FEDERAL Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce says he expects “pushback” as his plans harden to relocate the Grains Research and Development Corporation’s (GRDC) head office from Canberra to Wagga Wagga, in NSW.
Mr Joyce wrote to the GRDC chair Richard Clark yesterday detailing his relocation request, asking the estimated potential $31.2 million cost be covered by the researcher.
In a copy of the letter - seen by Fairfax Media - the National Party deputy leader asked the GRDC to advise him by the end of June or sooner if the agency was willing to relocate and which location best suited its needs.
Mr Joyce said a final decision would not be made without consultation, adding he’d also sent his letter to the National Farmers' Federation, Grain Producers Australia (GPA), GrainGrowers Limited and NSWFarmers.
However, in May, GPA chair Andrew Weidemann said his group had already written to Mr Joyce saying the GRDC should not be moved out of Canberra.
Mr Weidemann said any relocation was counterproductive to other plans, stemming from a recent governance review of the GRDC, which pointed to adoption of an industry-owned corporation, rather than a statutory government body.
He also expressed concerns about the GRDC losing specialist researchers – from its staff base of about 75 - which would “set back those discussions immensely”.
“There’s a chance 60 to 70 per cent of the GRDC’s staff could be lost if it was relocated to a regional area,” he said.
Mr Weidemann said the GRDC already invested a large percentage of its annual research budget into regional research.
The case for WA
Liberal Member for O’Connor Rick Wilson has also warned he’d strongly oppose moving the GRDC to Wagga, located in the National Party-held electorate of Riverina, without considering potential locations in Western Australia, where 40 per cent of nation’s export crop is produced.
While pushing the case for Wagga, Mr Joyce’s letter also said he welcomed suggestions on another possible location outside of Canberra.
But he said other locations needed to meet the criteria of being close to one of the industries the GRDC serves, and a regional university with a strong agricultural focus.
Mr Joyce said he was also willing to consider co-location options with other rural research and development corporations (RDC) or research organisations, “where cost savings can be achieved”.
He said while the short June deadline may sound like a limited time frame, “we have been discussing this since July last year”.
“I am sure we would all like to settle this as soon as we can to give your staff and stakeholders certainty,” he wrote.
“My Department can then work with you to develop fully costed proposals for government’s consideration.
“I expect a final decision on GRDC’s possible relocations to be announced within six months.”
Centres of excellence
Mr Joyce told Fairfax Media his letter to the GRDC backed moves to create centres of excellence for agricultural research in regions where specific commodities are produced.
“I want people to have a career path they can start to see, reach down and touch and have a clear line of vision in their career path,” he said.
“Not only that - there’s a cultural imperative in those towns that’s absolutely fascinated with agriculture.
“I’m not saying exactly where these (relocations) will be but certainly Wagga is in consideration.”
But with grain groups opposing to the move and WA Liberals watching the process closely, Mr Joyce said he expected resistance.
“I will get pushback and with industry you’ll always get pushback when you make statements against the status quo,” he said.
“But I’ll just say this - I’ve read all these arguments before, like in 1945 when none wanted to move to Canberra, with 13,000 people in this pokey country town.
“They said: ‘Canberra will never work, it’s insane and we’ve all got to stay in Melbourne’.
“Now that argument has evolved so much that no one wants to leave Canberra because apparently it won’t work anywhere else.”
Under legislation, RDC boards may ultimately be charged with deciding where they’re located, but Mr Joyce said the issue remained “a case for discussion”.
“I always try and negotiate my way on all these things,” he said.
“I don’t like to start walking into these things hairy-chested so I’ll try and negotiate but I believe (relocation) is in our national interests and think in the long term it’s a huge cost saving because you’re moving to areas where it’s cheaper rent.
“Only 30pc of GDP in Canberra now is public service and listening to the budget last night, hundreds of millions of dollars is being spent in Canberra to do with the role of government.
“Being the Agriculture Minister I’m also concerned with regional Australia so let’s also develop other parts of our nation as well and let’s not be selfish and say there’s only one town in regional Australia we want to develop and it’s called Canberra.”
Mr Joyce said he wasn’t “locked into” relocating GRDC to Wagga, adding it is one of the recommendations that’s been made to him.
His letter said relocating the GRDC to Wagga would provide an opportunity for closer collaboration with Charles Sturt University’s campus located there, which provides a range of agricultural science courses.
It is also home to the Graham Centre for Agricultural Innovation, which GRDC sponsors.
He said Wagga also had an office of the NSW Department of Primary Industries, “a significant provider of R&D activities” and Australia’s largest wheat breeding company - Australian Grain Technologies - which established a field operation in the area in 2013-14.
“The Riverina offers GRDC close contact with many industries including the wheat, canola, maize and sorghum industries which all contribute to the region’s agricultural production,” he wrote.
“Relocation to Wagga Wagga will need to be paid for by the GRDC – we would need to settle exact costs once the location is finalised but I understand estimates are that it could cost about $31.2 million.
“This is just 2.3 per cent of the last 10 years of GRDC’s research project expenditure.
“I am advised the cost is largely a result of the assumption that if GRDC breaks its lease prior to its expiry in 2024, it would be liable to pay the remaining lease amount if a tenant is not identified.”
Inquiry likely to raise move
The relocation issue is likely to be raised when GRDC appears at the final public hearing, in Canberra on Friday, of the Senate Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Committee’s inquiry into agricultural sector levies.
In May last year, Senate Estimates revealed the Department of Agriculture had asked the GRDC to provide information on various considerations involved in relocating its head office to a regional area.
The list included: the policy case, implications, current property considerations, staffing considerations, stakeholder issues likely to arise and relocation costing and assumptions.
At Senate Estimates in February this year, WA Labor Senator Joe Bullock again asked when the government would make a decision on agencies earmarked for a move; including the GRDC, Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA), Rural Industries RDC and the Fisheries RDC.
Former Agriculture Department Secretary Dr Paul Grimes said: “That is a matter for the government to determine”.
GPA and GRDC were contacted for comment but did not respond before deadline.