Business case was 'shoddy'

The Government has been slammed after a leaked document revealed it approved a ''shoddy'' AgResearch business case for restructuring, which included slashing jobs at Invermay.

The ''Future footprint business case'', which gives AgResearch's rationale for restructuring, was submitted to the Government on October 31 last year and approved in March.

A spokesman for Minister of Science and Innovation Steven Joyce previously said AgResearch's future was ''the responsibility of its board of directors''.

The leaked document also revealed AgResearch planned to sell off all but a ''small number'' of the 34 buildings on its Invermay campus as part of a programme of selling ''under-utilised'' assets to pay for a $100 million investment in facilities.

Otago Regional Council chairman Stephen Woodhead was ''very surprised'' the case, which he had read, had been approved and said the Government was being disingenuous about its role in the process.

''That was not the impression I got when we visited the minister.

"He undertook to test the case for us and I interpreted from that he hadn't seen the business case, but clearly he has. [The Government is] telling us that it's up to the AgResearch board, and yet it has evidently seen and approved it,'' Mr Woodhead said.

The document showed the case for moving jobs from Invermay was ''extremely weak'', with it ''clearly identifying'' Invermay as the campus with the most modern facilities.

''The case focuses on buildings and infrastructure and is very weak on people and outputs.''

Environment Southland chairwoman Ali Timms, who also had a copy of the business case, was ''shocked'' it had been approved.

''If I took this business case to my bank manager, he would quite rightly show me the door.''

The rationale put forward was ''shoddy'', she said.

''When we met with [Mr Joyce], he gave us the assurance that this proposal would be thoroughly tested.

''There is really nothing about this proposal that gives me assurance that it has been thoroughly tested, either by the ministry or AgResearch.''

She rejected a statement in the report saying there would be ''no reduction in science capacity'', saying it was at odds with reports up to 82% of Invermay scientists might refuse to shift.

Selling off farms, which was also proposed in the document, would be a blow to genetics research.

A spokesman for the minister said the ''future footprint'' concept and Lincoln Hub proposals were considered by the Cabinet on March 23 and agreed by the Cabinet in principle at that time.

''Shareholding ministers were supportive of the proposal, subject to the further consultation with stakeholders, including staff, that AgResearch was seeking to undertake,'' the spokesman said.

He pointed out Mr Joyce made it clear to AgResearch at the time he was ''particularly interested in the views of staff and ensuring there was not a loss of key talent as a result of the proposal''.

''The Government does have influence over the final proposal but would be very wary of rejecting the considered views of the appointed AgResearch board and its key client stakeholders, who are the organisations that pay for the research that it does,'' he said.

''His comments in regards to 'thoroughly testing the process' were an assurance given in response to concerns expressed by Dunedin stakeholders; and those comments have also been made directly to AgResearch.''

AgResearch corporate communications manager Sarah Fraser said it would not have been able to proceed without government approval.

''We have to get approval ... to go ahead with what our plans are. The minister is right [in saying] it is up to the board, but he has approved the direction,'' she said.

Dunedin North MP Dr David Clark said the Government had not been ''transparent'' about its role.

''I think that Steven Joyce is trying to keep his fingerprints off the process as far as he can,'' Dr Clark said.

''I think he is trying to create wriggle room so that he can re-examine the process and I hope that he will use his influence to ensure [the] best outcome for New Zealand, which would be keeping the animal productivity hub at Invermay and strengthening it further.''

Dunedin Mayor Dave Cull was reluctant to criticise the Government for approving the business case, saying it did not have information which had since thrown AgResearch's rationale into question.

- vaughan.elder@odt.co.nz

 

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