The rise and rise of Richard Torbay

DOUBLE CELEBRATION: Richard and Rosemary Torbay at the March 2011 election party, which doubled as his 50th birthday party.
DOUBLE CELEBRATION: Richard and Rosemary Torbay at the March 2011 election party, which doubled as his 50th birthday party.
RALLY TO KEEP TRAIN: Richard Torbay and former Minister for Transport Michael Costa at the 3000-strong public rally to save the rail service to Armidale, October 2003.

RALLY TO KEEP TRAIN: Richard Torbay and former Minister for Transport Michael Costa at the 3000-strong public rally to save the rail service to Armidale, October 2003.

LONG regarded as Tony Windsor’s natural successor in the Federal Parliament, it now seems that instead of waiting for him to retire, Richard Torbay may try to elbow him aside at the next election.

Last month, he declared the Independent brand had been “trashed” by being too closely associated with the Gillard government, and said he was thinking of standing for New England as a National Party member.

Attaching himself to the junior arm of the Coalition may seem an odd choice for someone who fought alongside Nationals-hater Windsor for years to address the systematic neglect of the Bush by the major parties, let alone for someone who was a member of the ALP in the mid-’90s and still shares their traditional values.

But considering the disastrous decline in Labor’s fortunes nationwide, and the collateral damage suffered by the Independents since the 2010 election, it would be an understandable move, given that Torbay’s primary motivation in politics has always been to get things done for his rural and regional constituents.

Based on his track record of effective crusading, it’s entirely possible that he may end up changing the National Party more than it changes him.

The second child of six, Richard was born in western Sydney to Peter and Fifi Torbay, Lebanese immigrants who bequeathed him not only an ebullient, extroverted personality, but also an enormous appetite for hard work.

His formal education – apart from a few courses in accounting and management at TAFE later on – ended at 15, when his father, a tailor, accepted a job at Hanna’s department store and the family moved to Armidale.

Peter, who'd come to Australia by himself as an 11-year-old to work in his brother’s fruit shop, and Fifi, who’d learned to cook growing up in a Lebanese orphanage, also opened a late night takeaway on Marsh St, called The Midnight Shop.

Richard worked there for a few years, until his parents decided it was time for him to step beyond the too-easy environs of the family business and the family home.

Wearing a sky-blue suit – tailor-made by his father, like all his subsequent suits – he successfully applied to be a kitchen-hand with the UNE Union, a student services organisation.

He also plunged himself into debt at the age of 18 by purchasing a house in Dumaresq St.

“Mum and Dad made me do it,” Richard says. “Mum helped me pay the deposit out of her savings. The house was $19,250 and I remember thinking, what an enormous amount of money. I left home, rented the front part and lived at the back. The repayments were so high I basically couldn’t eat. Luckily, Mum kept feeding me.”

In those days, Richard’s appearance wasn’t as conventional as it is now.

When he first met the parents of the O’Connor schoolgirl who was to become his wife, he had long hair, tattoos on his arms (a dragon still lurks under his shirtsleeves), and was riding a black Kawasaki 1000.

At 21, he married Rosie in the Catholic Cathedral, and by the time he was 30 they had three children, he was the chief executive officer of the UNE Union, and he had been elected to Armidale Council.

Under his leadership, the UNE Union opened the Belgrave Twin Cinema and also bought Tattersall’s Hotel – two ventures that were sound commercially, well-supported socially, and provided employment for students, Richard says.

He was Deputy Mayor of Armidale in 1992 and 1993, and Mayor from 1995 to 1998.

HARLEY DAVIDSON FATBOY: Richard on his beloved Harley, which he had from 1994-2006. When he was Mayor, rides on the Harley with him were auctioned for charity.

In 1999, on the back of his strong popularity in Armidale and with the moral support of neighbouring Independent Tony Windsor in the state seat of Tamworth, he succeeded in wresting Northern Tablelands from long-term Nationals incumbent Ray Chappell.

Following the 2007 election, he was elected as the first non-aligned Independent Speaker of the NSW Legislative Assembly, a position he held until the O’Farrell Coalition government took power with a massive majority last year.

Asked to nominate his five greatest achievements as Northern Tablelands MP, Richard cited a 400 per cent increase in funding for community projects; multipurpose health service hospitals at Emmaville, Bingara, Guyra, Tingha, Walcha and Warialda; bringing dialysis services to the region; the successful campaigns to save Armidale’s train and the Glen Innes Agricultural Research Station, and the build-up of police numbers across the New England Local Area command.

News that Richard had been approached to stand for the federal seat of New England by the Liberals, the Nationals and Katter’s Australia Party left people wondering where he’s located on the political spectrum.

When I explicitly asked him whether his values align more closely with Labor or Liberal party ideologies, he answered: “I have a social conscience – philosophically and ideologically I think it’s pretty clear what my social values have been and what I’ve supported. I’ve been against a lot of wholesale privatisation, I’ve supported community services and communities having access to things I believe they deserve.”

However, he indicated that as a Catholic, on some social conscience votes he had “probably been a bit conservative”.

“Civil unions I’ve supported, but I’ve opposed gay marriage, for example. Basically, I asked the community – I expressed my view, which was no, and I asked the community. Overwhelmingly, people were supportive of civil unions but something like 80 per cent didn’t support gay marriage.”

Another question that provoked an interesting response was whether he saw asylum seekers as queue jumpers who take unacceptable risks, or desperate people willing to do whatever is necessary to secure a better life for themselves and their families.

Richard, who is the patron of the Armidale Sanctuary group, responded that he had always regarded our international obligations as appropriate and felt we should treat asylum seekers compassionately, assess their claims in a timely fashion, and send home the tiny minority who turn out not to be legitimate refugees.

This segued into a discussion of how firmly he would stick to his humanitarian principles if his own constituents wanted him to support Abbott’s “push the boats back out to sea” strategy.

Obviously feeling conflicted, he insisted this scenario was inconceivable if people were properly informed.

“I don’t think [it would be] the majority of the electorate, when they’re armed with all the facts and not the shock-jock preparation. Don’t ever underestimate how smart they are. There may be a minority who would take an inflammatory view – I would present their concerns to the relevant Minister.”

But if the majority did want you to vote to turn the boats back, would you stick to your principles?

“That would be a challenging one, because I’ve always taken the view of the community as one of the most important considerations even if I didn’t agree with it. If it’s an overwhelming view, that would weigh very heavily on my mind at the time of the vote. I would have obviously already expressed my view. But sometimes you are persuaded to change your view by the strength of the community’s advocacy.”

This does leave me wondering if whether, on the federal stage, his democratic, bottom-up style of being responsive to the community’s needs and his willingness to change his mind when faced with strong community feedback, could translate into poll-driven voting that lacks integrity.

However, in the short-term at least, stepping onto that stage depends on whether the Nationals will agree that he can remain independent in spirit, if not in name.

“The number one motivation for me has always been to deliver outcomes for the community,” he tells me, at the end of our 90-minute interview.

“If I choose to go federal, I’d want to keep the ability for me to speak up and represent my people. I don’t want to change the way I operate. I want to be able to speak up, and if necessary, vote, in matters that the community would expect me to represent them on.”