AUSTRALIAN farmers need an Agriculture Department head working “hand in glove” with the minister to prevent lost opportunity for the sector, according to National Farmers' Federation (NFF) president Brent Finlay.
The government is currently seeking to appoint a permanent replacement for sacked Agriculture Department Secretary Dr Paul Grimes, whose appointment was terminated after his relationship with Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce became untenable.
The former Environment Department head was foisted onto Mr Joyce after the 2013 federal election, when Prime Minister Tony Abbott sacked the Agriculture Secretary Andrew Metcalfe, a move understood to have been due to petty politics related to immigration policy.
But tensions between Mr Joyce and Dr Grimes have been simmering below the surface since then, due to differences in personality and professional philosophies. Various sources describe the pairing of Dr Grimes and Mr Joyce as one of 'polar opposites'.
Phillip Glyde has been acting Secretary since Dr Grimes took leave around an unusual Senate hearing on March 5, when issues with Mr Joyce’s Hansard changes from October last year, and a subsequent Freedom of Information (FOI) request, were addressed.
Labor’s Shadow Agriculture Minister Joel Fitzgibbon has been attacking Mr Joyce over allegations he misled parliament in relation to the Hansard changes, over a question on drought support for farmers.
Challenging staff cuts: Finlay
Mr Finlay told Fairfax Media he was concerned the loss of Dr Grimes could have an impact on Australian agriculture at a rare time of great opportunity, especially for boosting trade into food-hungry export markets.
“We need a minister and a department working hand in glove together to support Australian farmers and do what needs to be done by the Agriculture Department,” he said.
“We’re looking obviously to know what’s going to happen next, as we transition to a new Secretary.
“But again, if we go back and look at the election commitments to agriculture, from the Coalition government, it was all about having a department that would work closely with the minister and work closely with Australian agriculture, for Australian agriculture.
“There have been a number of staff cuts in the Agriculture Department as there have been in all departments, and that has been a challenging time.
“But we need a minister who’s passionate about Australian agriculture and we also need a secretary who’s passionate about Australian agriculture, and making sure that the department is working for Australian agriculture.”
Mr Finlay said he’d not heard any names yet for any potential replacements, outside of Mr Glyde.
He said he and NFF senior staff would seek to hold talks with Mr Glyde next week, given Dr Grimes and NFF CEO Simon Talbot held monthly meetings.
“We certainly need to continue that arrangement and contact during whatever transition time period we’re going through,” he said.
“We have to work together, and that is the theme of what the NFF are very much about; trying to pull agriculture together and all components of agriculture, whether that’s the minister, the secretary, the department, agricultural representation, all the way through to farmers and businesses.
“We have to work closely together to actually take this great opportunity that’s in front of us right now.”
Fallout in parliament
Dr Grimes' sacking sparked heated debate during question time in Canberra last week as Labor leader Bill Shorten pursued Mr Abbott over his knowledge of the sacking, and Mr Fitzgibbon also continued to push Mr Joyce about his handling of the Hansard corrections.
But Mr Joyce hit back saying he’d uncovered “further documents to assist the Member for Hunter” in his search for answers, including a media article relating to his resignation as Defence Minister in 2009, for breaching the ministerial code of conduct.
Mr Shorten also asked the Prime Minister to advise the House what reasons he gave to the Governor-General for Dr Grimes’ dismissal, as required under the Public Service Act.
But Mr Abbott read the statement released by Mr Joyce’s office last week following the abrupt sacking.
“There's no question of wrongdoing by anyone here; simply the absence of the relationship necessary between a minister and a departmental secretary,” Mr Abbott said.
Mr Finlay said appointing the right replacement for Dr Grimes was now the key, while stressing there was no need to rush any decision.
He was reluctant to pass judgment on the decision to remove Mr Metcalfe, saying it was one made by the Abbott government.
“We’ve obviously followed this issue very closely but we want to make sure that the right person goes into that role now,” he said.
“It’s something that’s happened in Canberra and as we know a lot goes on in Canberra and people sort of shake their heads and say, ‘well this is another saga, what’s the theme of today?’
“(But) it’s about working for Australian agriculture and I know I keep belting on about this but we have this wonderful opportunity and we’ve got to get on with it and all these other things are all sideshows.
“What we’d obviously like to see is a lot of positive stories about progressing Australian agriculture.
“We understand politicians are politicians and they’re all trying to score marks,” he said.
“But what we’d like peoples’ focus to be is working on converting these opportunities for Australian agriculture, back inside (the) farmgate.”
'Politicians are politicians'
He said farmers just wanted politicians to get on and do what’s best for the country and best for agriculture.
“Politicians are politicians so they’ll always try and score points - that’s just the nature of the game - but this is about working for industry, and that’s what our focus is and that’s what the farmers’ focus is,” he said.
“We certainly need our departments and politicians doing the same.”
Last week, Mr Joyce said Dr Grimes was “a good man, a decent person and I am absolutely certain that he has a brilliant career in front of him just by his exemplary career in the public service”.
But he said he wanted to ensure his replacement has the capacity and the skill set that “is basically rooted in agriculture, grounded in agriculture and focused on agriculture”.
Mr Joyce also said the issues with Dr Grimes and Hansard accusations had consumed “an inordinate amount of time” and become an annoying distraction.
“I am an accountant by nature,” he said.
“As an accountant we have 75 billable units of six minutes each in the day – that’s how we work.
“When spending an inordinate amount of time not on billable hours, not on the things that actually look after the mums and dads but on a sort of bureaucratic paper trail then you get a sense of frustration and a sense of anger.
“So let’s move on.
“There are so many things that if the Shadow Minister wants to have a debate – ask me questions about drought, ask me questions about the Biosecurity Act, ask me questions that are relevant to getting mums and dads better returns,” Mr Joyce said.
“This whole thing where we are just fascinated in this nefarious process or what they believe is a nefarious process, of course I find that annoying.”