Darling Downs champion yet to be seen

28 November 2016


The best part of a decade has passed since I first heard about the issue of mining on prime farmland.  I’m not from a rural region, but I’ve come to regard this issue as really serious, as far as food security goes.

Initially I heard about how some of Australia’s best farmland was under threat from mining, and from coal seam gas.  In those days there was a boom happening as far as minerals and energy were concerned, and mines and gas sites were appearing in lots of places all over the country.  At first I didn’t think too much of them, until I heard about what mines and gas could do to the surrounding land.  It was worrying to think that extraction of various minerals could do major, if not permanent, damage to land where farms have flourished for generations.  Nowadays it’s an issue that generates discussion even in big cities well away from the regions.

However, the issue of mining on prime farmland doesn’t seem to have made a big impact on elections or politics.  Admittedly, some politicians have taken stands on protecting our best farmland from the threat of mines and gas, but there doesn’t seem to have been much of a difference made.

Nowhere would this seem truer than in the Darling Downs, a rich agricultural region in southern Queensland, taking in the city of Toowoomba and surrounding areas to the west of Brisbane.  The threat to quality farmland from mines and gas has generated much attention over the years.  But in political terms, it hasn’t resulted in much, as least as far as general elections go.

Over the last five years or so, voters in the Darling Downs have been given plenty of chances to express their true feelings on what’s been happening to their farmland.  But when you look at the results of elections, both at national and state levels, you’d probably be forgiven for wondering what the fuss was about.  The Liberal National Party, long accused of being closer to mining and gas companies than to farmers, has held every parliamentary seat in this region since 2012.  If voters were as worried about losing their farmland to mines and gas as some believed, the LNP wouldn’t hold a single seat.

It’s almost like voters have, reluctantly, stuck with the LNP because of an absence of credible alternatives.  Some alternatives have popped up, but they’ve never appealed to enough voters to make a big difference.

There might well be credible alternatives in other parts of rural Australia, standing up for farmers whose land is in the sights of mining and gas companies.  There might well be out there somewhere a Darling Downs champion, for want of a better term.  But from what I can gather, such a person is yet to be seen.

Five years of elections seem to confirm this.  Back in 2012, when Queenslanders cast their votes at a state election which the LNP won comprehensively, many unhappy voters in the Darling Downs threw their support behind a political party set up by Federal politician Bob Katter.  But despite strong showings, Katter’s party didn’t come close to winning seats in the Darling Downs, all of which went to the LNP.  A year later, at a Federal election, the LNP comfortably held the seat of Groom, which takes in much of the Darling Downs, even though sitting MP Ian Macfarlane was thought to be much closer to mining companies than to the region’s farmers.  Queenslanders next went to the polls in early 2015, and even though the LNP lost office, it again won all Darling Downs seats, while the support for Katter’s party collapsed.

And in July this year, Darling Downs voters had two chances to show what they thought of what was happening to their farmland.

First came a Federal election, at which Macfarlane was retiring after nearly two decades of holding Groom.  If ever there’d been a chance for an alternative voice to be heard, and perhaps really shake the LNP, this was it.  But the LNP comfortably held Groom, with the successful candidate having left State Parliament to run.  This in turn triggered a by-election for a Toowoomba seat in State Parliament, just weeks later.  But despite the fact that voters have often used by-elections to “send a message” to governments and their rivals, the LNP won this by-election fairly comfortably.

The threat to quality farmland from mines and gas really should be costing the LNP seats in the Darling Downs region, both at national and state level.  But it happens to be holding every seat, probably because of a lack of credible alternatives.  The defence of quality farmland will continue, but the lack of alternative voices makes this battle harder.



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.


Maverick Joyce now just another politician

22 November 2015


Very few politicians of late have matched Barnaby Joyce for making an impact of sorts.  A National from Queensland, he entered the Senate in 2005, and he declared that he’d be his own man and he wouldn’t always toe the line with his colleagues.  His form has been as he intended, at least until lately.

The Liberals and Nationals let MPs “cross the floor” in parliamentary votes.  They can vote against their colleagues, in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, if they disagree with them over some issue or policy.  Over time, many of them have crossed the floor, and Joyce has done so a few times.

This freedom doesn’t exist in the Labor Party.  Instead, it gets its MPs to vote internally on issues, and then takes the position voted upon by a majority of MPs, even if the majority is tiny.  Labor expels MPs from its ranks if they cross the floor.  The only way for Labor MPs to express opposition to what most of their colleagues support is to abstain, or decline, from voting on the parliamentary floor.

But the reputation of Joyce isn’t confined to crossing the floor.  He’s also got quite a turn of phrase, probably the best in Australian politics since Paul Keating departed two decades ago.  Although Keating was hardly popular when he was Treasurer in the Hawke Labor Government and subsequently Prime Minister, he could definitely cut through with his words, sometimes well and other times badly.  He compared one political rival to a souffle rising twice, described a surprise election win as one for “true believers”, and had lots of memorable quotes.  Joyce has a knack for saying similar things.  I’ve seen him talking to live television audiences a few times, and he’s regularly made them laugh and even burst into applause, no matter whether they agree with him or not.  Few people can say that they haven’t heard of him.

Joyce had been in the Senate for eight years when he switched to the House of Reps in 2013, and he switched states as well.  Representing Queensland when elected to the Senate, he made the decision to run for the seat of New England in northern New South Wales, and had to both leave the Senate and leave Queensland in order to do this.  With the Liberal-National Coalition winning office in 2013, Joyce became Agriculture Minister, as well as deputy leader of the Nationals, and will likely success Warren Truss as leader when Truss departs.

However, this is where trouble has started for Joyce of late.  Coalition MPs may be free to cross the floor, but not if they’re ministers, who have to abide by the decision taken by a majority of them – just like Labor MPs must abide by a majority vote among their ranks.  Joyce is a National in a Coalition ministry full of Liberals, some of whom know nothing about rural Australia.  He might disagree with the majority of ministers, but he can’t vote against them.  And people can tell if he’s unhappy with a decision, no matter how much he tries to hide his annoyance.  In a sense, while he can still cut through with his turn of phrase, it almost changes from a strength to a weakness, and he can sound more like a “spin doctor”.

Now Joyce faces difficulties of mining on prime farmland.  The prospect of a major mine opening up on farmland in the Liverpool Plains, around Joyce’s neck of the woods, has people up in arms.  They’re worried about how mining would affect the area’s water resources, with any mishap potentially making the water unsuitable for agriculture, thus wrecking the area’s economy.  Joyce might be unhappy about the mine, but if the Liberals want it, be they Federal Liberals or State Liberals governing in NSW at the moment, he’ll struggle to change their minds.

The issue of this mine has bred speculation of former Independent MP Tony Windsor coming out of retirement to run against Joyce at the next Federal election.  Windsor retired in 2013 after over ten years of holding New England.  His last three years were hard, as a balance-of-power MP whose support put Labor in office after it nearly lost an election to the Coalition.  This brought him much criticism and vitriol, particularly from conservative commentators who accused him of betraying his voters, who’d have otherwise supported the Coalition over Labor.  His health wasn’t the best when he retired, but critics called him cowardly for walking away.

I’m not convinced that Windsor will return.  He’d been in politics for two decades when he retired, and I’m not sure that a few years away would’ve recharged his batteries sufficiently.  He can oppose the mine more credibly than Joyce can, but bad memories might scare voters away from him, or any other Independent candidate who runs instead of him, no matter how strong the opposition to the mine.

Mining on prime farmland has exposed some cracks within the Coalition.  This issue makes the maverick Joyce now look like just another politician, and a compromised one at that.  Unless enough Liberals agree with him, he can’t oppose mining on farmland without jeopardising his political career.  The maverick streak hitherto making him popular now looks less credible.