All eyes on Armidale

When I accepted a position as a cadet journalist in a small country NSW town, I was expecting to be relegated to stories about CWA meetings, complaints about potholes in the main street and police fining bored hoons for doing burnouts at the lookout.

Admittedly, that probably would have been my fate if not for one important detail: the town I moved to was Armidale.

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Armidale: renowned for its four distinct seasons, education opportunities and political intrigue.

Nestled almost 1000 metres above sea level on the Northern Tablelands, halfway between Sydney and Brisbane, the town was already able to provide a stream of interesting stories in its role as the base for the University of New England.

But had you told me prior to taking the job that I’d be covering allegations of a sex abuse cover-up in the Catholic Church, groundbreaking manslaughter and consorting court cases, and a raid on the local MP’s house by anti-corruption authorities, I would think a) you had an extremely vivid imagination; or b) you were gently mocking me about my move from the city to the country.

It is the last event – the dramatic disappearance of politician Richard Torbay from public and political life – that has shone a national spotlight on this town.

The independent Member for Northern Tablelands from 1999 to 2013, Torbay also served as Speaker of the NSW Legislative Assembly from 2007 to 2011.

Last year, Torbay decided to ditch his independent roots and joined the Nationals in an attempt to unseat his former mentor, Tony Windsor, as the federal member for New England.

The move showed initial success, with polls claiming anger against the incumbent’s support for the Gillard government and Torbay’s personal popularity indicated a landslide victory for the Nationals.

But Torbay’s growing momentum came to a crashing halt last month, when a Nationals press release informed the media that Torbay had resigned as the party’s candidate for the seat of New England.

The next morning, he also resigned as the member for Northern Tablelands and chancellor of UNE. Only hours later, the NSW Nationals revealed the reasons for the abrupt resignations: the party had referred their former federal candidate to the Independent Commission Against Corruption.

The Nationals have refused to reveal the reason for the referral, though a Seven News report claimed it was due to allegedly undisclosed donations from Labor powerbroker Eddie Obeid.

ICAC has refused to confirm it even received allegations against Torbay. But a tip-off from a neighbour saw me break the news that a team of ICAC investigators were standing outside Torbay’s Armidale home about a week after his resignations.

The news went viral. Within hours of posting the news to our website, we were fielding calls from Network Ten, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Daily Telegraph and 2UE asking for more information.

Torbay’s rapid resignations have left a power vacuum at several levels in the region. UNE needs to appoint a new chancellor. The Nationals need to find a new candidate to face off against Windsor. Voters in the Northern Tablelands need to elect a new state representative.

A meeting of New England’s National Party members will today determine whether Barnaby Joyce or David Gregory will represent the party at the federal election. UNE’s council will appoint a new chancellor this week.

It hasn’t been announced when Northern Tablelands voters will go to the ballot box, but the political parties have already swung into action to find challengers for the seat. Nationals preselection is a three-way race between former Gunnedah mayor Adam Marshall, former National Farmers Federation president Jock Laurie and Torbay’s former campaign manager Claire Coulton.

The byelection will be the best chance the Nationals have of winning the seat in at least 14 years, but it is also an opportunity for Labor to claw back ground after disastrous results at recent elections.

Armidale’s deputy mayor Herman Beyersdorf has put his hand up for Labor preselection in the seat, with sources indicating Sussex Street will be devoting significant resources in an attempt to make a foothold in the region.

This week’s Building Regional Australia summit, held in Armidale, showed some of the strongest signs of campaigning from senior party figures on both sides of politics. Many of the visiting politicians used the event as an opportunity to grandstand on party issues, rather than present their vision for moving regional and rural Australia forward.

Travellers on flights between Armidale and Sydney can expect to see even more prominent faces in the coming weeks, as Coalition and Labor figures make the journey north to support their candidates. The town can expect to be in the national headlines for some time yet.

So much for an appointment to a sleepy little country town.

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One Response to All eyes on Armidale

  1. Jack says:

    You also realise that Armidale is groundzero for the NBN in mainland Australia? Armidale has been in the national spotlight a lot. Very upsetting for Sydney news crews -“Can you move that a little bit closer to Parramatta for us!”
    Almost accussing us of stealing all the interetsing stuff. No one knew where Armidale was 5 years ago – now we are front and centre of a lot of debates. Good for population growth is idiots would wake up and get out of Sydney!

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