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Finance and Public Administration References Committee
Operation, effectiveness and consequences of the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability (Location of Corporate Commonwealth Entities) Order 2016

BROOMFIELD, Mr Tony, Program Leader, Armidale Regional Council


CHAIR: Welcome. Thanks for being here. I understand information on parliamentary privilege and the protection of witnesses in giving evidence to Senate committees has been provided to you.

Mr Broomfield : It has.

CHAIR: I invite you to make a short opening statement, if you wish to do so, and at the conclusion of your remarks senators will ask questions.

Mr Broomfield : Armidale Regional Council was formed following the amalgamation of Armidale Dumaresq and Guyra shire councils on 12 May 2016. The LGA covers a geographical area of 8,630 square kilometres with an estimated resident population of 30,000. Of that population, the City of Armidale itself accounts for 25,000. Gross regional product is estimated at $1.4 billion, as such it may be classified as one of the larger regional local government areas.

Situated halfway between Sydney and Brisbane, with daily air services to both cities, and as the first mainland city to be fully fibred to the premises with NBN, Armidale region is well connected. Its residents enjoy an excellent lifestyle residing in an area of great natural beauty. Sitting at 1,000 metres above sea level the climate has four distinct seasons and, by Australian standards, cool summers with low humidity. Rainfall of 800 millimetres per annum, coupled with good water infrastructure, has meant that Armidale has never experienced water restrictions.

Often referred to as the 'city of spires', due to having two cathedrals, it is better known as an education city. The University of Sydney first established a college in Armidale in 1938, and by 1954, when the fully independent University of New England was established, Australia had its first regional university. Since that time, UNE has established itself as a leading institution, particularly in the area of rural science. It is now home to class-leading research, with the UNE smart farm gaining worldwide recognition.

Armidale is also home to high-performing primary and secondary schools, both public and private, including The Armidale School, which turned co-ed last year, New England Girls' School and Presbyterian Ladies' College. Culture and the arts feature strongly. The New England Conservatorium of Music won major national recognition through winning industry awards in 2013 and 2015 and being nominated in 2017. Twenty-six NECOM choristers successfully auditioned for the Gondwana National Choral School, with five going on tours to the US and eastern Europe.

Armidale is but one example of a sophisticated regional centre. There are many similar regional towns and cities across the country. It is important that regional Australia is viewed as an exciting option for families contemplating their lifestyle choices. Regional Australia has much to offer those who make the move, and council strongly supports the government's policy for decentralisation. Council supports any endeavours, policies or incentives which encourage growth, improve infrastructure and provide a better quality of life in the regions. Such outcomes are to the benefit of the nation as a whole both economically and socially.

The decision to relocate the APVMA to Armidale is viewed by the Armidale Regional Council as a significant and positive decision by the federal government that will have many long-term benefits for the Armidale region, the University of New England and for the APVMA. Council, UNE and the wider community are excited and prepared to host the APVMA, cognisant of the positive impact this will have on jobs and services in the region.

Senator McKENZIE: Thank you for coming all the way from Armidale to Townsville to give evidence, given that—

CHAIR: That is decentralisation for you, Bridget! That is what it requires!

Senator McKENZIE: your particular council is at the very heart of this Labor held inquiry. How long did it take you to get from Armidale to Townsville?

Mr Broomfield : I got the first flight out of Armidale yesterday morning, which was at half six, and I got into Townsville at just gone one o'clock in the afternoon.

Senator McKENZIE: Excellent. Thank you so much. On notice, we might ask you how much that cost. There has been a lot of criticism about the shift of the APVMA to your regional centre. This committee has over 85 submissions from regional councils who wish they were you. Could you address some of those criticisms that we have been hearing publicly?

Mr Broomfield : I would suggest that many of those 85 councils who have submitted are not criticising Armidale. They are actually promoting the concept.

Senator McKENZIE: They are—to a man and woman!

Mr Broomfield : A lot of the criticism seems to be coming out of one metropolitan area to the south. In response, I would suggest that, really, if this country is to grow and to establish itself, we cannot have two or three hotspots of activity through the country. We have to have those hotspots for sure, but we also need a lot of areas that are burning and glowing in the regions. We need to spread the economy over a broader area.

Senator McKENZIE: What about the criticism that APVMA staff were forced to work in McDonald's using that free wi-fi? That is not my understanding of what happened. You were on the ground. What happened?

Mr Broomfield : I think you will find that the APVMA have the offer of many offices throughout Armidale. They also have the offer of many cafes throughout Armidale. Interestingly, a lot of other cafes in Armidale said, 'We've got wi-fi too.' That was purely, as I understand it, an off-the-cuff remark. CEOs, when they are on the road, never stop working. They will grab a coffee somewhere—we all do it—pull out their iPad and start working.

Senator McKENZIE: Which was the former CEO's evidence. The fact that that suddenly became a major story just goes to show the politicisation of this decision. Do you have any commentary to make about criticisms that clever people like scientists will not make it in regional centres and do not want to live in the regions—that it will somehow damage their capacity as scientists?

Mr Broomfield : I think clever people like scientists are already living in the regions. We just heard that from the previous witness. I know of a number at the University of New England who are in world-class leading research based in Armidale and who are living a fabulous lifestyle at the forefront of where it is happening. Agriculture happens in the regions. Agriculture does not happen in the central avenue in Canberra.

Senator McKENZIE: Another critique has been of Armidale having the requisite infrastructure, services and capability.

Mr Broomfield : I tried to emphasise in my opening statement that Armidale is not a back country little town. It has got a sophisticated education centre. It has got fabulous health care. The hospital is currently going through a $60 million upgrade. We have got ample doctors and ample dentists. We have got fabulous education with good job prospects as well. I moved from the UK straight to Armidale—I did not move from the UK to Sydney. One or two people at the airport raised questions when they asked, 'Where are you going to?' and we said, 'Armidale.' My experience has been a fabulous experience, and I can compare that to others regionally.

Senator McKENZIE: Housing price and affordability has been quite topical, and the whole process of decentralisation may indeed contribute to people being able to afford their own home. How are Armidale housing prices?

Mr Broomfield : The median house price is $320,000—a little bit cheaper than Sydney and a little bit cheaper than Canberra, so that is a key driver in the lifestyle that we enjoy. We do not have to live in apartments. We can live in houses on good size blocks and the children can have a backyard to play in.

Senator McKENZIE: Thank you.

CHAIR: Thanks very much for being here, Mr Broomfield. As you will appreciate this inquiry is principally about the relocation of the APVMA to Armidale. We are conscious that government separately has initiated a conversation about decentralisation more broadly. Given that much of your evidence goes to the virtues of decentralisation, would you be supportive of a broader inquiry that looks at the general question of decentralisation?

Mr Broomfield : Absolutely. As I mentioned earlier, I think it is a huge issue. It is an issue this country needs to address if we are to maintain our status on the world stage as an economy. We are not unique in this situation; other countries across the world are facing similar ones. I have particular interest in the UK, coming from there, and they are facing the same problems. London in the southeast is a hotspot, and they have been working for a decade now to decentralise London—both public sector employees and businesses. I think Australia is in that stage now.

CHAIR: Your submission goes to some of the characteristics of Armidale that you consider made it a good candidate for a transfer of one particular agency to your city. Can I ask you to give some kind of indication of those? As you observe, we have had a lot of submissions saying, 'We'd like government money to be put into our town,' and that is a reasonable and understandable request, but, ultimately, government must decide where it allocates those resources. I wondered if you had given any thought to some structured criteria by which government might make such decisions.

Mr Broomfield : I think in the specific case of the APVMA, one of the greatest strengths of the university in Armidale is its agricultural area of research. The APVMA is a regulatory body in that space. There is a logic that Armidale host the APVMA.

CHAIR: So, to extract from that, having some capability that supports the function of the organisation might be one criterion government consider.

Mr Broomfield : I would have thought it was an important criterion, yes.

CHAIR: Any other criteria?

Mr Broomfield : Necessary infrastructure, and where does the core business of whatever institution you are looking at relocating lie. If it is agriculture, then it would make sense to move it to a regional area, perhaps west of the divide, where agriculture takes place. Other bodies may be more suited to being relocated to a coastal region.

CHAIR: Should there be a broader policy of decentralisation adopted? You would imagine reasonably transparent criteria by which different sites could be evaluated.

Mr Broomfield : You would think that would be sensible, yes.

Senator McKENZIE: I think that has been outlined in the policy initiative going forward. That is exactly what it is.

CHAIR: I am going to give you the call in a moment, Senator McKenzie.

Senator McKENZIE: I was just seeking clarification.

CHAIR: I want to ask about your involvement in the particular issue at hand—the relocation of the APVMA to Armidale. When was council first engaged in that conversation?

Mr Broomfield : We were engaged in that conversation initially in December 2014.

CHAIR: What was the nature of that engagement?

Mr Broomfield : That was purely a discussion with a general manager of Armidale council then and Minister Joyce that he was looking at the potential for relocating agencies into the regions.

CHAIR: Was that a formal meeting between the general manager and Mr Joyce?

Mr Broomfield : It was a meeting between the two, yes.

CHAIR: Do you know, by any chance, which month or which quarter that conversation took place in?

Mr Broomfield : It was in December 2014.

CHAIR: What happened after that?

Mr Broomfield : In May 2015 council sent a letter to Kareena Arthy, CEO of the APVMA, suggesting that, as members of council were attending the local government conference in Canberra in the following June, we would welcome meeting with the APVMA to put a case forward for Armidale as a potential home.

CHAIR: Did you get a response to that letter?

Mr Broomfield : We did, which resulted in us meeting with staff in Canberra on 16 June 2015.

CHAIR: Then what happened?

Mr Broomfield : I attended that, along with colleagues from council, and we spoke to the staff. We had heard at this point that members from Toowoomba Regional Council had already at that point been down to Canberra and presented, so we felt it was important that we stake our case.

CHAIR: And that was the meeting with the APVMA itself?

Mr Broomfield : Correct.

CHAIR: Did you have any further contact with the minister or the department?

Mr Broomfield : Not at that point, no.

CHAIR: So between December 2014 and June 2015 there was no contact between any officer of council and Mr Joyce?

Mr Broomfield : We updated the minister on our activities but did not receive responses.

CHAIR: In writing?

Mr Broomfield : Yes.

CHAIR: After 16 June? At that stage Toowoomba is still an option?

Mr Broomfield : It is—and Gatton, I understand.

CHAIR: Gatton—we have not had Gatton mentioned to us.

Mr Broomfield : I understood, in the initial discussions, that Gatton was mentioned as a possible home as well, due to the University of Queensland—and Toowoomba and Armidale.

CHAIR: When did you become aware that Toowoomba had been ruled out?

Mr Broomfield : We were never made aware that Toowoomba had been ruled out until the announcement by the minister that ultimately, in the election promise, if the government were re-elected then Armidale would be the chosen venue.

CHAIR: You note correctly that there are significant economic benefits that accrue from having what, in this case, is a $25 million public investment in your town. At the time of the Ernst and Young study of the assessment of the economic benefit, the assumption was that there would be 180 jobs provided directly through the relocation. Have you been given any revised update on the number of jobs that you expect will be coming to Armidale?

Mr Broomfield : We believe initially it might be fewer than that; it might be nearer the 150 mark. But the APVMA are still working through their business model to operate from Armidale, and those numbers have not been finalised yet.

CHAIR: I think this committee heard evidence that it would be significantly fewer than 150 in the first instance, but you have not been advised of that?

Mr Broomfield : I am a member of the ARAC and, as I say, the model has not been finalised yet. So I think at this stage it is hard to put a number on it. I would also make the point that, from a local area perspective, the number who arrive in year 1 is but one thing; we are actually interested in years 2, 3, 4, 5 and beyond. So, if it grows, then that is good.

CHAIR: If you are a member of the committee, you would be aware of the proposal for remote working arrangements to be established to retain specialised staff as a workaround in terms of the unwillingness of regulatory scientists to move to Armidale. What impact do you think that will have on the long-term projections for employment in Armidale?

Mr Broomfield : I believe that the long-term projections are good, because I think once people get used to the idea—and the APVMA especially are going through a difficult period at this point in time. It is a big call to move a family and relocate. I happen to have done that, and I have got some sympathies for what they are going through. But I think, looking into the medium and long term, more people will come to the regions, and Armidale with the APVMA, once they start seeing the benefits of living there.

CHAIR: So in your mind the temporary arrangements associated with remote working are just that—temporary?

Mr Broomfield : Yes.

CHAIR: What do you think will be the time period in which we will move from having staff remotely working to everyone being—

Mr Broomfield : It may be as long as five years.

CHAIR: So within five years you would expect the full complement to be—

Mr Broomfield : I would not be surprised if by that period in time there are very few people working remotely.

CHAIR: What is that based on?

Mr Broomfield : Personal experience of having made a big move myself.

CHAIR: So that is not drawn from advice provided in the ARAC? That is not drawn from modelling, advice or analysis undertaken—

Mr Broomfield : There are other members of the ARAC who have experience of government departments relocating. The Department of Agriculture relocating to Orange is—

CHAIR: I am trying to understand about this particular view you have formed that, within five years, there will be a complete relocation of all personnel working in situ in Armidale.

Mr Broomfield : The majority, yes. I am using Orange as an example to demonstrate that the outcomes are much, much more beneficial in the medium to long term than perhaps people think and envisage when you are in the early stages of the relocation.

CHAIR: Yes, okay. Is that the view of the committee more generally, or is that your view or council's view?

Mr Broomfield : It is certainly the view of some members on the committee, not necessarily all.

Senator RICE: Going back to the December 2014 meeting, what was the background to that initial meeting?

Mr Broomfield : The Armidale council takes every opportunity to meet with its federal and state members at regular intervals to keep them abreast of progress of council.

Senator RICE: Do you know whether the initial concept of the potential shift of APVMA was an initiative from Minister Joyce? How did it get to be on the agenda?

Mr Broomfield : I think it was a piece of business that the senator brought up in that meeting.

Senator RICE: Were you at that meeting?

Mr Broomfield : I was, yes.

Senator RICE: What do you recall about how it was brought up?

Mr Broomfield : The minister explained that he had a vision for decentralisation of government departments within Canberra into the regions, specifically in his area, obviously looking after agriculture, amongst others. Those opportunities could evolve to regional New South Wales, regional Queensland, regional Australia in general.

Senator RICE: Do you feel that he, as your local member, specifically felt that Armidale would be a good candidate for the APVMA?

Mr Broomfield : He believed Armidale was a candidate, and we as council in our role saw it as a great opportunity if we could achieve that outcome.

Senator RICE: Did he give you any indication at that stage of other potential candidates?

Mr Broomfield : He did not, but he equally did not say that Armidale had any favoured position. It was up to council to promote its case.

Senator RICE: So he was basically saying: 'Here is an opening. Armidale could be a shot. Put your case in'?

Mr Broomfield : Yes.

Senator RICE: And you then followed that up at those future meetings?

Mr Broomfield : It would have been very remiss of council not to follow it up at future meetings.

Senator RICE: Yes, I would have thought so. You said in your evidence before that you feel that there is a particular logic for Public Service entities that are associated with agriculture being located in Armidale and other regional agricultural areas. Can you explain and give us a bit more detail as to what you think the benefits are.

Mr Broomfield : The benefits are to the industry as a whole. If you are working with the agriculture industry and all your operators, producers and customers, if you will, are based in regional New South Wales and regional Australia in general, it seems rather strange that the HQ of that organisation then be based in the middle of a metropolitan area.

Senator RICE: Particularly where the users of that service are in the regional areas.

Mr Broomfield : Yes. Interaction between the users, the customer base and corporate headquarters—I would have thought the easier it is for that to happen then the greater benefit to the industry.

Senator RICE: Who do you understand to be the APVMA's users, operators and the people that they are relating with?

Mr Broomfield : Ultimately their end users are the farmers, the growers and the graziers—anybody who is using animal related medicines, pesticides and so on.

Senator RICE: In your understanding, do they have a direct connection with those end users?

Mr Broomfield : They have a connection through industry bodies.

Senator RICE: Is there any direct connection? What is the advantage of them being in a regional area in terms of that connection?

Mr Broomfield : It would be great if the APVMA's sphere of influence is as close as possible to the end users, and the end users are based in the regions.

Senator RICE: Certainly the evidence currently in the way that APVMA operate is that their main relationships and stakeholders are with government in Canberra and with the major pesticide and veterinary medicine agencies whose products they are regulating. They do not have a current strong connection with the end users, so what you are proposing actually would also be proposing a change in those relationships.

Mr Broomfield : I believe it presents an opportunity for those relationships to be broadened. I think the APVMA is taking this relocation as an opportunity to create a next-generation regulatory body that is class leading. I understand that the APVMA historically has had problems in its workings and its outputs. This is an opportunity to establish something which is next generation, world leading and maybe sets a new benchmark.

CHAIR: Senator Rice, can you proceed towards one or two more questions, and then we probably have to finish up.

Senator RICE: Yes. So basically you are saying that they would be a better organisation if they had stronger relationships with the end users. Do you see the agricultural end users of those chemicals in the Armidale region as being typical of other agricultural users around the country?

Mr Broomfield : In the area of agriculture, we have a lot of cotton and grain to the west; cattle and sheep, superfine wool, in our area; and a large horticultural presence with Costas tomatoes at Guyra, the largest greenhouse in the Southern Hemisphere. So Armidale represents a reasonable cross-section.

Senator RICE: Thanks, Chair.

CHAIR: Thank you, Mr Broomfield, for coming to present evidence to the hearing. I am not sure whether senators will have follow-up questions, but, if they do, the secretariat will be in touch with you.

Mr Broomfield : And thank you for coming to the regions as well. It is much appreciated.

CHAIR: The committee will now suspend briefly.

Proceedings suspended from 10:04 to 10:23