ABOUT 75 per cent of an estimated 282 full time ag research staff may be left behind in Canberra under Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce’s plan to relocate bureaucratic agencies to regional centres.
The potential job casualties were revealed when NSW Labor Senator Doug Cameron led a painstaking examination of the government’s decentralisation push for key agencies like the Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC), at Senate budget estimates last week.
The GRDC, Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA), Fisheries Research and Development Corporation (FRDC) and Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation (RIRDC) have been asked to consider relocating under the Abbott government’s controversial election policy.
In May, Mr Joyce wrote to the GRDC and proposed its head office relocate from Canberra to Wagga Wagga. He also gave the RIRDC notice of a shift to Albury-Wodonga and tipped Hobart for the FRDC.
He’s also written to APVMA chief executive Kareena Arthy and the three RDC chairs, asking them to each consult with staff and stakeholders on the relocation proposals.
“Where are you destined to move to under the minister's crazy plan?” Senator Cameron asked Ms Arthy at estimates.
“The minister has listed his preferences as Armidale or Toowoomba in his letter to me,” Ms Arthy replied.
The APVMA has been asked to provide a response to the government by the end of July and the RDCs must answer by the end of June.
The estimates hearing was told the potential cost of each relocation, detailed in the minister’s letters, was: $4 million for the FRDC; $31.2m for the GRDC; and $2.5m for the RIRDC.
“There was not a cost estimate for the APVMA given that there are two possible locations under consideration,” Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Policy Taskforce assistant secretary Cathrine Stephenson said.
The hearing also revealed that the estimated payout cost of the GRDC breaking its new 10-year lease was $12.25m.
Ms Stephenson said the RIRDC's lease was due to expire on September 30 this year, while the FRDC's lease expires July 31 next year and the APVMA's in October 2020.
The APVMA’s lease carries an annual cost of $1.291m, or a total of just over $6m, the hearing was told. Current lease costs per square metre for the agencies are: GRDC, $473.90; RIRDC, $343; FRDC $371; and APVMA, $403.70.
Acting Department Secretary Phillip Glyde detailed the estimated number of full-time equivalent staff for 2015-16 as: 79.3 for the GRDC; 12.7 for the FRDC; 18.7 for the RIRDC; and 171 at the APVMA.
He said in discussions about the proposed relocations, each agency provided estimates of staff who may not want to move from Canberra, which totalled about 75pc.
Senator Cameron said, “This is a huge loss of capability - surely this is not a sustainable proposition?”
If 75pc of any organisation didn’t want to move, there was a “concomitant problem of (loss of) skills and experience that needs to be dealt with”, he said.
“Whether that can be filled by someone in Armidale in Minister Joyce's electorate I am not sure,” he said.
Country vs city skill sets
However, Senator Cameron was challenged by Committee chair NSW Liberal Senator Bill Heffernan for assuming there would be an automatic loss of skill capacity from relocating agencies to rural areas.
Senator Heffernan said, “to assume that you are going to lose capability because 75pc of the people are not going to move, and they could not be replaced with equal capacity by other people who are probably already out there, is stupid”.
However, WA Labor Senator Glenn Sterle rejected Senator Heffernan’s assertion, saying “I know with the greatest respect that no-one here would denigrate anyone in the bush or compare them with the city”.
“I think in terms of Senator Cameron’s line of questioning on what is in the best interests of the Australian taxpayer and the levy payer, we are not splitting the difference (between) the capability of city versus country.”
Parliamentary Secretary to the Agriculture Minister, Senator Richard Colbeck said some staff may not want to move from Canberra to other locations - but expressions of interest had already been made if the organisations did move.
Senator Colbeck said the turnover of staff at the four agencies did not necessarily mean loss of capacity and capability.
Mr Glyde said people with the required skill set may already be located in the regional centres, given they’re situated near universities with strong backgrounds in agriculture and agricultural science, and the moves might open up opportunities for skilled people who did not want to move to Canberra.
Senator Colbeck said the employees concerned would have a choice on whether they moved.
“In the private sector, if a company you are operating with decides to relocate, those same issues arise,” he said.
“The government has had a policy of looking at decentralising agencies where it saw fit.
“We are going through a process of discussing that with particular agencies within government.
“We do not apologise for that policy - it was a policy that was enunciated at the last election and we have followed through with it.
“At one point in time the NSW government moved the Department of Agriculture to Orange, to make it closer to where its field of activities were.
“A previous government moved the CSIRO Marine Division to Hobart from Sydney.
“A lot of the current issues being discussed about employee relocation came up at that point in time, but I think that move has turned out to be quite a significant success.
“It is now recognised internationally as a hub for marine research.
“We are considering all of the issues that need to be considered - there is no final decision.
“An indication has been given as to what we would like to do in respect of each of them and we are consulting with those agencies.”
Mr Glyde said the estimated relocation costs - as a percentage of each institution’s 10-year research and development expenditure - were; FRDC 1.6 per cent; GRDC 2.3pc; and RIRDC 1.3pc.
He said the total cost of the relocation exercise was “north of $40 million as a conservative estimate”.
“We will do our best to reduce that,” he said.
Mr Glyde said the RDCs would also cover the relocation costs themselves, which involved grower levies and matching government funds.
“Obviously, that is another incentive for both the RDCs and the department to make sure that we manage this transition as cost effectively as we can,” he said.
Mr Joyce’s letter said he expected the government to announce a decision on the relocations within six months.
Mr Glyde said the thought of letting the issue “drag on interminably would be detrimental to the staff and the boards of the organisations”.
“Obviously, there are some costs upfront in terms of leases, changes and the simple movement of people, a large number of people, to a rural area,” he said.
“But you have got to offset that against the long-run benefit and so we have been looking at what are the costs over a 10-year period and how do they compare to the level of expenditure that these organisations have over that 10-year period.
“When you look at it in that context of trying to decentralise these agencies into other parts of the countries then it is that long period of time that I think helps you make a decision about whether or not it is beneficial.”
Senator Cameron said the cost estimates were “airy-fairy figures that seem to have been pulled out of the air, because you cannot tell me what the leasing costs are or what the vacancy rates are”.
“This does not sound like grown-up government - this sounds to be a bit all over the place,” he said.
But Mr Glyde defended the figures as "conservative estimates".
Mr Glyde said his Department had provided advice to the four agencies on the proposed relocations but “I would not call it a cost-benefit analysis”.
“We have provided the best we can do in looking at both the costs and the benefits of the move,” he said.
“Some of those things do not lend themselves to full analysis.
“Trying to quantify strengthening rural communities and the regional employment benefits - some of those things are relatively easy and other, intangible things are not.
“Of course we have done our best to identify what we understand, either qualitatively or quantitatively in dollars, the consequences will be, plus and minus, of moving the agencies.”