The CEO and board chair of the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA) have resigned following an independent review which found the chemicals regulator to be suffering from "serious and systemic issues."
APVMA chair Carmel Hillyard and chief executive Lisa Croft tendered their resignations in the day leading up to the release of the review's report on the 14th of July. The report noted “an unacceptable volume of personnel-related complaints" within the regulatory authority with a formal complaint being recorded every four to six weeks for the past five years. 56 personnel-related complaints were received between 2018 to 2023 and, of those, 21 were allegations of inappropriate behaviour.
The report also noted a lack of action taken in regards to these complaints:
“There was no reporting that we could find of any kind of these matters to either the department or the minister, meaning that matters were not escalated and relevant action could not be taken.”
The review also found that the APVMA had prioritised targets regarding timeframes for the registration of chemicals over the regulator's other responsibility of monitoring and ensuring compliance of regulations. Furthermore, the APVMA reportedly took an "educational approach" to enforcing regulations, an approach described in the report as appearing "to align with industry interests." The regulator reportedly focused on this approach as opposed to applying penalties and enforcing regulation.
Furthermore the report found that the regulator was taking decades to complete its activities in reviewing chemicals:
"Of the 10 ongoing chemical reviews, eight have been in progress for over 15 years or more, with seven ongoing for nearly 20 years.
The review, conducted by law firm Clayton Utz, was established in 2022 following the Federal Minister for Agriculture, Murray Watt, seeking an "urgent briefing" regarding an incident in 2021 where a staffer had allegedly urinated on their colleagues.
Mr. Watt stated that Clayton Utz's review of the regulator uncovered “serious allegations of poor governance, poor workplace culture and poor leadership that clearly left the APVMA at risk of not meeting those integrity standards”.
Mr. Watt also stated that the review found evidence of "industry capture" and a high volume of complaints:
“The review has found examples of potential noncompliance with commonwealth procurement rules of the APVMA, very high staff turnover and unacceptably higher number of workplace complaints...Concerningly, the review also includes allegations of industry capture of the APVMA. It appears to have played a key role in the APVMA not performing its full regulatory responsibilities.”
The APVMA offices were moved from Canberra to Armidale in 2019 at the behest of then-Agriculture Minister, Barnaby Joyce. Mr. Watt stated that the report also found evidence that the decision to move the authority to Armidale had resulted in "a loss of corporate knowledge, a loss of corporate culture and a loss of experience and knowledge of public sector values”.
Greens Senator, David Shoebridge, claimed in response to the report's release that it was "no surprise" that the review had found evidence of industry capture because the regulator was "90% paid for by the industry it regulates."
"Australia’s pesticides regulator is 90% paid for by the industry it regulates. So no surprise the review found “… industry capture of the APVMA. It appears to have played a key role in the APVMA not performing its full regulatory responsibilities.”"
Mr. Watt stated that the government would be taking "firm action to ensure the integrity of Australia’s agricultural and veterinary chemicals regulation system."