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Issue #1775      May 3, 2017

Regional Australia

Real jobs plan needed

Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) representatives appeared before the Senate Finance and Public Administration committee on April 11 looking into a recent government decision to relocate the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA) from Canberra to Armidale, NSW.

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 union points out that 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 (national secretary), Rupert Evans (deputy secretary) and CPSU workplace delegate and regulatory scientist Ron Marks.

The following is Nadine Flood’s 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 percent 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 percent within time frame. The high levels of staff attrition from the relocation make it harder for the APVMA to perform its functions.

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.

Disruptive

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.

No pass mark

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 (Australian Public Service Commission) 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.

Local economies

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.

Next article – Climate change – Looking back and looking forward

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