understaffed. Unsurprisingly, pesticides approvals dropped significantly in the December quarter, with only 50 per cent within time frame. The high levels of staff attrition from the relocation make it harder for the APVMA to perform its functions. It will be more difficult for the remaining experienced staff to meet the statutory application time Tuesday, frames. There continue to be backlogs of applications, with one in four assessments overdue at the end of the December quarter, and there are expectations of increased applications. The increasing queries about late finalisation have only worsened the situation, as regulatory scientists are taken away from completing their assessments. That means this agency is increasingly placed by government in the position of struggling to make the best of a very poor public administration decision process.

Before making a comment on our advocacy for more regional public service employment generally, I want to make one thing clear: much of the reporting on this matter has focused on staff refusing to move to Armidale. Our members resent that description and the implications. Our members love their work and value the work of the APVMA; it is simply the case that the vast majority are unable to move to Armidale. They have families, lives and obligations that they cannot forsake. It is not a case of a wilful or stubborn refusal. These are real human issues, such as shared custody of kids with an ex-partner or children with complex medical needs, the sort that regional families have to move to access. For some, the problem is their partner could not get work in their field in Armidale and they either cannot afford or do not want to sacrifice their spouse's job and income.

I do not think too many Australians would begrudge a fellow citizen who signed up for a job in one city making the decision they cannot move 800 kilometres away based on whether they can share care of their kids or keep a job for their spouse. Families make decisions based on those things all the time. These APVMA staff have been devastated at the impact this announcement and the implementation of the move is having on their families and their ability to serve our community in this critical work.

On regional jobs, the CPSU has long been supportive of more public sector jobs in regional areas, but that does not mean supporting this ill-considered decision. The concerns expressed to this inquiry about needing quality public sector jobs in regional communities are ones we share. It is important that Commonwealth Public Service jobs are not just in capital cities, but the decisions on this need to make sense and be evidence based. The evidence on the APVMA's relocation is compelling that it does not pass that test. Rather than expensive and damaging moves of specialist functions or agencies which do little for local people and do not create jobs, the government should ensure the Commonwealth agencies that already have a presence in regional Australia at a minimum maintain that employment but preferably increase it and restore the jobs lost.

The CPSU have been campaigning to keep Public Service jobs in regional communities for a number of years under both this and the previous government. Service delivery agencies such as DHS and the tax office have been cutting jobs from existing regional locations for some years. Too frequently cutting regional jobs and closing regional offices is seen as a quick fix for budget pressure and efficiency dividends.

Unfortunately, accurate Public Service jobs level data at a regional level is difficult to access. Agencies do not provide geographic breakdowns of staffing levels, and the APSC has only just started to publicly publish this data. This is despite collecting this data for a number of years. The CPSU have previously requested this APSC data but were denied access. We have been able to obtain some limited data on regional job losses. We also provide in our submission some examples of jobs lost in regional areas based on feedback from our members and our involvement in a number of office closures and reductions over the past few years.

The loss of quality public sector jobs in regional communities has a significant negative impact on local economies. As you know, many regional areas suffer from higher unemployment than the national average and have weaker job prospects. Rather than simply moving the existing jobs around, Commonwealth agencies that already have a footprint in regional Australia should make all reasonable efforts to maintain that employment, and specific action should be taken to restore jobs cut from regional Australia in agencies such as Human Services, the tax office, CSIRO, Defence and others.

This could and should include the conversion of DHS casual staff to reliable ongoing employment in those regional locations. Our regional economies need more jobs. Overstretched services need more staff. If we are serious about regional jobs, this is a much more sensible public policy proposition.

Mr Rupert Evans, opening statement: Good afternoon. I am a deputy national president of the Community and Public Sector Union, which means I am a nationally elected official. I am also directly operationally responsible for CPSU members employed in APVMA, amongst many other agencies. I meet and speak to CPSU members who perform the work of the APVMA.

In that sense, I can say how they are feeling, but Ron, who is an employee, cannot. Even though he is appearing in his capacity as a CPSU delegate, he is not representing the views of the agency.

On this decision, the way our members are feeling about the work they do, the skills they have and their commitment to public service is that they are being treated with contempt by this government and that the government does not value the work they do.

The impact of this decision on staff should not be underestimated.

The one thing that has struck me more than any other when speaking to APVMA staff and understanding the work of this agency is how important and widespread it is, in both its depth and its breadth, to the Australian economy, the agricultural economy, the health of people who work in primary production, the health of animals, the health of consumers of our primary production and our international trading reputation.

Our submission refers to a number of those aspects, as it was asked to address by the terms of reference. So, for our nation as a whole, the work of this, admittedly comparatively small, agency has a remarkable breadth and depth of importance that is being damaged—and Mr Marks will speak to you about that.

As stated by a CPSU member directly in our submission:  Staff morale is very low. People can't believe that this decision has been made and for no good reason. The APVMA is experiencing huge staff losses and this impacts on our workload and … being able to accomplish what we need to do.

Mr Ron Marks, opening statement: I appear before you as one of the delegates of the APVMA and I must emphasise that I do not speak for the agency. I am a regulatory scientist and have been in that role at the APVMA for over 20 years.

If you would like more information on the difference between a regulatory scientist and a conventional scientist, I am happy to provide that during this session. APVMA staff feel that their job is important to the Australian community in the areas of public health, environmental safety, overseas trade and the competitiveness of Australian agriculture internationally.

Indeed, they feel this quite passionately—and I would venture to say that, if you do not feel passionately about this, it is very difficult for you to do the job adequately—but this passion is gradually being diminished for the reasons I am about to present.

My major concern about the relocation is that it has caused and continues to cause significant stress and distress for most APVMA staff. This has occurred for three main reasons.

One, legitimate staff concerns are being ignored by government and instead represented negatively. This erodes public confidence in their important work and that of the agency.

Two, there have been two years of corrosive uncertainty before the relocation decision was finally made.

Three, they have an inability, beyond their control, to fulfil their statutory role to their own professional standard—in fact, if you are not professional you cannot work at the APVMA. This professional standard is particularly measured by the meeting of application time frames.

This last reason, the inability to fulfil their statutory role, has occurred due to two sub-elements. The first is the loss of experienced staff to do the work. There has been an approximately 55 per cent turnover of staff in the last 20 months. That is 96 since 1 July 2015. With that comes the associated difficulty in replacing the staff for some key roles, particularly regulatory scientists. They are the core.

I noted that our CEO was reported as approaching Canada and New Zealand to say, 'Have you got any to spare?' and they said, 'Please go away.' The second is the diversion of their time to train and mentor new staff as they come on board, noting that it can take five to seven years to train new staff as regulatory scientists before they are at full capacity in that role.

Hence, I expect that the current high level of staff stress and distress will not ease and I expect their passion to continue being eroded by this as the job gets harder and harder to do adequately. Consequently, it is my opinion that staff losses are very likely to continue at the high rate that is currently occurring, as staff decide their only solution to this stressful and distressing situation is to leave.

Source:  pp56-57:  Proof Committee Hansard,  Senate Finance and Public Administration References Committee Operation, effectiveness and consequences of the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability (Location of Corporate Commonwealth Entities) Order 2016 TUESDAY, 11 APRIL 2017, CANBERRA