The spectacular rise and fall of Richard Torbay

Deputy editor Sandi Keane was not surprised by the National’s dumping of star recruit, Richard Torbay — only that it took them so long to discover the Eddie Obeid connection.

Chancellor Richard Torbay
Former NSW state MP Independent and UNE Chancellor, Dr. Richard Torbay

THE SURPRISING thing about Richard Torbay’s dumping shock was that it took the Nationals so long wake up to his connection to Labor factional warlord, Eddie Obeid.

About a month ago, I thought I’d take a closer look at the man who thought he could knock off popular independent MP, Tony WindsorI was intrigued by Torbay’s meteoric rise to power.  Both he and Eddie Obeid share a common ancestry, but my gut feeling was that their connection went deeper than this.

This was confirmed by my contacts in Windsor’s New England electorate and by a high profile federal politician who told me I’d get a scoop on the Torbay-Obeid connection if I contacted Labor strategist, Shane Easson. Every journalist lives in hope of a “scoop”. My mistake was deciding to sit on it until I could drop a bombshell on the eve of the election.

The scoop was reported in yesterday’s Sydney Morning Herald. It certainly brought on an attack of the collywobbles in the National camp. It’s understandable that Nationals leader, Warren Truss, may be more nervous of Eddie Obeid than he is rumoured to be about Senator Barnarby Joyce’s tiltat the federal lower house seat (and thence leadership).

In the report, Easson told The Australian Financial Review that, prior to Richard Torbay entering NSW parliament in 1999, Eddie Obeid had rung him on Torbay’s behalf. The ruse of having Torbay pretend to stand as an ‘Independent’ when he was really one of ‘theirs’ was engineered by Obeid. It certainly explained how Torbay won himself the plum job of speaker in Labor’s healthy majority government in 2007 after Maurice Iemma was installed by Obeid’s Terrigals.

The Australian Associated Press reported yesterday that the information that led to Torbay’s disendorsement has now been referred to the corruption watchdog.

But there is still the question of why Richard Torbay would resign from the NSW parliament as Independent MP — and as Chancellor of the University of New England. Torbay has said this was for family reasons. But the decision to fall on his sword has, in fact, been on the cards since Labor powerbroker Eddie Obeid became the subject of the state’s largest-ever corruption investigation.

Obeid and Torbay go back a long way and share a common heritage. Both are members of the close-knit Maronite Lebanese community. O’Beid’s wife, Judith, grew up in Armidale where, of course, Torbay has lived and served as Mayor of Armidale City Council, a State Independent MP, Chief Executive Officer of the University of New England Union, and more recently, the university’s Chancellor.

But their connection goes deeper than that.

Off the record, Independent Australia has been told by a source in the New England electorate that Torbay refers to Obeid as “Uncle Eddie”.

Torbay is by all accounts a likeable bloke but with a formidable will to succeed. That means “jumping ship” to bolster his career according to Professor Frank Bongiorno who taught at the University of New England between 2000 and 2007.

In a revealing insight into the man last August, ‘The Worldly Art of Richard Torbay’, Bongiorno recounted how Torbay tried to deal himself into the NSW premiership. NSW Labor general secretary, Sam Dastyari, alleged that Torbay pulled $200 from his pocket (Labor membership fees) and

‘…pledged to immediately rejoin the party if I could guarantee he would have the numbers to become premier (succeeding Nathan Rees) the next day.’

Richard Torbay has denied this.

Pierrepont Finch 2060A4B62-DEFE-015D-ECC9EDD97C89FBEA
Pierrepont Finch

Torbay’s website (down since yesterday) attributes his spectacular rise to his ability to distinguish each new role, by “redefining it and stretching it to the boundaries of possibility and sometimes well beyond.”  Reading this, it doesn’t seem beyond the realm of possibilities that Bongiorno was right to conclude

‘…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.’

Richard Torbay’s career trajectory was so spectacular, it’s hard not to think of Mark Twain’s famous edict that “Truth is stranger than fiction”. Fiction sticks to possibilities, truth doesn’t.

Torbay’s rise to power and privilege was certainly more impressive than the hero of Shepherd Mead‘s 1952 book How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying: The Dastard’s Guide to Fame and Fortune.

Mead’s hero, J. Pierrepont Finch, rose from window washer to chairman of the board.

Torbay, having left school early, with no qualifications, outdid Finch. He started as a kitchen hand at the University of New England with arms so heavily tattooed that it was the only time he was ever seen with his shirt sleeves rolled up.

A little more than ten years later, he landed the job of Chief Executive Officer of the UNE Union in 1991.

Even more astonishingly, for someone with no education, in 2008 he became its Chancellor — after being granted an honorary doctorate.

I wondered whether “Uncle Eddie” had greased the wheels with the kind of generous donations that would buy such credentials, but The University of New England has confirmed to Independent Australia that the Office of Advancement which handles donations that come in to the UNE Foundation has found no record of donations from either “Eddie Obeid” or the “Obeid Family Trust” in the donor management system.

It remains to be seen whether Richard Torbay will be judged an outstanding contributor to public life or a meretricious carpetbagger happy to jump political ship or accept tainted funds to expedite his brilliant career.

At this stage, there is nothing to suggest that the Independent Commission Against Corruption is interested in anything other than undisclosed political donations, especially from Eddie Obeid. But one can’t help thinking there is more to Tony Windsor’s explanation for his public comment that he had “no respect for Torbay as an individual”. Windsor wears old-fashioned decency as a badge of honour. If there are other reasons why he’s withdrawn his respect for Richard Torbay, Independent Australia has tried asking, but he’s not telling.

(You can follow Sandi on twitter @Jarrapin.)

Note: This article was published in Independent Australian on 21 March, 2013.

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