17 April 2016
The retirement of a veteran National ahead of a state election in New South Wales in 1991 set in train a memorable political career. But nobody would’ve known it at the time.
The Nationals had to hold a preselection vote, to choose someone to succeed the retiring National, Noel Park, who’d held the seat of Tamworth for years. Although a successor to Park was chosen, a rival beaten for preselection ended up running as an Independent against that chosen National in Tamworth at that 1991 election. And the rival, named Tony Windsor, won the seat.
Windsor immediately attracted media attention after this, albeit not of his making. He and another three Independents found themselves holding the balance of power in the NSW Parliament, after the election, against expectations, produced a hung result.
The election cost Premier Nick Greiner his parliamentary majority, and he could only govern with Independent support. He initially needed only one crossbench vote, and Windsor provided it. But the loss of a seat in a by-election later left Greiner reliant on more crossbench votes, and he ultimately resigned after a scandal surrounding a former minister. Meanwhile, Windsor went on to hold Tamworth at elections in 1995 and 1999, winning a large majority of the primary vote there in 1999.
Two years later, widespread rural dissatisfaction with the Nationals prompted Windsor to run for Federal Parliament, and he won the seat of New England, which overlapped much of his old Tamworth seat. Immensely popular, he held it at the next three Federal elections, the last of them in 2010, but the years following the 2010 election left his reputation somewhat tarnished.
Before the election, the Labor Party had dumped Kevin Rudd as leader and Prime Minister in a surprise coup, and installed Julia Gillard in the top job. Rudd had led Labor to victory in 2007 and had been very popular among voters, but various dramas sent his popularity plunging and Labor MPs suddenly dumped him. Anger over this cost Labor its majority at the election, and left Windsor and other crossbenchers with the balance of power. Despite holding a seat where most voters would’ve preferred the Liberal-National Coalition over Labor, Windsor chose to support Gillard, whom he found more tolerable than Coalition leader Tony Abbott, and Labor was able to continue in office. Windsor also had little regard for well-known National Barnaby Joyce, and he said as much.
Abbott and the Coalition, and their media cheer squad, subsequently waged a relentless stop-at-nothing war against the Independents, as well as Labor, to try shaming the Independents into tipping Labor out of office. The Coalition was particularly peeved at Windsor, and ahead of a Federal election in 2013, Joyce chose to leave the Senate, where he’d been since 2005, in order to run against Windsor in New England.
But just before the 2013 election was called, Windsor chose to leave Parliament. Although he apparently wasn’t in good health when he announced his departure, many people accused him of running away to avoid the wrath of his constituents for backing Labor instead of the Coalition after the 2010 election.
Had Windsor chosen to stay and fight, I suspect that he might’ve beaten Joyce, for reasons that I’ll explain later, and the battle would’ve been nasty. In the end, with Windsor out of the picture, Joyce unsurprisingly won New England with ease, and the Coalition won the 2013 election. But three years later, it looks like the nasty battle avoided in 2013 might now happen at the next election, because of what’s happened since.
The issue of mining on prime farmland, which angers many voters in NSW and Queensland, has prompted Windsor to make a comeback in New England, pitting him against Joyce, who now leads the Nationals following the retirement of Warren Truss. So this coming election will feature New England’s nasty battle of two well-known men, and flawed men at that.
Joyce was a well-known maverick and rogue when only a backbench MP, freely speaking his mind and voting as he saw fit, even if the Nationals or Liberals hated it. But when he went to the Coalition frontbench, he lost much freedom. While backbench Liberals and Nationals can vote as they see fit, their frontbenchers must support positions taken by a majority of them. And Joyce, as a National surrounded by Liberals, many with little or no understanding of the bush, can’t vote on principle unless most Liberals agree with him.
He can groan loudly about mining on prime farmland, or other issues, but if most Liberals want something done, he must toe their line. He’s now a flawed politician.
Many people also consider Windsor flawed, after he supported Gillard and Labor. But they forget that he voted against Gillard and Labor at times, including over abolition of a building industry authority, which the Coalition now seeks to revive. Unlike Joyce, Windsor remains free to act on principle.
Flaws surround both Joyce and Windsor. But I just don’t see mining on prime farmland, or any other issue, as triggering enough anger all over New England to ultimately bring Joyce down. Windsor will probably suffer his first loss since that Tamworth preselection vote ahead of the 1991 NSW election. The battle between those two men, whatever their flaws, will nevertheless be watched keenly.