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The worldly art of Richard Torbay

This independent MP rose from thirty-year-old Armidale councillor to NSW parliamentary speaker. Now he plans to take on Tony Windsor for the Nationals. Frank Bongiorno looks at a politician who won’t stand still

Frank Bongiorno 14 August 2012 2124 words

Once close to Tony Windsor, Richard Torbay now complains that the independent brand has been damaged by the support Oakeshott and Windsor have given the Gillard government. Local Government and Shires Associations of NSW

PROVIDED that you weren’t a Labor MP heading for political oblivion, the television coverage of federal election night in 2010 was not without its lighter moments. For me, the greatest amusement came when the two men who would ultimately decide which party would govern the country for the next three years, Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor, were interviewed by telephone. The likelihood of a hung parliament had been widely touted for weeks, yet in neither case was a camera on the spot for a live interview. Were Tamworth and Port Macquarie too far off the beaten track to get the full treatment?

A year and a half later, readers of the Armidale Express learned that Richard Torbay, the independent member for the NSW state seat of Northern Tablelands (and one-time Labor Party member), was almost certain to seek National Party endorsement to run against Tony Windsor in New England at the next federal election. It was only after the paper had run several articles about Torbay’s likely decision to abandon independent status in favour of party endorsement that the matter became a national news story.

But if you were a reader of the academic literature on Dr Torbay – for, yes, he is the recipient of an honorary doctorate from the tertiary institution over which he presides as chancellor, the University of New England – you might have had an even earlier inkling that he could jump ship when the moment was ripe. Here is what one commentator, yours truly, had to say about Torbay’s likely career trajectory back in 2006 in a book called The Worldly Art of Politics (and they don’t come more “worldly” than Richard). “Torbay likes to see himself as revisiting the tradition of the Progressive Party – out of which the Country Party emerged,” I wrote. “Like Torbay, the progressives initially sat on the cross benches and, in his view, were able to act as true representatives of the country. The rot started to set in when they moved into coalition with a city-dominated party.”

As I observed, Torbay’s analysis was a little unfair to the party we now call the Nationals. The Country Party achieved quite a lot for its people – especially in the Northern Tablelands – in coalition with the Liberals. And, I added, “a key reason it decided to pursue a coalition strategy in the 1920s was because of the limited influence it was able to exercise from the cross benches. Torbay may yet eventually find himself facing a similar dilemma to that with which the Progressives had to grapple eighty years ago.”

Well, he did indeed, but I wonder now whether it was the Labor Party or the National Party that I had in mind as Torbay’s eventual home when I wrote that final sentence. Perhaps it was both. When I interviewed him for the book, Torbay claimed that although he was a Labor Party member when he was considering a tilt at the National Party seat of Northern Tablelands in the late 1990s, he had also attended a Liberal Party meeting – the implication being that he was willing to consider carrying the label of that party if it would have got him the seat. “The difference between Labor and Liberal today in my parliament is often the letterhead,” he told me, in what seemed like a well-rehearsed verdict. He ran as an independent rather than as a Labor candidate in the belief, he said, that Labor could not take the seat – although the party had held it as recently as 1987 – and had largely given up that goal. I failed to see any great significance in the latter comment at the time of the interview and commented carefully in my essay: “It is unclear precisely what role the state Labor Party organisation played in these developments, but we can be fairly certain that it encouraged them.”

I really needn’t have been so cautious. In a recent essay on rural politics in New South Wales since the mid 1990s, historian Bradley Bowden points out that there were allegations flying about in 1999 that the “senior Labor powerbroker” Eddie Obeid “oversaw” Torbay’s campaign. I was also present at a small gathering in Armidale some time before the 2007 state election at which premier Morris Iemma made it clear that Torbay had run as an independent in 1999 with the informal consent of Sussex Street – NSW Labor Party headquarters – and that Torbay was regarded there as essentially a Labor bloke in spite of his independent label. Iemma was in town to tell the local Labor Party branch officials to lay off the local member – they had recently been quoted in the local press criticising Sussex Street’s apparently tender dealings with him – and his friendly advice needs to be seen in this context.

Yet Iemma’s remarks also had a ring of truth to them – even if he must have suspected that Torbay would shake off the Labor Party in a flash if he believed it advantageous to do so, just as he has recently abandoned the independents for the National Party. Surely Iemma wouldn’t have bothered meeting with members of the local branch unless he was worried that in the event of a hung parliament in New South Wales after the 2007 election, Torbay would be capable of supporting a Coalition government if it offered him sufficient inducement – as he certainly would have been. And the fact that he was increasingly regarded as an informal leader of the other independents in the Legislative Assembly made his future attitude even more consequential.

IF ALL of this makes Richard Torbay seem like an arch-opportunist, that isn’t my intention. His decision to seek preselection for the Nationals has been met by predictable reminders that even that infamous political “rat,” Billy Hughes, joked he would draw the line at joining the Country Party. But is it more opportunistic to switch from the independents to the Nationals than from, say, the Labor Party to the Packer gambling empire – a course followed by no fewer than two recent general secretaries of the NSW Labor Party? If, like Torbay, you believe that the ideological difference between the parties is small, as well as being largely irrelevant to voters in a vast and thinly populated electorate constantly in danger of losing government services, the decision to attach a National Party label to your move onwards and upwards is hardly earth-shattering.

Torbay told me years ago that he would like to move into federal politics at some stage if the opportunity arose, and his parliamentary career has already been highly creative in securing upward political mobility in spite of a lack of formal party endorsement. He was deeply interested in the South Australian Labor government’s experiments in recruiting ministers from outside the ranks of the party when it needed extra numbers to form a government, and he evidently hoped that a hung NSW parliament at the 2007 election would produce such a result for him.

Instead, he was offered – and accepted – the speakership of the state’s Legislative Assembly: a nice plum, but not terribly useful in exercising genuine power. He combined this role, however, with that of chancellor of the University of New England, after a major and highly embarrassing public spat between the previous chancellor, businessman John Cassidy, and vice-chancellor Alan Pettigrew, helped ensure that Cassidy would serve only a single term. It is unclear whether it is beyond Torbay’s chutzpah to attempt to combine the role of federal MP in a coalition government with that of chancellor of a university largely funded by the same government; only time will tell.

In 2009, as the state Labor government disintegrated in the wake of Iemma’s defeat on the floor of the party conference over electricity privatisation and his subsequent resignation, Torbay was approached by a group of Labor parliamentarians trying to induce him to join the party as part of an attempt to get rid of Nathan Rees as premier. When Torbay announced his intention of running for the Nationals in New England, the NSW Labor Party general secretary, Sam Dastyari, recounted an incident during which, he said, Torbay tried to deal himself into the premiership.

Torbay supposedly pulled $200 from his pocket – Labor membership dues had presumably increased since he left the party in 1998 – and, according to Dastyari, “pledged to immediately rejoin the party if I could guarantee he would have the numbers to become premier the next day.” Torbay, while acknowledging the approach by Labor powerbrokers, denies that he sought party membership or the premiership – and the matter predictably petered out in an exchange of positions of interest only to the participants. All the same, there is nothing in Torbay’s career so far to suggest that he would have declined the Labor premiership if he had been offered something more attractive than the train wreck the state Labor government had become by 2009.

The reasons behind Torbay’s decision to run for the Nationals in the next federal election are not mysterious. Once close to Tony Windsor, he now complains that the independent brand has been damaged by the support Oakeshott and Windsor have given the Gillard government. It is hard to know what Torbay would have done if he’d been faced with the same circumstances that confronted these two men, but he is certainly not on record as having suggested at the time that they had erred in signing an agreement with Labor. His current position therefore smacks of opportunism, even without the controversy over the NSW premiership. Windsor has been able to exercise an influence that Torbay greatly envies: the capacity to use a hung parliament to screw concessions out of a minority government.

Torbay might have added that the independent brand hasn’t been much helped by his apparently friendly relations with the thoroughly discredited NSW Labor government; the fact that Labor powerbrokers approached him at all speaks eloquently of a cosy relationship stretching back to the 1990s. In any event, all of the country independents except Torbay were defeated at the 2011 state election, and the swing against him and in favour of the National Party after the distribution of preferences in Northern Tablelands was over 10 per cent. It is true that he held the seat easily, but the Nationals, which gained five seats at the 2011 election and increased its vote both at that election and in 2007, has shown that it is a resilient political force. Meanwhile, where just a few years ago the future of rural politics seemed likely to belong to country independents, they now seem unlikely to play a significant role again for many years to come. Had Torbay ever been tempted to run against Windsor as an independent, he would have been strongly discouraged by the knowledge that he would probably have played a marginal role in federal politics even if he had won the seat. Minority federal governments, like lightning, don’t strike in the same place twice – not in 2010 and 2013 anyway.

Just as Torbay understood the fragility of the Nationals’ hold on Northern Tablelands in 1999, so he recognises the vulnerability of Tony Windsor in 2012. A poll conducted in June suggested that Torbay would easily defeat Windsor at an election. And these matters are of more than merely local interest; they have significance far beyond the addition of a single vote to the Coalition side of politics at a future federal election.

Torbay might not immediately get a ministry in a Coalition government but he’s most unlikely to spend very long hanging around on the backbench. He’s a professional politician of outstanding ability who rose from teenage kitchen-hand in the University of New England Union to become chancellor, from thirty-year-old Armidale councillor to mayor, state member and speaker. He is also a supremely effective networker and communicator. As a local member, he has been strikingly successful in presenting every dollar spent in his electorate as due to his own exertions for the people of the Northern Tablelands.

I’d be surprised if I were his only constituent to have found himself doling out funding to a local organisation while serving as a member of a state government committee, only to learn on reading the papers back in Armidale that the government’s generosity towards the local worthy was really yet another Richard Torbay triumph. •

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Photo: Anthony Bouch/ Flickr