Outgoing Tamworth mayor Col Murray has rejected claims he’s been selected by Barnaby Joyce to chair Infrastructure Australia because he is a mate, saying “I don’t go to his parties; he doesn’t go to mine.”
Murray’s profile was raised this week after the shadow infrastructure minister, Catherine King, asked in parliament if the only reason Murray was selected was because he could be “described as a fairly solid Barnaby supporter”.
When asked if there was any social or personal relation beyond that of local MP and local mayor, Murray told Guardian Australia, “I think it’s a little bit grotty to be bringing that into the debate.
“I think the appointment has got a much higher profile than having petty politics like that applied.”
“I don’t go to his parties; he doesn’t go to mine.”
“I will say I have a lot of respect for him and I think he’s been a high achiever for the electorate.”
Tamworth is the largest regional city in the heart of Joyce’s electorate and is also the power base for Joyce’s support in the seat.
But Murray described his relationship with Joyce as less personal and more professional than described in recent days.
“I’ve also had a good relationship with Tony Windsor, the independent, before Barnaby.”
“I would suggest that any mayor is going to have a good working relationship with their local member. It’s just not productive for your community if you don’t build and develop a good relationship.”
Murray said he mentioned to Joyce that he was looking for something to do post-retirement, a part-time role, but never actively sought any particular job or posting from the Nationals leader.
“I expressed an interest with the deputy prime minister if they were to be any opportunities come forward, I guess let me know or keep me informed as I retired from local government. I was looking for something to, you know, keep myself active,” he said.
But Murray said he has had many disagreements with New England’s high-profile member of parliament.
“Barnaby and I have had some real ding-dong stoushes in the past. But there’s a professional relationship that fits behind that.”
Those “stoushes” include a fight back in 2014 when Tamworth lost the right to be the second mainland city to get fibre-to-the-premises NBN after nearby Armidale when the Coalition regained the New England electorate on the retirement of independent MP Tony Windsor. Tamworth was eventually given the cheaper, less effective fibre-to-the-node.
Murray has also parted ways with the Nationals on growing rice and cotton in Australia. Last year, he told The Monthly, “I’m not convinced, myself, that we’ve got enough water to service those.” In the same interview, he expressed concern that Australia was missing the opportunity to become a leader in clean and green energy.
No stranger to Canberra, he is secretary of Regional Capitals Australia, a lobby group for 51 regional cities across Australia.
Murray was first elected as an independent candidate to council in 2004. He was elected mayor unopposed at every election since 2010 until his retirement this year.
He has led the council of one of Australia’s largest inland cities, negotiating such projects as the Intermodal Freight Terminal and the Northern Inland Centre For Sporting Excellence, projects he considers great achievements in his time as mayor.
Murray said he originally wanted to retire in 2020, having thought about it “six or seven years ago”. He was forced to stay on another year when local council elections were delayed by Covid-19 to 4 December.
But he considers his best work to have been leading the Tamworth council.
“I guess my greatest achievement at Tamworth Regional Council is keeping our team focused on the future, long-term strategies, and identifying and understanding the needs of the future. And keeping the whole team running in the same direction.”
Trained as a carpenter, Murray had an earth-moving business and said a lifetime of working in the construction industry and local government put him in good stead for the role of chair.
He said the key requirement is understanding and applying the Infrastructure Australia Act, and that he thinks principles of infrastructure, management and strategy are relevant to both smaller and larger projects.
“There’s very clear guidance under the Act of what is required of infrastructure, and I believe I can fill that role.”
Murray said he does not have any particular projects he wants to focus on in the role but acknowledges the work of the previous board, and would like to see a more equitable distribution of projects in Australia.
“The important thing is, firstly, you’ve got to understand the prerequisites of the Act. Secondly, I think we’ve acknowledged the great work that’s been done by the incumbent board, they’ve done some incredible strategy work. They’ve put a lot of good plans in place. They’ve been able to go to eminently qualified staff.”
“And thirdly, I believe that we need to ensure that there is equity for all Australians, for the taxpayer of Australia … not just the big cities. I mean, inevitably most of the large projects will be in the cities [but] the cities aren’t the only ones that have an entitlement to receive government funding.”