‘Nothing to hide’: APVMA boss says transparency settling unrest

A clearer picture of the pesticides authority’s future in Armidale has soothed unrest among staff, its new boss says, amid calls for the government to release a review into its problems.
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The n Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority has battled through 2017 as it grappled with an order by Nationals leader and deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce to move to the northern NSW city in his New England electorate, while staff losses compounded its instability.

New chief executive Chris Parker admits the uncertainty staff faced about its operations in Armidale, and its performance, had caused unrest among other factors. Latest public service news

He said nerves had settled “significantly” after he was able to give its 190 staff a clearer picture of the authority’s future, particularly its plans for remote working for some employees, and its business model in the New England city.

The agency had told employees of its emerging plans as they made the decision whether to move or find other work, Dr Parker said.

“I think the transparency is really important to my staff,” he said.

The agency is seeking expressions of interest for a three-month trial of flexible working that, for some, might convert to a permanent long-distance arrangement that will keep them employed at the pesticides authority.

It expects some positions, including specialised scientific roles, will be suited to remote working while others more involved with clients will likely be rooted in its Armidale office.

Dr Parker said the agency needed to stay flexible as it planned how it operated in New England, and that while he wanted all his staff to move with it, he supported their choices.

“I don’t think a one-size-fits-all is useful for us,” he said.

“It’s nothing to hide, there’s no secrets here. It’s what’s people’s intentions are.”

An independent review into problems causing a horror run of performance results at the pesticides authority will be finished by Christmas but won’t be public until January as the agency will decide its response in the holiday period.

Dr Parker would not comment on the cost of IT underpinning the agency’s move north, which could add to the $25.6 million set aside for the relocation.

The policy became a harbinger of the government’s push to decentralise the public service and has been racked by accusations against Mr Joyce of pork-barrelling, but the Coalition last week rejected a Senate inquiry recommendation to halt the APVMA’s move.

In expressions of interest earlier this year, 11 staff told the agency they wanted to move to Armidale early.

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One of those workers has transferred already, another three have been approved for an early move, and the APVMA expects to have 15 workers there and its temporary office full by the start of February.

The agency later that month will ask all other staff whether they plan to move north. The numbers will determine how much it will use external scientists, and how many employees will work remotely or leave the APVMA.

At a Senate estimates hearing in October, Dr Parker would not rule out forced redundancies for staff who didn’t want to move but who weren’t suited to remote work.

He also said he didn’t consider the redundancies in these cases would be “forced”.

Labor agriculture spokesman Joel Fitzgibbon has called on Mr Joyce to ask Dr Parker to release the independent review into the causes of the pesticides authority’s instability and underperformance.

“If these documents are not released in full to the public, the only conclusion that can be drawn is that the pork barrel relocation of the APVMA to Barnaby Joyce’s own electorate is failing and will cost stakeholders, the agriculture sector and taxpayers dearly,” he said.

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