November 2021/23: Armidale (NSW) Senior staff member of APVMA urinates on Staff

Pesticides authority boss and chair resign, after inquiry triggered by APVMA worker who allegedly urinated on colleagues

July 14 2023:

The board chair and CEO of Australia’s chemical regulator have resigned, as a damning report finds the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA) was “captured” by industry interests and subject to regular complaints of misconduct.

The APVMA review was commissioned by Agriculture Minister Murray Watt following allegations raised in a Senate inquiry that an employee had urinated on his colleagues following a staff Christmas party.

The reviewer, law firm Clayton UTZ, found complaints of misconduct covered the “entire organisation” and were made by and about employees at all levels of the pesticides authority.

“There were clearly cultural issues with the organisation given that on average there was a formal complaint about once every 4-6 weeks for 5 years,” Clayton UTZ said.

“There are also a significant number of complaints that refer to serious impacts for the persons involved, including numerous instances of employees having to take periods of stress leave or feeling unable to attend work due to mental health concerns,” the reviewer found.

The reviewer found despite the seriousness of some complaints, there appeared to be a lack of response to these concerns, a lack of record keeping and a lack of capacity to respond to complaints.

APVMA chair Carmel Hillyard and chief executive Lisa Croft tendered their resignations in recent days.

Ms Croft has been on leave since an interim review was handed to government.

Responding to Friday’s report, the agriculture minister said the review had identified systemic problems.

“The number and range of issues at the APVMA have turned out to be far wider than I think any of us expected,” Senator Watt said.

“Concerningly, the review found serious allegations of chemical industry capture of the APVMA, which appears to have played a key role in the organisation not performing its full regulatory responsibilities.”

The alleged urination incident was referred to police and the public service commissioner in February.

String of controversies after forced relocation by Barnaby Joyce

The APVMA was also found to have “embedded” industry interests into its regulatory priorities and culture.

The agency was slammed for relying on education as an enforcement measure, even when criminal or civil prosecution was recommended.

Clayton UTZ recommended an urgent “re-evaluation of the APVMA’s engagement with industry”, which Senator Watt agreed to.

The review determined none of the material examined indicated any chemical products had been registered inappropriately.

But they found the authority, which approves products like weed-killer glyphosate, was taking decades to review 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,” they wrote.

Senator Watt has issued a ministerial directive for those reviews to be finalised “as soon as possible” and commissioned a fresh inquiry into the APVMA’s governance and culture to be carried out by former public servant Ken Matthews.

“There is enough in this report to make me concerned that if we don’t take action then there is a risk of issues concerning food safety in the future,” he said.

“That’s not the case at the moment and I don’t want it to ever be the case.”

The APVMA has been mired in controversy since 2016 when former agriculture minister Barnaby Joyce forced the agency to relocate from Canberra to Armidale, in his New South Wales electorate of New England.

The reviewer found that forced move “fundamentally changed the APVMA — if for no other reason than the APVMA had a very significant turnover of staff, including a change in CEO, associated with the relocation”.

“This turnover of staff would have inevitably resulted in a loss of corporate knowledge, a loss of corporate culture and a loss of experience and knowledge of what it is to work within the Australian Public Service (APS). This may include practical awareness of foundational public service principles, such as the need to adhere to the APS values.”

Senator Watt said the review had pointed to the relocation being one of the key factors behind the “demise of good governance” at the agency and he has not ruled out moving the APVMA back to Canberra.

That issue, the minister said, would be investigated by the Matthews inquiry which is due to report back by the end of September.

Greens senator Peter Whish-Wilson, who has previously raised concerns about the “embattled agency … not being fit for purpose”, welcomed the inquiries scrutinising its actions.

“The government must now take a different approach to the regulation of Australia’s agricultural chemicals, and now this critical review has been finalised the Greens will be scrutinising the inevitable changes that should lie ahead,” Senator Whish-Wilson tweeted.

Mr Joyce has been contacted for comment.

Executive at Australia’s pesticides authority allegedly urinated on staff at function, Senate hears

Agriculture minister Murray Watt says he is seeking an ‘urgent briefing’ over the alleged 2021 incident

A senior staff member at the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA) is alleged to have urinated on staff members at a function in Armidale in late 2021, Senate estimates has heard.

He has now resigned, according to the APVMA’s chief executive officer, Lisa Croft, who was questioned about the incident at Tuesday’s hearing.

Croft confirmed that she was “aware of an incident” but denied it had happened at the APVMA’s Christmas party, as Green’s senator Peter Whish-Wilson had suggested in his question.

She said it had occurred “in a private capacity not at a work function”.

Croft admitted other staff had raised it with her, but it had not been the subject of a formal complaint.

“I understand that the people directly involved wanted me to be aware of the matter. There was no official complaint made,” Croft said.

She confirmed there had been discussions with HR and that the staff member – a member of the executive team – resigned soon after the event.

Whish-Wilson asked Croft whether there had been complaints of sexual harassment or bullying. Croft said she was not aware of any formal complaints or of three female staff making sexual harassment complaints.

The agriculture minister, Murray Watt, said he would be “seeking an urgent briefing”.

“These are obviously very concerning questions. It is certainly the first time I have heard about it,” he said.

The APVMA is the federal government agency responsible for approving registration of pesticides and other agricultural and veterinary chemicals.