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.



Independent’s betrayal long forgiven

23 January 2015

Independents betraying their constituencies – times beyond counting would people have heard this sort of characterisation attributed to Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor, for three years beyond September 2010.  Hitherto most people, except within their constituencies and perhaps neighbouring ones, wouldn’t have heard of these two men, both Independent MPs from regional New South Wales.  They hit the headlines in late August 2010, when Australians failed to elect a majority government for the first time in decades, leaving these two men among several MPs with the power to decide on who’d govern the country.

Probably few people thought that Oakeshott and Windsor, both one-time members of the National Party, would support the Labor Party in a hung parliament.  Besides being ex-Nationals, both represented areas where voters were more likely to prefer the Nationals to Labor.  But more than a fortnight after the election, which was so late in August that the counting of votes stretched into September, the two ex-Nationals ultimately decided to give Labor the necessary support to form government.  And the vitriol, especially from conservative commentators brooding over Labor’s narrow escape from defeat, began at once and went on for three years, until both Oakeshott and Windsor retired from politics in 2013.

You might think that the actions in 2010 of Oakeshott and Windsor, in arguably going against the wishes of their constituencies and allowing Labor to govern, were unprecedented in Australian political history.  But you’d be wrong.

Over a decade earlier, during the 1990s, Independents in the State Parliament of Queensland did the same thing as Oakeshott and Windsor, albeit on separate occasions.  The first of these Independents was Liz Cunningham of Gladstone, normally a Labor-leaning region.  She entered Parliament in 1995, at an election which the Goss Labor Government almost lost, against expectations.  Wayne Goss had been very popular as Queensland Premier since 1989, but a surprise against Labor left Goss with a one-seat majority.  The following year, when Labor lost one of its seats in a by-election and was left deadlocked with the Coalition on forty-four seats apiece, the new balance-of-power MP Cunningham arguably went against the wishes of her constituents and gave her support to the Coalition, thereby tipping Goss and Labor out of office.

Surely, in many people’s minds, Gladstone voters would revolt against Cunningham for her “betrayal” and throw her out at the next election, which ultimately came in 1998.  But they voted her back in.  And even at the election after that, in 2001, when Queensland voters swung back to Labor everywhere, Cunningham won Gladstone again.  Four elections on, she’s continued to hold her seat.  If she’d betrayed her constituents at first, clearly they’ve long forgiven her.

Now Cunningham is retiring at the next Queensland election, after nearly twenty years in Parliament.  I suspect that Gladstone voters will miss her.

As a footnote, in 1998 another Independent MP, Peter Wellington, did something similar to Cunningham.  Having won a seat on the Sunshine Coast from the Nationals in an election which produced a hung parliament, Wellington chose to give Labor support to take office.  Despite this betrayal, he’s held his State seat ever since.  Perhaps voters can forgive MPs for betraying them if they like what they see otherwise.