Sun. May 26th, 2024

Minister for Agriculture Murray Watt has revealed in Senate Estimates that the independent review of the culture of the Armidale based Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA) has been abandoned on legal advice.

The Minister told the Senate Estimates hearing of the Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Committee late Tuesday night that he had made the decision to “wrap the inquiry up”, before the originally scheduled reporting date of March 31, based on legal advice on how to handle new serious allegations detailed in an interim report. The new allegations were instead referred to the police, the Australian Public Service Commission which investigates breaches of the Australian Public Service Code of Conduct, and “a number of matters” were referred to the board of the APVMA for further investigation.

Minister Watt said those authorities were better equipped and had more investigatory powers than the culture review he ordered last November being conducted by lawyer Mary Brennan. On Wednesday last week the Minister received the interim report from Ms Brennan which detailed additional serious allegations, including potential breaches of the APS code of conduct and potential breaches of other law.

The Minister said in a statement that he gave the members of the Senate committee, and the board of the APVMA, a private briefing last Thursday giving details of the serious allegations which he did not feel were appropriate to air in the public estimates hearing.

By Monday, APVMA CEO Lisa Croft had decided to take a period of leave to allow the investigations to take place. Dr Hillyard said that was her personal decision and she was not pressured to leave.

The board has appointed Nicola Hinder PSM as interim CEO which it is hoped will allow the agency to focus on its regulatory role. A number of senators commented that they had known Ms Hinder for a long time and had a great deal of respect for her. Ms Hinder was tapped for the role on recommendation of the Secretary of the Department of Agriculture Andrew Metcalfe, who said she was both well qualified and able to move from the role in the department’s trade group to assume the CEO of APVMA role at short notice.

The appearance of the APVMA at Senate Estimates last night was over three hours later than scheduled and was peppered with a number of fiery remarks between committee members. At one point, Nationals Senator Matt Canavan launched to the defence of Armidale, criticising Labor Senator Linda White’s inferences that the culture issues at the APVMA would not have happened in Canberra.

APVMA Board Chair, Dr Carrie Hillyard, looked nervous and unsure of her answers in the late night session. In a prepared statement, she repeated the timeline of events given by Minister Watt, acknowledged the seriousness of the complaints, and said the board takes these issues very seriously.

“It’s important that these allegations are examined thoroughly.”

Dr Hillyard said that a number of strategies have been put in place to improve culture and governance at the the organisation. She also said that while senior staff of the APVMA were initially supportive of the review, there were concerns around privacy, due to the difficult and personal nature of the issues, that caused some hesitation.

Peter Whish-Wilson raised claims published exclusively in the New England Times that staff who had made complaints were fired after the investigation began, but the question was not answered last night and was taken on notice.

Interim CEO Nicola Hinder, in her first day on the job, said she has full confidence in the ability of the APVMA to fulfil its regulatory role. She is planning to spend three days a week in the Armidale office and two days a week in the Canberra office for “however long it takes for the issues to be resolved”a period of time”. It is not known how long it will take for the various authorities to complete their investigations.

Top image: APVMA Board Chair Carrie Hillyard (left), new Interim CEO of the APVMA Nicola Hinder, and Minister for Agriculture Murray Watt (right)

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