ABC NSW Country Hour with Michael Condon

17 July 2023



Michael Condon, Host: Joining us now to discuss the issue is senator for NSW Tim Ayres. Good afternoon.


Tim Ayres, Assistant Minister for Trade and Manufacturing: G'day, Michael. Very good to be on the show. Good afternoon to your listeners.


Michael Condon: Now, Barnaby Joyce saying there nothing to see here, lots of departments have problems. He's got nothing to apologise for.


Assistant Minister: It's an extraordinary interview. I listened to that excerpt from it and a little bit more. It's, at best, an incoherent defence of what has happened here. This agency, which like, let's not lose sight of this, this agency is vital for Australia's management of pesticides and veterinary medicines, for the agriculture sector. Utterly critical for our farming sector and for the economic development of regional towns. This decision to relocate the agency, well, it's led to a series of complete disasters in management terms. Now, it's not Armidale's fault, it's not an automatic consequence of a decision to decentralise an agency. It is because the management and the oversight of this operation was completely bungled. And now what the new government and Minister Watt has to deal with is a smoking ruin.


Michael Condon: Is it serious enough?


Assistant Minister: An agency that, by all accounts, and according to this, despite what Mr Joyce has said, this independent review, an agency that's lost its way, lost its focus on the things that it needs to be doing for farming communities, and the kind of behaviour and allegations that have been alleged are deeply serious.


Michael Condon: Barnaby Joyce there saying that you were just doing the unions bidding on jobs. You used to work for union, didn't you?


Assistant Minister: I certainly did. I worked and played a leadership role in the Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union. We fought hard for regional jobs, for jobs in country towns, particularly jobs in the food and agriculture sector. In my previous job, a lot of my time spent in country NSW, I grew up in that electorate just up the road in Glen Innes. I know that area very well.


Michael Condon: He was saying the ALP doesn't care about Armidale.


Assistant Minister: It's a contemptible assertion. The most important thing to do here is what the Minister is doing. That is making sure that this organisation, that is absolutely vital for the functioning of our agriculture sector, finds its pathway back to capability and to delivering what farmers, farming communities in the agriculture sector need. And what was left with the maladministration of the previous government, fair enough. Decisions to decentralise are made all of the time by governments of all sorts of persuasions. But what you can't do then is take your eye off the ball. And too much of what happened under the Morrison and Abbott and Turnbull governments, of which Mr Joyce played a key role along the way, was all about the announcement and never about the follow through. It does seem what happened here was an announcement was made, no follow through, and this agency has completely lost its way. Well, it's Minister Watt's job now to clean up this mess and he is doing everything that is required to make sure that this agency can actually do its job.


Michael Condon: Does seem a bit rich, doesn't it, when he's saying that the independent consultant is looking at it, that there's a question mark there, that they were doing the bidding of the ALP and the unions and yet we know that the Morrison government used to bring in reviews from PwC and Clayton Utz all the time as well.


Assistant Minister: What's happened here is the new government has commissioned an independent review. Now, there is no evidence at all for Mr Joyce's assertion that there's something wrong with the review. It is the case that there was a serious complaint every four to six weeks about the mismanagement of this organisation. I won't repeat the kind of behaviours that were engaged in by some senior staff.


Michael Condon: Yeah, we've been through the detail on that.


Assistant Minister: I don't want to repeat it because it's revolting and it shows an agency that had completely lost its way. The CEO and the chair have resigned. It's important that the administration of these chemicals, that consumers have got confidence in it, farmers have got confidence in it, that the chemical industry has got confidence in it. There is a shared task here, is a responsibility of government, this agency, to deliver this job. That's what's really vital here. And for a cheap headline, Mr Joyce and the then Turnbull and Morrison governments made an announcement, got the old Nikon out, took the photo of the redeployment and then nicked off and left this agency to become a cultural catastrophe. Now, Minister Watt has done the right thing. He's commissioned a review. He's now got a senior public servant who is working through the next phase of this. What is going to be the future of this agency? Where is it going to be located? So, Ken Matthews, eminent former public servant, he will report back to Murray Watt, the Agriculture Minister, by the end of September. And Murray, I know, will take real care to deliver a set of decisions here that restore this agency to its proper functioning, because it really matters for agriculture in Australia.


Michael Condon: Tim Ayres appreciate your time on the program today.


Assistant Minister: Good on you, Michael. Catch you next time.