Joyce’s pork-barrelling goes beyond that of others, harming those he claims to speak for. It also undermines the already weak faith in our democratic system, writes Max Chalmers.
Barnaby Joyce should send George Brandis a heartfelt thank you this weekend.
The Attorney-General’s ruinous week from hell has distracted from a scandal that surely merits the demise of the nation’s Deputy Prime Minister. It’s a scandal that is dangerous for the same reason it will likely have little political impact: it confirms what people already believe about the integrity of politicians.
As the 2016 election rolled around, Joyce found himself facing a tough insurgency in his seat of New England. Tony Windsor, the Independent who left office after assisting Julia Gillard to form government in 2010, returned to challenge the Nationals’ leader. After three years of chaotic Coalition government, his chances looked alright.
Then, less than a month out from the election, Joyce confirmed a bizarre bureaucratic shuffle that would cost millions of dollars while delivering no concrete benefit. The Deputy PM confirmed the offices and staff of the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA) – a statutory body that regulates chemicals used by vets, farmers, and pest controllers – would be forced to relocate from Canberra to Armidale.
To translate that into terms that more adequately explain the decision: the agency would be bumped from the seat of the national government to the heart of Joyce’s own electorate.
While Joyce tried to highlight other agency relocations from Canberra to regional towns the move was a clear-cut case of pork-barrelling. It would provide a small boost to jobs in the area, a trump card the Nationals MP knew his rival wouldn’t be able to match. Joyce insisted the process would be subject to a cost/benefit analysis and that the $25 million price tag would be worth it.
But right from the start, the Deputy PM’s efforts to defend the decision crumbled in plain view of anyone who cared to look. As it would soon become clear this was not just pork-barrelling. It was a brazen act of political self-interest that actually harmed the constituency Joyce claims to speak for.
In 2015, before Armidale was selected as the final location, the National Farmers Federation opposed the move. They were worried the transplant would slow the agency down, forcing farmers to wait longer for products to be approved for use.
The peak body for the plant science sector also hit-out at Joyce when Armidale was confirmed as the new site.
“Small economic benefits to the Minister’s electorate from the relocation of the APVMA to Armidale pales in significance to the net loss to Australia’s agricultural productivity that this relocation will cause,” said CEO Matthew Cossey. “There’s no point trying to dress this up as having any real benefit to the APVMA’s operations.”
In the ever-changing defence of his plan Joyce has claimed the relocation will save money by lowering rental payments. He has also said it will bring regulators closer to those who use their products. Apparently if the scientists testing chemicals can’t see a farm from the window, they can’t do their work.
Objections failed to sway voters in New England. Despite a swing towards Windsor, Joyce comfortably held his seat in July.
Now, months after winning the race, Joyce is left with a mess of his own making.
Despite the Deputy PM’s best efforts, a cost-benefit analysis by Ernst and Young has made its way into the press. It found the plan is an unmitigated disaster.
According to the report the move would cost 365 jobs in Canberra and require $4.4 million to replace staff plus more for retraining. Barely any of the agency’s key staff have indicated a willingness to make the move from the nation’s capital to regional NSW. A significant part of the agency may have to be built from scratch.
That’s just the good news.
On top of this, the move could cost the agriculture industry up to $193 million per year by slowing approval rates, vindicating the concerns of the Farmers Federation. Chemical producers could even leave the country, hurting that industry as well.
The big picture is this. A small number of people in Joyce’s electorate will win, though given the expertise needed for some of the agency’s staff positions it surely won’t be very many. The people the Nationals claim to represent more broadly – those in regional Australia – will lose as a whole.
Politicians like Joyce trade off their folksy outsider status, using it to cover their blemishes and, at times, open foolishness. They might not be perfect but at least they’re standing up for the little country guy.
The decision to move the agency to his own electorate should put that myth to bed. It leaves Joyce looking like a self-serving hack happy to make life tougher for regional Australians in order to protect his place in the Parliament.
Pork-barrelling is criticised on the basis it inefficiently distributes government funds. But this is worse than that. Joyce has done a double harm, wasting money on a project that will have worse outcomes.
When Joyce announced the Armidale switch up he promised the cost-benefit analysis would “inform” the move. Now, all of a sudden, he’s changed his mind, comparing the office relocation to the decision to build the Opera House.
“If you did a cost-benefit analysis on the Sydney Opera House, well (you can say) that doesn’t pay for itself either,” he argued.
Joyce also posted a video with Don Burke of Burke’s Backyard and said it wasn’t his idea to move the agency originally.
None of this scandal is likely to stay with Joyce. Everybody pork-barrels. So what?
And that’s precisely why the episode is such a disgrace. When politicians live down to the low expectations the community has set for them, they chip away at the system that sustains them. At some point, voters get so frustrated with the corruption built into daily politics that they do something radical.
We’ve just seen what that looks like in the US. Donald Trump may be an openly self-interested sociopath who has abused government process to grow his fortune at the expense of regular taxpayers, but if the mob already there are seen to be the same, that’s no reason to vote against him.
As George Brandis spirals towards oblivion, Barnaby Joyce should be headed in the same direction. Keeping him on as the Deputy Prime Minister is another passive sign of acceptance from those who run the place that this sort of behaviour is normal and acceptable, that acts of personal gain for collective sacrifice are reasonable to expect from an MP.
With Malcolm Turnbull besieged and unlikely to want to make further enemies in his Coalition, restoring faith in Australia’s parliamentary democracy will have to wait another day.