WESTERN Australian Liberals and east coast Nationals could split over plans to relocate the Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC) to a regional centre in eastern Australia.
Federal Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce has instigated moves to consider the potential multi-million dollar costs and ramifications associated with relocating government agencies like the GRDC.
Wagga Wagga in NSW – about 250 kilometres west of Canberra – has recently been speculated as one potential consideration for the grains researcher.
But WA Liberal MPs have vowed to band together and fight such a move if their state's position is ignored.
A snub for the west?
Wagga is located in the Nationals’ electorate of Riverina but WA’s two large wheat and grain-growing seats - O’Connor and Durack - are held by Liberal MPs.
Any move by Mr Joyce to situate the GRDC in the electorate of fellow Nationals MP Michael McCormack could trigger a Coalition split reminiscent of recent arguments over wheat export marketing regulations.
WA Liberals opposed the National Party’s plans to re-legislate powers for industry watchdog Wheat Exports Australia in the previous parliament, rather than move to full industry deregulation, resulting in a bitter public spat.
NSW Liberal MP Angus Taylor said the regional centres of Yass, Goulburn and Murrumbateman - situated in his Hume electorate – would make “excellent locations for rural based research organisations like the GRDC”, situated within comfortable commuting distance to Canberra.
But O’Connor MP Rick Wilson said moving the GRDC to east coast centres without considering other locations in WA would be a “retrograde step”.
Mr Wilson said he and other WA Liberals would “fight very hard” to ensure WA grain growers had a research headquarters based in the west. WA growers contributed 40 per cent of the GRDC’s annual levy revenue, he said, but basing it in regional NSW would ensure it was “one step further removed” from those levy payers.
“That would make it harder for WA growers to engage with GRDC on a practical level - but on a symbolic level it would add to the perception that already exists that it’s dominated by east coast interests,” he said.
“I’ll be objecting most vigorously to this proposal to move the GRDC to Wagga, if it is true.”
Grain Producers Australia (GPA) has told Mr Joyce it is opposed to moving the GRDC - which has an $200 million research budget, comprising grower levies and matching government funds - from Canberra.
'A Barnaby thought bubble'
Shadow Agriculture Minister Joel Fitzgibbon has described the government’s relocation plans as “no more than a Barnaby Joyce thought bubble” that lacks a detailed plan and consultation.
"Barnaby Joyce has made it clear that the research and development corporations will wear the costs of these moves and that's a large amount of money, and until they have certainty they cannot make investment decisions,” he said in November.
But Mr Joyce told Fairfax he was speaking to Liberal Party MPs about relocating government agencies to regional centres and was continuing to consult and investigate options.
He said a final decision had not been made on relocating the GRDC, which has 75 Canberra-based staff, “but we’re progressing the issue”.
“There’s discussion about a range of potential sites,” he said.
“No decision has been made and I’m fully aware (of WA Liberals’ views) which just shows what support there is for moving some of these agencies out of Canberra. I’m glad that people are now discussing potential areas where these RDCs can go.”
Just discussions, no decisions yet
Mr Joyce said Mr Fitzgibbon had accused him of having a thought bubble but “Joel doesn’t even have a thought – he just has a bubble”.
“Has any decision been made yet? No, none,” he said.
“Are we going down this path? Most certainly. Do you think something will happen? Absolutely.
“Do RDCs need to all be in Canberra? Well, they're not all in Canberra now, so it’s logical that we consider moving them to other areas of the nation.”
Mr Joyce conceded the RDC boards could ultimately refuse to relocate, as they are empowered to make the call under the specific legislation.
“That’s possible but the taxpayer puts a lot of money towards these RDCs too,” he said.
“A quarter of a billion dollars a year goes into matching levy funding, so the Australian taxpayer might like to have a say in this as well.”
Mr Joyce said if a government agency existed to provide fundamental support for an agricultural industry “it would make sense to have it approximate to where that product is grown or farmed”.
He said arguments against moving agencies out of Canberra today were the same ones used in 1945 against moving to Canberra.
“When they moved the NSW Department of Agriculture at a State level out of Sydney into Orange, the prices of houses in Sydney did not fall,” he said.
“The future of Orange got better and the department was more closely associated with the industry it worked with.
“I’m not asking to move the whole department but sections of the department to areas where there’s a clear nexus between what they do and what that area is known for.
“For instance the Fisheries RDC is in Canberra; now unless there’s a large fishing ground in Lake Burley Griffin I can’t really work out why it’s there.
“But there are big fishing grounds around Tasmania, and Cairns up in the Gulf, and around Darwin and over in WA.
“So the question has to be posed, why don’t we put the instrumentality that deals with fishing closer to where there are fish?
“Likewise – we have other universities that are in the country and deal in research into areas like veterinary medicines.
“The world will move on and Canberra will remain one of the fastest growing cities in the country with high standards of living but we’ll have the capacity to create centres of excellence in certain areas of agricultural production and stimulate economic growth in those areas.”
Cost-benefits still to be aired
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, 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”.
“Our advice in previous hearings has been that government is considering the costs and benefits of relocation. That has been our advice previously. It continues to be the case.”
The Department of Agriculture said the government was committed to boosting jobs growth and strengthening communities across Australia, including in regional areas.
A spokesperson said the government had asked the Department to work with the Fisheries, Grains and Rural Industries RDCs and APVMA, to conduct research on the costs and benefits of any potential relocation of agencies.
“The agencies were initially informed that relocation was being considered as an option by Mr Joyce in July 2014,” the spokesperson said.
“Prior to making any decision the government will consult with staff, management and industry stakeholders.
“The government is currently considering options for relocating these agencies.
“No decision had been made to relocate any portfolio agency.”
The Department also refused to release its cost-benefit and policy analysis report, saying it was “an internal briefing document which is not available for external use”.
GPA chair Andrew Weidemann said his group wrote to Mr Joyce several weeks ago expressing concerns about any GRDC relocation.
“Growers have voiced their opinion that GRDC should not be moved out of Canberra,” the Victorian farmer said.
Mr Weidemann said the move was counterproductive to other plans, stemming from a recent governance review of the GRDC, to move towards an industry-owned corporation, rather than a statutory government body.
He also expressed concerns about the GRDC losing key specialist staff which would “set back those discussions immensely”.
“We think it’s best if the GRDC is left where it is now in Canberra,” he said.
“Canberra is seen as research hub given it is where the CSIRO and other research services and organisations are also based.
“Wagga and Armidale and all sorts of places have been mentioned for the relocation, but that would make it hard to access for industry groups and other stakeholders with extra travel time.
“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.
“We think the GRDC should remain in Canberra because it just makes sense.”
Mr Weidemann said the GRDC already invested a large percentage of its annual research budget into regional research.
“GRDC is investing all over Australia; the money doesn’t just stay in Canberra,” he said.
Mr Weidemann said the Minister’s office had replied to GPA’s letter saying it was still considering relocation of government agencies, as per its election commitment – but no final decisions had been made.
“We’d rather see good government policies that result in improved returns for growers, rather than just shifting the deck chairs,” he said.
GrainGrowers CEO Alicia Garden said her groups’ initial reaction to the GRDC relocation was concern about using growers’ levy funds to pay for it.
Ms Garden said there was also concern the GRDC had recently signed a new five-year lease on its head office in Canberra which would be expensive to pay out for an early termination.
But she said the GrainGrowers National Policy Group had met in Canberra this week and softened its stance.
“If the move was to go ahead, a cost-benefit analysis needs to be undertaken,” she said.
Ms Garden said her group had not yet seen any cost-benefit analysis work, “so we’re flying blind”.
But she said she was open to discussion on relocating parts of the GRDC, rather than the entire department, if that’s what the cost-benefit analysis suggested.