One of the more mysterious stories hiding in plain sight this election is the curious link between the Armidale Club and the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority.
One. A nightclub in a suburban cottage at 91 Beardy Street, Armidale, burnt down in September 2016 after a fire started about 5am. The coroner Michael Holmes found the fire was deliberately lit but was unable to determine the culprit.
Two. In March this year the agriculture minister, David Littleproud, announced that 91 Beardy Street was part of a larger site chosen for redevelopment to house the APVMA, after Barnaby Joyce announced it would move from Canberra in the 2016 election campaign.
In the final parliamentary sitting week, Senate estimates heard evidence that a reactivated police investigation into the Armidale Club was seeking information from the federal agriculture department as to its tender process.
Detective Senior Constable Matthew Robertson of Armidale police confirmed that he was reviewing the case. “It’s not just a review of old information, we are making new lines of inquiry, not into the suspect or start of fire, but we are making on going inquiries in relation to the tender process,” he said.
In Senate estimates, APVMA officers confirmed that their first contact with police investigators had been on 15 January this year.
This is a result of the club business owner and lessee of the property, Kathryn Richards, pushing tirelessly for an investigation, given that she had a 25-year lease on the property – the status of which has never been resolved.
In fact, at publication, Richards still has a liquor licence over the property, even as the purpose-built office nears its completion date in July 2019 to house the APVMA.
The Labor senator Penny Wong is not a regular at the rural and regional affairs legislation committee but, on 9 April, she was interested in the investigation’s status.
“I think the timeframe and the proximity of the arson attack to the RFI [request for information] does raise questions, and they have not been answered,” Wong said.
The timeline, compiled from Senate estimates evidence and public reports, goes like this.
In May 2015 Joyce told his local paper that the APVMA and its 195 staff could shift to Armidale, “hinting” that a possible site could be the University of New England.
Sometime after the election, the agriculture department secretary, Daryl Quinlivan, confirmed a request-for-information process had begun “as a way of accelerating the relocation process”, given the minister’s “strong views” about the move. “He was very keen on it,” Quinlivan said of Joyce.
On 30 August 2016, the department engaged JLL corporate property services to run the RFI and, by 15 September, it began with a closing date of 7 October.
On 16 September the Armidale Club burnt down.
On 17 September a 38-year-old “former contractor/employee” of the club shot himself in public, though the coroner found this was a “matter of real coincidence” and there was no evidence to “directly tie” him to the ignition of the fire.
By the end of the RFI process in October, the department had received nine responses. A department officer, Troy Czabania, told Senate estimates that “three proponents put 91 Beardy Street and 102 Taylor Street in their submissions as a combined lot”.
Wong asked how three entities appeared in proposals for the same two properties. The assistant agriculture minister, Richard Colbeck, replied: “Not an unusual concept, senator.”
As to requests for more information regarding the options recommended by the department under the RFI, Littleproud has invoked a public interest immunity claim.
In a letter to the Senate president, Scott Ryan, the resources minister, Matthew Canavan, said some documents requested needed to be “withheld on the basis that their release may impede or prejudice an ongoing investigation by a law enforcement agency”.
Wong was perplexed. “Magically, three proponents put forward propositions that include 91 Beardy Street. They all include this L shape around the corner. Did anybody go, ‘That’s a bit weird?’
“Not as far as I’m aware,” Czabania said.
Quinlivan only became aware of the fire two months after the blaze, when the department was “preparing for estimates”.
Even though the property subject to the arson attack was part of the RFI proposals, Quinlivan told estimates: “I wasn’t making a necessary connection between those two things.”
The Labor senator Malarndirri McCarthy noted in the committee that New South Wales valuer general records showed that “the property at 91 Beard St, Armidale was worth $444,000 in July 2017”. The Senate heard that the land subsequently sold to Stirloch Development for $1.3m.
On 1 February 2018 the coroner found “on the balance of probabilities” the fire had started when petrol was poured within the premises and lit by “person or persons unknown”.
On 9 March 2018 “the APVMA signed a 15-year lease agreement (with the possibility of extensions) with the successful tenderer, Stirloch Development Pty Ltd (Stirloch)”, the APVMA website says. “The lease contract with Stirloch is worth approximately $16.4 million over 15 years.”
As to the lost nightclub, Richards says the whole episode changed her life and she described it as a failure of basic government processes and due diligence.
“It’s an incredibly traumatic experience, to build something and see it turn to ash …and spend years dealing with insurance,” she says. “It’s incredibly cruel and I still don’t have answers,” she says.
It is expected the police review will be completed one month after the election.