APVMA staff forced to work out of Armidale McDonald’s

NO HOME: Without a base in Armidale, APVMA staff are being forced to use the free wi-fi at McDonald's.
NO HOME: Without a base in Armidale, APVMA staff are being forced to use the free wi-fi at McDonald's.

Canberra-based public servants are doing their work in a McDonald's fast food outlet in Armidale because there is nowhere else for them to work in the northern NSW town where they are being forced to work.

The national pesticides authority boss told a Senate Estimates hearing on Tuesday that she and her colleagues were using the restaurant's free wi-fi to work because they had no base in Armidale and that she was having a tough time convincing its public servants to move from Canberra to northern NSW as ordered by the Coalition government.

The Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority are now trying to recruit regulatory scientists from overseas in an effort to continue its work after the forced relocation to Armidale, in the heart of Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce's electorate.

It was also revealed on Tuesday at a Senate Estimates hearing that a new office block will have to be built in the northern NSW town to accommodate the agency with none of the town's existing buildings suitable.

The agency's chief executive Kareena Arthy​ told a multi-party committee in Canberra on Tuesday that 20 of the APVMA's 100 regulatory scientists had already quit despite the generous incentives on offer to stay.

The departing scientists were among 48 employees to have left the agency since July.

Fairfax revealed in December that APVMA staff were being offered pay increases of 5 per cent per year and up to 12 free flights back to Canberra if they agreed to move to Mr Joyce's electorate, but Ms Arthy told estimates that for many, it was not enough.  

"It's proving challenging," the chief executive told the senators.

"We're not having a lot of success getting people to want to go to Armidale.

"People have left because they don't want the uncertainty.

"They either don't want to move to Armidale and they have decided to look for something more permanent now, regardless of the incentives that we're offering.

"Quite a lot of the people who have left have got young families and they want to make sure that they are able to keep their families in Canberra.

"But overwhelmingly...they don't want to move to Armidale and they don't want to work remotely, which is one of the offers I've made for the regulatory scientists, they want to provide certainty for their families ."

Ms Arthy also revealed that Mr Joyce had decreed that APVMA workers who opted to stay in Canberra were not allowed to work from an office.

She said that big capability gaps had opened up in the APVMA's residue assessment and pesticides assessment units while smaller gaps had emerged in its the environment assessments and health assessments teams.

But despite the looming eviction from Canberra and the exodus of skilled scientists, Ms Arthy said morale within her organisation remained "surprisingly good."

The APVMA expects 50 to 60 of its staff to remain in Canberra, working from home, but Mr Joyce's policy bans them from having an office in the capital or any other facility where they could gather, Ms Arthy confirmed.

It was also confirmed on Tuesday that a new office will have to be built in Armidale to accommodate the APVMA, although it is unclear whether the deal, expected to be with a private developer, will cause a blow-out of the $26 million that has already been budgeted for the move.

"A private developer will be building the building and then lease back," Ms Arthy said.