Article – The new boss down on the farm

19 June 2015
Verona Burgess
Queensland Country Life

THE appointment of Daryl Quinlivan to run the Department of Agriculture brings to an end the unfortunate saga that resulted in the ousting of a very decent public servant, Paul Grimes, in March.

Tony Abbott announced Quinlivan’s appointment last Thursday and he started on Friday.

That it has taken months to replace Grimes indicates how seriously the secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Michael Thawley, has taken his legislated role in recommending a successor to the Prime Minister.

Thawley spent a lot of time behind the scenes during and after the Grimes debacle, canvassing opinions across the agricultural sector and its attendant lobbies and getting on top of the issues.

Time will tell how good Thawley’s matchmaking skills are. But if the relationship falls short, Minister for Agriculture Barnaby Joyce will be seen as worse than careless with his secretaries.

Quinlivan is the third Agriculture secretary in 20 months, although it was not Joyce’s fault that Andrew Metcalfe, who would have suited him well, was, shockingly, sacked by the incoming Abbott government.

A former deputy secretary at Agriculture and then Communications, who has been head of office at the Productivity Commission since 2012, Quinlivan may well be better equipped than Grimes to handle his volatile and dogmatic minister.
But please don’t imagine he will be any less protective of his staff.

He is a fine public servant and a straight shooter who is not afraid to step up when he sees a colleague treated shabbily.

At the Productivity Commission (and earlier at Communications) he worked for the chairman, Peter Harris, one of the best relationship managers in the public service.
Quinlivan’s time at the commission can also have only strengthened his approach to policy because it is immersed in producing independent evidence-based policy.

You mightn’t like what they recommend, but you have to respect their rigour.

From July 1, the Agriculture portfolio will consist of the department; two statutory authorities (the Australian Fisheries Management Authority and the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority; four research and development corporations, Cotton, Fisheries, Grains, and Rural Industries; and one entity, the Australian Grape and Wine Authority, that acts both as regulator and as an R&D corporation.

The department has two “outcomes”, which, in a (miniscule) nutshell, cover the Australian agricultural, food and fibre industries; and animal and plant health, including quarantine. It administers appropriations of $1.2 billion; costs $716.6 million to operate; and will have 4179 department staff in 2015-16 (4712 across the whole portfolio).

Quinlivan has taken over from the well-regarded acting secretary Phillip Glyde, the deputy who has done the heavy lifting since Grimes departed, including navigating the “Pistol and Boo” affair – the undeclared arrival of Johnny Depp’s dogs.

Glyde also faced a rerun at the recent Senate estimates of the events surrounding the alterations to Hansard of Joyce’s evidence about the interim farm household allowance (we won’t bore you with the details) that triggered the Grimes departure.

And he fielded diplomatically the issue of the long overdue white paper on agriculture competitiveness – run out of PM&C but mostly funded by Agriculture to the tune of $2.6 million – whose outline, he said, was going through the cabinet and whose spending measures would have to be offset by departmental savings.

There may have been a slight frisson in the room when the chairman, NSW Liberal Bill Heffernan, said, “I would hope that the paper is not a patsy paper and it does have room for a bit of a contest and a blue or two.”

Heffernan was keen to know who was on the taskforce. “I’d be interested to see whether dirt under the fingernails comes into it,” he said. “Are there people on it, from people who can cut the nuts out of a bull to the scientist who knows what BSE [bovine spongiform encephalopathy] will do to you?”

Glyde agreed to provide a list.

Then there was the slight matter of moving a few of the R&D corporations out of Canberra, something Joyce wants but Finance apparently doesn’t.

Moving agencies out of Canberra is rarely efficient. As well as creating dead rent, they tend to end up with a split or duplicated presence in the capital because, funnily enough, ministers want officers within reach of Parliament House.

But there is no reason why Quinlivan should not have a clean transition to the job of secretary. With the resources boom over and the government looking to invest in the north with imminent decisions drawn from the white papers on Northern Australia, agriculture and water, stability is important in the federal administration of the agriculture sector.

It is, after all, likely to underpin even more of Australia’s export fortunes, especially if the “feed Asia” push comes to pass now the free trade agreement with China is a reality.

The department, with its long-term understanding of the sector, can’t afford to be sidelined – and is a valuable resource that the government can’t afford to sideline either.

Courtesy of Queensland Country Life

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