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Agricultural and Veterinary Chemicals Legislation Amendment (Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority Board and Other Improvements) Bill 2019

December 04, 2019

The Agricultural and Veterinary Chemicals Legislation Amendment (Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority Board and Other Improvements) Bill 2019 may at first sight appeared to be of little significance, but to me it is a bill of really major import and one that really sums up for me the problems of the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison government and their continual destructive behaviour towards Australian science and, in particular, some of our very well developed institutions. It was the much admired John Kerin, the Hawke government's long-serving primary industries minister, who first put together this country's first national framework for managing the use of pesticides and veterinary medicines. This process started back in 1991. John Kerin was at one stage the member for Macarthur, later the member for Werriwa, and gave great service to this country. He has not lost interest in rural affairs and in veterinary and agricultural practice; he has been a very keen observer of the damage that has been caused by the move of the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority from Canberra to Armidale, the seat of the member for New England, in a manner that was very destructive of the ability of the APVMA to work and one that really gave an insight into this government's anti-science agenda. It has been a very tragic set of circumstances.

The APVMA tests pesticides used in agriculture and medicines used in veterinary practice in Australia to make sure they are safe and can be used effectively. Unfortunately the science around some of the developing technologies in pesticide use and medical science used in veterinary medicine is very complex these days. It took many years—indeed, decades—to build a group of scientific people with the abilities and expertise to deal with these very complex matters. With a stroke of a pen, the member for New England tore it down—a great shame—to move it to Armidale, a place disconnected from academic institutions such as the Australian National University, at enormous cost. We still don't know the literally hundreds of millions of dollars that this move has cost. This continual disruption has caused industry leaders to despair about the delays in getting veterinary medicines and pesticides approved for use in Australia and has led, I believe, to many major companies delaying or even withdrawing applications to use these things in Australia—a great shame that can be laid at the feet of this very conservative, reactionary and anti-science government, and we will be paying the cost of this for decades.

It has now led to about half the scientific staff having to return to Canberra to make the APVMA function. They're still trying desperately to get the scientific expertise uploaded and working so that the delays and backlogs that have been created can be addressed—and very little comment from this government. We all should be talking about this bill. It is a very important one. It's important for all of us who have pets, and I believe something like 70 per cent of the Australian population have pets. We use some of these veterinary medicines, particularly the anti-parasitic medications, in our pets. All of us who live on the east coast who are worried about ticks for our dogs and cats will be using medications that have been approved by the APVMA. Many of these medications used initially in animal medicine will eventually be used in human medicine. The other issue is that some medications like antibiotics are used overseas in large animal populations, and many of them may not indeed be safe for use in humans. We need to protect ourselves from their being used in our agricultural practices, and the APVMA was our primary source of protection.

The bill we're talking about now is going to amend several acts mainly related to the administration of the APVMA. It will also repeal some of the previous legislation and establish a governance board for the APVMA. This will at the same time cease the existing APVMA advisory board, which has been pretty much redundant for the last five or six years. This will increase the governance costs. It will cost, I believe, between $400,000 and $600,000 a year to develop and maintain this governance board, again adding to the costs of the terrible destruction of what was previously a very well-functioning organisation.

The government, now six years on from when they initially wanted to move the APVMA, are trying to implement amendments by combining all the packages together. They seem to have delayed the entrance of this particular bill. The costs of relocation, as I said, we still don't know. The performance of the APVMA completely collapsed during the very prolonged relocation process. For complex applications, the performance figures of the APVMA are still very, very delayed. We have a situation where the government, out of the blue, with no evidence, no science, decided that they would move the APVMA. They have, as is typical for the government, not provided any transparency about the costs or the real reasons for the move. There certainly was no scientific evidence for the move. All the major stakeholders, including all the major chemical and pharmaceutical companies, were horrified at what happened. I've spoken to several of them who just found the move completely inexplicable. It was done, we believe, just as a way to harness a few votes for the member for New England, and the result has been catastrophic.

Grain Producers Australia said that, to ensure absolute public confidence in the independence of a skills based APVMA board, the costs for the appointment and operation of the board should be fully funded by the government rather than by industry, because we need independence. The costs of the board are estimated, as I've said, to be about $600,000 a year. CropLife and Medicines Australia, the peak bodies representing the industries regulated by the APVMA, have clearly indicated they do not support the implementation of the governance board, and they have concerns that the governance board will be a direct additional cost to the farming sector, when Australia is already one of the world's most expensive agricultural chemical regulators. It's important to note also that Australia is actually quite a small market, so many of these large multinational companies are not presenting their products for assessment in Australia, because the costs are too large for such a small market. Again, this is very anti science.

There is a compelling case for more transparency not just about the move but also about the function of the APVMA. The real issue for me is that the government have been prepared to destroy a very well-functioning, world-respected scientific organisation to buy a few votes—an absolute tragedy. I think the government should relook at the governance board and how they're managing this. Whilst we will not be voting against this bill, we do think the government need to provide more transparency about the whole exercise. We really see the move as just a piece of tokenism to support the member for New England. Shunting the APVMA off to New England and then trying to retrofit a few hastily thought-up governance organisations has been a very bad thing. I believe this really needs to be rethought. We need to refund and redevelop a really world-class APVMA. I know attempts are being made to do that in Armidale, but the whole exercise should be rethought. The relocation clearly disrupted the efficiency and effectiveness of the APVMA and led to the loss of a number of highly qualified, highly trained staff who'd been with the organisation for many years. It also removes the organisation from the centrality of access by the big pharmaceutical and pesticide companies and by other scientific organisations.

This bill, whilst it doesn't have a major impact on the Australian government, will have major impacts on the supplies of these chemicals, and those costs will be put directly onto the Australian veterinary and agricultural industries, and really I think we need to rethink the whole process. I'm not going to talk any longer on the bill itself. We don't oppose the bill, but we really think it demonstrates, once again, the anti-science agenda of a reactionary government who are unwilling to look at the evidence, unwilling to do the right thing by Australian industry and particularly by Australian agriculture, in spite of all the hyped-up language they use in the press. They've done a very bad thing, and they should be made to pay the costs of what they've done.