Note to readers: While this post was first published on 20 March, I have continued adding links at the end on the unfolding story. By clicking on those links, you can follow the story as it unfolds.
The news broke in the twitterverse last night, Tuesday 19 March: Richard Torbay, the independent member for the Northern Tablelands seat in the NSW Parliament and the National Party candidate for the Federal seat of New England had been dumped as candidate and had resigned from the Party.
The Armidale Express went live with the story at 8.27 pm. The paper reported that NSW Nationals chairman Niall Blair said in a statement that the party had asked Mr Torbay to withdraw his candidacy.
“The party has received information over the past 24 hours of which we were not previously aware regarding Mr Torbay,” Mr Blair said. “The matters in question pre-date Mr Torbay’s membership of The Nationals.
“The party has asked Mr Torbay to withdraw his candidacy for New England and to resign from the NSW National Party, which he has done."
The NSW Nationals is seeking legal advice on the information received, Mr Niall said.
The story had begun the day before with a story in the Australian Financial Review. According to a report in the Sydney Morning Herald, the Labor strategist Shane Easson told The Australian Financial Review he had received a call from Mr Obeid in late 1998.
''I've got Richard Torbay with me and he wants to know whether he should run for Northern Tablelands as either a Labor candidate or as an independent. I'll put him on','' Mr Easson said he was told by Mr Obeid. Mr Easson said he advised Mr Torbay, then a Labor Party member, to tear up his party membership to run as an independent as he stood a better chance of winning.
Richard entered the NSW Parliament the following year as an independent in Northern Tablelands, defeating the Nationals' Ray Chappell. In May 2007 he was appointed independent speaker of the NSW Parliament by then premier Morris Iemma.
The news that Richard had been an ALP member and received support from that Party would not have come as a surprise to anyone Armidale. It was widely known. However, the reference to Eddie Obeid gave it a particular sizzle given Mr Obeid's present public prominence. Further, there were apparently other references to Richard in Mr Obeid's diaries.
Richard told the Financial Review that he had had dealings with Mr Obeid because Mr Obeid was the duty officer in the NSW Legislative Council for the Northern Tablelands, but it left open the question as to what other discussions might have taken place. Indeed, such discussions would not have been surprising. Eddie Obeid was born in Lebanon, Richard's parents came from Lebanon, so you had a common Lebanese inheritance. Further, both men had a common drive for success and a capacity for hard work. Richard's support from the Lebanese community was also widely discussed in Armidale.
I must emphasise here that this is not guilt by association. I am telling a story, trying to understand.
In responding the Financial Review queries, Tony Windsor called on Richard to explain himself following the reports Mr Obeid had helped him kickstart his political career. While there are differences between them, both men had been colleagues, fellow New England independents, who crystallised the independent cause as a new New England political movement. Now they were in serious rivalry with Richard joining the Nationals and becoming their candidate for Tony's seat.
In Canberra, National Party Leader Warren Truss called members of his Party to his office about 7pm. News of the shock decision had been delivered to some Federal Nationals MPs via a text message. Mr Truss had strongly backed Richard's nomination and had campaigned for him. Now he announced the resignation; no details were provided.
“I was shocked, totally shocked,“ Fairfax reports New England based Senator John Williams as saying.
After returning to his office and speaking to his staff about the resignation, Senator Williams received a text message from NSW Nationals director Ben Franklin telling him Mr Torbay had resigned and there would be no further comment on the matter. The senator immediately sent a message to Mr Franklin asking for more information, but received no response.
At 11:18 on the Tuesday night , Mr Torbay released this short statement. As reported in the Express:
A number of claims have been made today by the Labor Party and Tony Windsor’s office," Mr Torbay said.
"I have decided in the interests of the people of the New England electorate and the National Party to withdraw my candidacy for the forthcoming federal election."
"Given the current toxic political environment I do not want to put my family, the community or myself through an ongoing smear campaign."
"In relation to this speculation I have taken legal advice and shall be acting on that advice."
This morning, Wednesday 20 March, Richard resigned from the NSW Parliament with immediate effect. He also resigned as Chancellor of the University of New England. In a message to staff, Vice Chancellor Jim Barber wrote:
Chancellor Richard Torbay has announced he is standing down from his position, effective immediately.
Earlier this year the Chancellor announced he would step down on the 19th of April, 2013, but he has decided to bring that date forward.
I am grateful for his efforts as Chancellor over the past four and a half years and I know many of you have had favorable dealings with him during his time at UNE, which dates back to 1980.
I want to thank Richard for his counsel during my time as Vice-Chancellor and for his strong leadership of Council, which has guided UNE into the healthy financial position it which it finds itself today.
Richard has served on the UNE Council with distinction since 1996 before being elected Chancellor in 2008.
UNE Council will vote on the next Chancellor at their meeting on the 18th April, 2013.
I wish Richard all the best in his future endeavors.
This afternoon, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that the information that led to Richard Torbay's dumping as a federal Nationals candidate and his resignation from the NSW Parliament over links to the Labor powerbroker Eddie Obeid has been referred to the Independent Commission Against Corruption. The NSW Nationals confirmed on Wednesday afternoon they had provided the information to ICAC on a confidential basis but would make no further comment.
I have no idea what will come from here. I will discuss the political and historical significance of all this in a post at another place. Here I want to make a purely personal comment.
I have known Richard for many years. As Richard himself knows, I am not a died in the wool Torbay supporter. I did not support his first run, and also indicated my reservations about his proposed move into Federal politics in Why I support Tony Windsor. All that said, I want to make few personal observations on Richard before it all gets submerged.
He was a remarkably good local member. I followed him on Twitter, and he followed my grandfather's practice (he was another local member for the same area); say that you are going, say that you are there, say that you have left! But it wasn't just that he was indefatigable, he had a genuine interest and delivered at a personal level. I don't think that there is a local organisation on the Northern Tablelands that would deny this. That's why his personal vote was so high, the highest in NSW.
He also had considerable skills as a negotiator and facilitator. When my old university. the University of New England, was being torn by another round of internecine strife, Richard became Chancellor and stabilised the position.
I am sure that Richard could point to other public achievements. But for these two alone, he has my thanks and gratitude. I wanted to place this thanks on the record now for he and his family. It's a pretty good record. Richard, we will miss you!
In crafting this post, I did so in haste and with the conscious intent of doing so before everything got submerged in the aftermath. I was also very careful about just what I said. My reasons for doing so I amply illustrated by this piece by Kate McClymont and Sean Nicholls in this morning's Sydney Morning Herald, Revealed: Torbay's close links to Obeid.
Before going on, this photo from the Armidale Express shows Tony Windsor and Richard in happier days.
I now want to dissect the SMH piece. It begins:
Dumped Nationals' candidate Richard Torbay has family and political links to the former Labor powerbroker Eddie Obeid and an extensive property portfolio, some of which does not appear on his pecuniary interest declarations to the NSW Parliament.
Mr Torbay resigned from the NSW Parliament on Wednesday in dramatic circumstances after being forced to quit as the Nationals' candidate for New England to take on independent MP Tony Windsor.
While the precise reason for Mr Torbay's resignation from Parliament remains unclear, it is serious enough to have been referred by the Nationals to the Independent Commission Against Corruption.
All this is fair enough, although I will come back to the property register question in a moment. The piece continues:
It is understood the decision of the Nationals to remove Mr Torbay as their candidate is related to Labor funding of Mr Torbay's campaigns against their candidates.
Fairfax Media can reveal that one of the largest property developers in the Northern Tablelands, Phil Hanna, is a first cousin of Mr Obeid's wife, Judy.
Mr Hanna was previously Mr Torbay's campaign manager and, leading up to the 2007 state election, Mr Hanna and his wife were the largest donors to Mr Torbay's campaign, giving more than $6200.
When Mr Hanna was charged with the attempted murder of his business partner in 2007, he was represented - successfully - by Sydney barrister Steven Stanton.
Mr Stanton has previously appeared for associates of the Obeid family, the most recent being for Strathfield real estate agent Joey Georges at the recent ICAC inquiry, which is investigating the $30 million windfall the Obeid family made from an allegedly corrupt government coal tender.
What can we say from this? Well, the story states:
- That a key in the National Party decision to remove Mr Torbay related to Labor funding of Mr Torbay's election campaigns.
- That one of the largest property developers on the Northern Tablelands is linked by marriage to Mr Obeid.
- Mr Hanna was previously Mr Torbay's campaign manager and, with his wife , were the largest donators to Richard's 2007 election campaign.
- Mr Hanna was accused of murder. The barrister that defended him also appeared for associates of the Obeid family.
The first point is simply factual; only the NSW Nationals could confirm or deny this. The next three are a smear by association where the poison lies in the combination. The story continues.
In 2010 Mr Torbay received a $100,000 donation from a Sydney family only two months after then planning minister Tony Kelly dropped a heritage listing on this family's north shore home.
Greens MP John Kaye said: ''In the corruption hothouse of the dying days of the NSW Labor government, a $100,000 donation from a surprising source raises serious concerns.''
Apart from his links to Mr Obeid, Mr Torbay has interests in a raft of property development companies. He also has an extensive property portfolio, including commercial buildings in Armidale, which he has failed to disclose in his pecuniary interest declarations.
Last week Fairfax Media revealed that Mr Torbay featured extensively in the 2007-09 parliamentary diaries of Mr Obeid. In one 2009 entry Mr Obeid made reference to Mr Torbay and a new mobile phone.
This again is smear by association. Let's deconstruct it:
- The significance of that $100,000 donation, if correct, has to be established on the facts, not by innuendo. Who was the Sydney family? What form did the donation take? Was there any link between the donation and Mr Kelly's decision.
- "Apart from his links to Mr Obeid" establishes an apparent link between Mr Obeid and Mr Torbay's property interests. Richard's property interests are well known; he bought his first house in Armidale when he was young. There is some local dispute about this. But the critical issue, the one that has to be tested, is whether or not he failed to disclose when he should have.
- I have no idea of the meaning of the apparently significant frequent references to Richard in Mr Obeid's diaries.
The story continues:
Mr Torbay held the seat of Northern Tablelands with a margin of more than 39 per cent. It was this popularity which led the state director of the NSW Nationals, Ben Franklin, to orchestrate Mr Torbay's candidacy for the Nationals, largely in a bid to block the ambitions of Barnaby Joyce.
Senator Joyce is viewed as a threat to the Nationals leader Warren Truss if he moves to the House of Representatives.
But some Nationals questioned Mr Franklin's judgment in drafting Mr Torbay, arguing his links to Mr Obeid were well known.
The MP for Coffs Harbour, Andrew Fraser, a senior party figure, said his warnings were ignored.
''I advised them about how close he was to Eddie and [Labor powerbroker] Joe Tripodi and was ignored,'' he said. ''I was the lone voice. I think the judgment of a number of people was poor. Their 'clever' tactics have now failed.''
I have no idea whether or not that was Mr Franklin's motive, nor was I aware of any specific connection with Mr Obeid; I was aware of the Lebanese connection. I was surprised when the Nationals jumped at Richard. His previous Labor connections were well known, and his nomination divided the local Nationals who had stayed loyal to the Party.
I am thinking here especially of my old friends Peter and Jenny Bailey. Peter ran for the Nationals in hopeless circumstances in 2003, scoring just 15.4% of the primary vote. Jenny, a former organiser for the Young County Party (the Nationals) resigned from the Party in protest. To give you a very local feel here, I want to quote from a post I wrote back in August of last year, Saturday Morning Musings - UNE alumni dinner.
I mentioned that Richard was challenging Tony Windsor for the New England seat. I have written before about the New England independents who for a time threatened to destroy the once dominant hold that the National Party held across Northern New South Wales outside the Labor dominated Lower Hunter. The decision by Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott to back the Gillard Government and that Government's subsequent problems polarised local opinion; one result was a resurgent National Party; a second was the decision by Richard Torbay to join the National Party and seek preselection for New England. Richard was quite up front about his motives: the independents were on the nose because of their decision to support the Gillard Government; if he wanted to do things nationally, the Nationals were the logical choice.
For his part, Tony Windsor is not backing down from his choices. In all the talk about the problems of minority Government, it is easy to forget that Tony has been absolutely straight in his position, providing the Government with consistent but not uncritical support. Labor's problems have been of its own making to the point that Tony has in fact been the most stable figure of all!
Tony is not going out without a fight. The day of the dinner in a debate on the Coalition's 64th attempt to suspend standing orders he rained on Opposition Leader Abbott's party in no uncertain fashion. Watch this ABC 24 video and you will see what I mean.
At one level, I can't help taking a very malicious pleasure in all this. As someone committed to the New England dream who writes a lot about New England issues, as someone who focuses on the complexity of Australian life with a particular regional focus, I found that my writing created a degree of amusement. I was dismissed as a quaint irrelevancy in the public conversation. Then when New England issues moved back towards that centre stage position they had once occupied, suddenly the chattering classes of which I am a member struggled to understand and interpret. Yet while I do take a malicious pleasure. I am also saddened.
In the words that follow you have to remember that, despite its size and population, Australia is made up of a series of very small gold fish bowls. The fish in those bowls know each other. Sometimes when one bowl or a combination of related bowls achieve dominance, an apparent national or state pattern is created. Yet the individual bowls are still there. When you drop down to that level, everything is personal.
Chatting to those at the dinner who had come down from Armidale I was saddened by the nature of the personal divides. When speaking about people, I don't want to use names, just initials. Obviously anybody who knows the area or is prepared to dig will find out who I am talking about. It's not that I'm saying anything bad, just that I am providing some small veil of privacy.
RL, a National Party stalwart whose husband beat me in preselection and became member for Armidale, was distressed by the divides. "JB has resigned from the Party", she said. "The strong independents also won't support the switch. But it's the best thing to do."
RL was clearly very uncomfortable, for she has been campaigning against Richard for a long time. So far as JB is concerned, she was a Young Country Party (the previous name for the Nationals) organiser. I recruited her husband to the Country Party when she I was campaigning for preselection for Eden Monaro, and then introduced them. After marriage, they went to Tamworth and then to Armidale. Later, husband PB put up his hand to run against Richard even though he knew that his chances of winning were small. I became involved in the campaign in a small way. By then, PB was involved in campaigning for a particular regional development initiative and had recruited me!
On the other side of the fence, I know of one strong independent Torbay supporter whose dislike of the National Party is such that he is planning to vote Labor or almost anything to avoid voting for Richard. The public opinion polls suggest at this point that Richard will win by a huge margin. For my part, I set out my position in April in Why I support Tony Windsor. This holds even though I know that Richard has been an outstanding local member.
I apologise for quoting at such length, but it actually (I think) illustrates some of the personal complexities involved. The point is that there were risks with Richard.
The story finishes:
Mr Torbay is known for assisting independents to run against Liberal and Nationals candidates.
The Lake Macquarie MP, Greg Piper, is close to Mr Torbay, but he is also understood to have assisted the former Dubbo MP, Dawn Fardell and Peter Draper, the former member for Tamworth.
Before the 2011 election Mr Torbay is believed to have aided the former Liberal mayor of Hornsby, Nick Berman, in his unsuccessful bid against Liberal Matt Kean.
Mr Tripodi was spotted having coffee with Mr Berman during the campaign.
Well, bloody hell, what a surprise and what does it mean? As I have written, the New England independents formed a different political movement. And yes, in this role they did support other independents in an organised way. That's not a secret. But it has absolutely nothing to do with the main theme of the story beyond adding to doubts about the wisdom of Richard's endorsement.
Now I want to return to the main theme of my original post. There I wanted to record two things.
The first was Richard's record as a local member. Here I want to quote in full from an Armidale Express story today:
New England Local Area Command police Superintendent Bruce Lyons contacted Fairfax Regional Digital today and wished to express his support and thanks to former Northern Tablelands MP Richard Torbay for what he had done for the region.
We publish his comments below in full:
"I know I can speak on behalf of many people in the community across the New England region when I say that it is sad that Richard Torbay will no longer be our state member for Northern Tablelands.
"It’s important I make no public comment about any ongoing issue that may or may not have had any anything to do with Richard's resignation.
It would be unfair to the process and unfair to Richard.
As a senior police officer of many years I’ve worked with many community leaders who do their best for their community. However I regard Richard Torbay as rare.
"I have met no other person who has won the heart and souls of the great majority of community members. His integrity and compassion to those who he has served I believe is unparalleled.
"I have been touched on many occasions by when I have witnessed Richard Torbay helped those in communities who are doing it tough.
"So many of these dealings with these people would never be publicly known, but I know that by helping these people it was Richard's greatest gift from him being a member of parliament.
"I recall some years ago when it became apparent that Armidale was to lose its rail line and I saw Richard Torbay at his best, he saved our rail line against all odds it was a wonderful lesson to many community leaders to see the determination in him in succeeding to keep the Armidale train.
"I know there are countless legacies left behind by Richard I know that the people of the northern tablelands will continue to be thankful for his hard work and dedication for many years to come.
"We have indeed lost a special man to public life."
The second point I made was Richard's contribution to the University of New England. This attracted some flack in comments. I had in mind here a very particular place and time. Because this update has taken me so long to write, I am going to have to leave it here.
None of what I said relates to the very specific questions of Richard's relations with Mr Obeid. Those matters will need to be explored. But I do think that his contribution should be recognised.
Today The Armidale Express carried a story that confirmed what I had heard but couldn't source properly. I usually just quote excerpts, but in this case I will quote the story in a full:
The former state MP Richard Torbay disclosed information to the NSW Nationals that the party has referred to corruption authorities after learning Labor was preparing to leak it to help Tony Windsor defeat him in the federal election.
It is understood Mr Torbay contacted the state director of the NSW Nationals, Ben Franklin, to request an urgent meeting after learning about Labor's plans.
During the meeting Mr Torbay, who was the independent state MP for Northern Tablelands, outlined the allegations, which are understood to relate to Labor funding Mr Torbay's past election campaigns.
Mr Torbay is believed to have made the disclosure as a ''heads up'' to the Nationals, who had selected him to run for them against Mr Windsor in New England in September.
But Mr Franklin regarded them as serious enough to demand Mr Torbay resign as the Nationals candidate for New England and from the party.
The NSW Nationals referred the information to the Independent Commission Against Corruption last week before Mr Torbay announced his shock resignation from State Parliament.
Mr Franklin has refused to disclose the nature of the information, based on legal advice.
Then earlier, on 22 March, Express editor Lydia Roberts reported and again I quote in full:
FRESH claims have emerged over a $100,000 cheque donated to Richard Torbay’s election campaign.
The Armidale Express first reported on the donation, the second biggest in NSW given in the lead up to the 2011 election, in November last year.
Then, Cameron McCullagh, who lives with his wife Georgina in Sydney, told The Express he donated the one-off cheque to Mr Torbay because “Richard is the sort of man I want in politics. He is effective.”
Ms McCullagh owns the private investment company GEGM Investments, a private company investing in firms such as White Outsourcing, an accounting and investment service and Employers Mutual.
Yesterday, Fairfax Media reported Mr Torbay received the donation just two months after then NSW planning minister Tony Kelly “dropped a heritage listing on this family’s north shore home’’.
The donation pushed Mr Torbay’s election campaign war-chest to $114,415 from July 2010 to June 2011.
Comparatively, over the same period fellow NSW independents Peter Besseling and Peter Draper declared just $14,602 and $33,000 respectively.
At the time, Mr Torbay said the donation was “much appreciated”.
He reported to the Election Funding Authority that he used $64,633 to promote his election campaign.
He spent a total of $41,103 on television advertisements, $1489 on catering for a meeting in November 2010 and $5839 on “food, refreshments, decorations and gifts”.
Mr Torbay was dumped as NSW Nationals candidate for the federal seat of New England earlier this week. He subsequently resigned as State MP for Northern Tablelands and brought forward by one month his resignation as Chancellor of the University of New England.
Late yesterday, the NSW Nationals confirmed they had referred Mr Torbay to the Independent Commission Against Corruption
ICAC is currently hearing claims made against former powerbroker Eddie Obeid, whose wife is a cousin of Armidale property developer Phil Hanna.
Fairfax Media reported Mr Hanna was Mr Torbay’s campaign manager in the lead up to the 2007 state election. Mr Hanna and his wife Jenny were also the largest donors to Mr Torbay’s 2007 campaign, donating more than $6200 between them.
Mr Hanna told The Express on Wednesday he had not heard from Mr Torbay.
He said he had tried to phone him on his mobile, however, Mr Torbay did not return his calls.
Meanwhile, Fairfax Media reported yesterday Mr Torbay had assisted independents in the Parliament to run against Liberal and National MPs.
I am not going to comment at this point. There has been too much comment and innuendo. I will just report as news crosses my horizon.
- 27 March 2013. Sydney Morning Herald reports that ICAC officials have searched Richard's house and electoral office. Photo Armidale Express.
- 28 March 2013. Armidale Express reports on National Party MLC Melinda Pavey's I told you so, referring to a 2006 Parliamentary debate.
- Sydney Morning Herald, 30 March 2013 The secret life of Richard Torbay
- Dubbo Liberal, 30 March 2013, Tripodi 'in secret campaign to help Torbay's party plan
- Sydney Morning Herald, 4 April 2013,'Torbay had a clean record': Stoner justifies preselection
- Sydney Morning Herald, 6 April 2013. The MP, the jail visit and the dole deals
- ABC News 8 April 2013,UNE backs Cushway as Torbay investigations continue
- Inverell Times 9 April 2013, Torbay breaks his silence
- Armidale Express 10 April, EXCLUSIVE: UNE chief, Torbay speak out
- 7 News 10 April 2013, CLAIMS OF $50K 'POLITICAL DONATION' TO TORBAY
- SBS World News 10 April 2013, 'Federal anti-corruption body needed
- Daily Telegraph 11 April 2013, Eddie Obeid's angry denials of $50,000 for Richard Torbay
- Sydney Morning Herald 12 April 2013, Revealed: 'Obeid's grand plan' for Torbay as premier
- Armidale Express 12 April 2013, Cushway at centre of union talks
- Daily Telegraph 12 April 2013, Blaming Bob Carr for Richard Torbay decision
- Daily Telegraphy 12 April 2013, Patricia Giles claims Eddie Obeid tried independent push
- Daily Telegraph, 15 April 2013, ICAC probe on Torbay donations to MPs
- Daily Telegraph, 20 April 2013, Wife's kiss for her man under fire
- Armidale Express, 26 April 2013, Watkins plans to bridge town gown divide
- Daily Telegraph, 1 May 2013, Secret Richard Torbay $150,000 cash claim denied
- Sydney Morning Herald, 1 May 2013, Man accused of bribe attempt backed Torbay to push out Windsor
- Sydney Morning Herald, 9 May 2013, The developer, the $100k gift and the 'highly effective' MP
- Armidale Express, 10 May 2013, ICAC probes donation of $100,000. There was an editorial as well, but it's not on line
- 7 News Sydney, Why Richard Torbay quit