New England’s nasty battle of flawed men

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.

 

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Big states developing electoral hit lists

17 January 2016

 

Hardly any Australian needs reminding that a Federal election will happen during the course of this year.  Based on the results of the last election, in 2013, it looks like the Australian Labor Party needs a swing of about 4.3 per cent to defeat the Liberal-National Coalition Government.  But the size of the needed swing could potentially change, depending on how electoral redistributions pan out in a few states.

A redistribution means a redrawing of boundaries of electorates within a given state or territory, to reflect population changes.  Naturally, the population grows in some areas and declines in others over time.  Therefore, a redistribution is necessary to give each electorate, or parliamentary seat, as near as possible to the same number of voters.  These redistributions usually happen every 5-10 years or so, but not necessarily in every state or territory at the same time.

Since the 2013 election, electoral redistributions have occurred in a few states, as well as in the Australian Capital Territory.  At the moment, these are yet to be finalised, but it looks as though the number of seats in New South Wales will fall from 48 to 47, and the number in Western Australia will rise from 15 to 16.

The redistribution in NSW looks like including a new seat named after the late Gough Whitlam, who was Prime Minister in the 1970s.  Seats are duly created for every former PM after death, when the opportunity arises.  This honour has yet to come for Whitlam, who died in late 2014.  And it’ll come in due course for another former PM, Malcolm Fraser, who died only a few months after Whitlam died.  These honours will be in NSW for Whitlam and Victoria for Fraser, because their seats were in those respective states.

These honours won’t apply to their successors until after they’ve passed away.  This is why there aren’t yet seats named after Bob Hawke, Paul Keating, John Howard, Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard, or Tony Abbott.  But they’ll come in due course.  I note that Hawke and Gillard held seats in Victoria, Rudd held a seat in Queensland, and the rest were in NSW.

However, the hard part for future electoral redistributions might be the question of which seats should be abolished, especially after any former PM passes away.  This is certainly the case in NSW, which has seen its number of seats fall from 51 a few decades ago to 48 now, due to population shifts over time.  If the voting population in NSW shifts to the point where the number of seats has to fall, there might be arguments over which seats to abolish.  Victoria might have a similar problem, as its number of seats has fallen from 39 to 37 over the last few decades.

Most seats in Federal Parliament, specifically in the House of Representatives, are named after significant people or localities.  Mind you, I’m not sure how many Australians know what made famous most of the individuals after whom seats are named.

When electoral redistributions happen, efforts are usually made to preserve seats which have existed since 1901, when Parliament first opened.  They’re also made to preserve any seat named after a former PM.

NSW has many seats set to be preserved in any future redistribution for the reasons noted above.  Existing continuously since 1901 are Cowper, Eden-Monaro, Hume, Hunter, Macquarie, New England, Newcastle, North Sydney, Parramatta, Richmond, Robertson, Wentworth, and Werriwa.  The seats of Barton, Chifley, Hughes, McMahon, Page, Reid, and Watson are named after men who served as PM.  There are 20 seats in all.  I’d add the seats of Riverina and Cook to this tally – Riverina was created in 1901 and abolished in 1984 and restored in some form in 1993, but during its non-existence there was a seat named Riverina-Darling, and indeed MP Noel Hicks held Riverina when it was abolished before holding Riverina-Darling and then Riverina again, while Cook is actually named after a great explorer whose surname is shared with a former PM.

The other seats are named after artists, explorers, pioneers, writers, or other people of note.  There are also some seats named after localities.  In due course, some of these seats will have to be abolished.  But there’ll be some public resistance to their abolition.

I remember a campaign against the abolition of the rural seat of Gwydir ahead of an election in 2007, as Gwydir had existed since 1901, but it had experienced significant population decline.  I also remember some resistance to the abolition of the suburban seat of Lowe, named after an individual, ahead of an election in 2010.  Both seats were ultimately abolished, but some people remained attached to them.

There might be a chance of the big states developing electoral hit lists, as some seats will be abolished amid population shifts.  From time to time, such seats simply have to go.