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Reasons to be cheerful

Hung parliaments don’t come along very often in Australian federal politics. Tony Windsor clearly wants to make the most of the chance, writes Brett Evans

Brett Evans 6 June 2011 2654 words

“It’s democracy, isn’t it?” Independent MP Tony Windsor at Parliament House. Kym Smith/Newspix

The man who greets me on the airport concourse is affable and calm. You would never guess he’s just missed his connecting flight. Or that he’s in the middle of flying from one end of New South Wales to the other to appear on national television. Or that he’s one of the key independents in the federal parliament. Or that he’s incurred the wrath of conservative Australia by agreeing to keep Labor’s Julia Gillard in the Lodge. Or that he’s been receiving death threats. All this might make a lesser man a bit grumpy and unapproachable, but Tony Windsor, the independent member for New England, looks to me like a man who’s having the time of his life.

A career in politics can be psychologically draining. Just ask Julia Gillard, who must go to bed every night knowing she’s just one bad by-election away from disaster. Or Tony Abbott, cycling away his frustration at dawn every morning because Windsor, his fellow independents Andrew Wilkie and Rob Oakeshott, and the Greens’ Adam Bandt, denied him his chance at greatness. It probably chafes more than his lycra bike shorts.

With Tony Windsor, on the other hand, you get the very strong impression that he’s right where he wants to be. Hung parliaments that turn independents into powerbrokers don’t come along very often in Australian federal politics and he clearly wants to make the most of it.

But at this moment, Windsor has a more immediate concern: getting on the outside of a late lunch. His flight from Tamworth has run late so he’s taking the opportunity to bolt down a ham sandwich in the Qantas Club at Sydney airport. In half an hour he’ll catch a rescheduled flight to Albury-Wodonga to appear on ABC TV’s Q&A.

This is the program’s first broadcast from a regional centre and will concentrate, naturally enough, on the future of country Australia. And making sure that country Australia has a future is the great passion of Windsor’s political life. His other great passion, as far as I can tell, is needling the National Party.

“They’ve always had that capacity to hold the balance of power – irrespective of who’s in power in government – but have always sided with the same side, and when that happens they are taken for granted by both,” Windsor explains. “And you know where they’re always going to be: parked in the corner.”

Making the political system compete for their support will, he assures me, get country people a lot further than simply voting on the basis of their traditional loyalties. And as for the federal National Party, he thinks they should follow the example of the Western Australian Nationals, who refuse to be in coalition with the Liberals: “Rather than sell your soul for the white car and the position, why not do a deal – the Greens do, others do.”

With a start, Windsor stands up; he’s just spotted the time. “Come on, we’ve gotta go, we’ll miss our flight,” he says to me. We’re travelling down to Albury together and as our plane lifts off over Botany Bay and rises into a cloudy sunset, it occurs to me that Windsor has two main goals: he wants to get the best deal possible for the electors of New England, of course, but just as importantly he wants to encourage country voters across Australia to rethink their ingrained political habits; he wants them to consider taking a chance on the Independent Option.

If politicians have a terroir – a sense of place coming from the land – then Windsor’s clearly comes from his electorate, where he has lived all his life. He didn’t even leave New England to go to school or university. “It’s where I was born and where I intend to die,” he says. “But not any time soon, I hope.”

New England sits just below the Queensland border in northern New South Wales, straddling the Great Dividing Range in its east and the Liverpool Plains in its west. It contains the university town of Armidale; the country music capital of Australia, Tamworth; and millions of hectares of prime agricultural land.

Born in 1950, Windsor was raised on the family property, Cintra, near the small railway town of Werris Creek in the electorate’s southwest corner. As a teenager he remembers ranging across Cintra and its neighbouring properties, rifle in hand, hunting from dawn to dusk. It could have been an idyllic country boyhood but for a family tragedy that struck when Windsor was eight: his father was killed in a tractor accident.

“When my mother took over the running of the property,” he recalls, “she couldn’t even drive, but she battled on.” Meanwhile, the young Windsor went to high school in Tamworth and completed a Bachelor of Economics at the University of New England in Armidale. Then he returned to Cintra, involved himself in local affairs during his spare time, and became a loyal member of the National Party.

With his obvious political talents, Windsor might have ended up as a National Party minister in a state or federal government. But when he sought preselection for his local state seat he fell victim to what he describes as a “classic branch stack.” Windsor, who accepts that politics is often unfair, was willing to take it on the chin. But outraged locals, he says, organised a meeting to encourage him to run as an independent.

He expected about a dozen people to turn up. When he arrived there were almost fifty – including some of the “elders” of the electorate, “people I knew of, but didn’t know.” Windsor says he realised there was no getting out of it when the meeting stumped up $16,000 towards a campaign. The loyal party man decided he didn’t need to feel so loyal after all and in 1991 Windsor became the independent member for Tamworth in the NSW parliament. By the time election day rolled around, he says, over 800 people had made donations to his campaign. “We had enough money for two elections.”

After serving for a decade in Macquarie Street, including a period supporting Nick Greiner’s minority government, Windsor decided on a move to Canberra. When he first entered federal politics at the 2001 election he received 45 per cent of the primary vote and won on preferences. By 2004 his primary vote had risen to 57 per cent, and in 2007 it reached 62 per cent. At the 2010 election Windsor again received 62 per cent of the primary vote – over twice as much as his main rival, the National Party’s Tim Coates. No wonder some elements in the National Party hate him; he’s taken one of their traditional seats and turned it into his own political citadel.

Windsor says the bitterness of his relationship with the Nationals is often exaggerated – he likes and respects many of the Nationals in federal parliament, he says – but over the years he has had a number of interesting encounters with the Boys from the Bush.

During the 2004 federal election campaign Windsor alleged in a media interview that he had been approached several months earlier by an intermediary for the National Party with an offer of a diplomatic post if he would quit politics. Such an offer could have breached the Commonwealth Electoral Act. After his successful re-election Windsor told parliament that National Party leader John Anderson and Nationals Senator Sandy McDonald had conveyed the offer through a Tamworth businessman. In the end an Australian Federal Police investigation determined that the matter would not be prosecuted.

In 2010 Windsor sold Cintra to a local coal company for a hefty $4.6 million. His political opponents in the National Party promptly accused him of hypocrisy, citing the fact that Windsor had campaigned with the farmers of the Liverpool Plains, who have long feared the contamination of their groundwater by coal-mining interests. Windsor was mightily insulted, and in a statement released at the time explained that Cintra is not located on the Liverpool Plains and there was no groundwater to contaminate. He also explained that he had leased back the property and, indeed, would buy it back after any mining took place.

The incident probably caused Windsor more distress than the death threats he has received more recently, not least because it involved his elderly mother, whom he says was hounded by the media for comment in her nursing home.

The next election could become the latest round in the “Nats versus Windsor Grudge Match.” Nationals Senator Barnaby Joyce is threatening to take a run at Windsor’s seat. When asked about the prospect of Senator Joyce’s swooping down from Queensland to retake New England, Windsor is cheerfully dismissive. His view is pretty much, “I’ll believe it when I see it.” He doesn’t seem to have much time for the man he called a “fool” on Channel Nine’s election coverage last year.

Windsor gives me a lift in his Comcar to the Albury Entertainment Centre for his appearance on Q&A. In its short life this TV program has become an institution for many Australians – a sort of electronic town hall meeting that usually does a much better job of ventilating the big national issues than a week’s worth of Question Time.

Windsor is appearing tonight with three “civilians” – a local winemaker, an academic from the local university, and a Victorian rural woman of the year – and two other Canberra combatants – regional development minister Simon Crean and Sophie Mirabella, the Liberal member for Indi, a federal seat located just across the Murray from Albury. The theatre is packed with 700 locals who seem excited to be there.

When the politicians speak, it’s a study in contrasts. Crean talks like he’s swallowed an out-of-date management textbook; his answers are peppered with terms that would have struck many in the audience as puzzling: there is a “narrative”; some people think in “silos” while others are thinking “horizontally”; country people have to “join the dots” in the “patchwork economy.” Mirabella, on the other hand, sounds like she’s trapped in a long ago student union meeting at Melbourne University – it’s all cheap shots and the rolling of eyes. Of the three, Windsor seems to connect most easily with the audience. When an audience member asks, “If we had a Tony Windsor as our local member, would our streets be paved with gold?” he is quick to respond, “Would silver do?” It gets an appreciative laugh.

But it’s Simon Crean who really steals the show when he announces that Albury will be getting $65 million in funding for its long-awaited cancer clinic. The audience goes bananas. The royal newly-weds might have walked on stage. If you’ve ever wondered how short-changed rural Australians sometimes feel about the lack of services they have to put up with, just go to the Q&A website and watch that scene.

Windsor is an expert at tapping into this discontent because he feels it himself. When he takes a position on a national issue, he always ties it back to his electorate’s concerns. He’s not on the Multi-Party Climate Change Committee because he’s a greenie. He’s on it because he knows that farmers and rural communities will suffer as a result of climate change. (A few days before we spoke he’d suggested that industry figures who oppose the carbon tax should “put up” a viable alternative for dealing with the problem “or shut up.”) He is chairing the inquiry into the Murray-Darling Basin for the same reason: his electorate is in the Basin’s catchment area – it’s a local issue for his electors and he wants to see a workable compromise.

And he’s backing the National Broadband Network because, he argues, it might just mean that country people can continue to live in the country, but with city-quality services – in health, in aged care and in education. To Windsor the NBN will play the same role in the bush’s economic development that the railways did in the late 1800s. As Windsor told the Q&A audience, “I find it appalling that country members of parliament, and there’s plenty of them in the parliament, would actually argue against this.”

The buzz in the foyer afterwards is all about Simon Crean’s cancer clinic announcement; how few enjoyed the Mirabella style of debating; and how Windsor was probably the most favoured of the three pollies. All in all, a successful night’s politicking for the man from New England. But he didn’t convince everyone, of course, you never can; there were quite a few audience members, I’m sure, who will never forgive him for making a pact with the Labor devil.

One of Windsor’s best friends in federal parliament was his colleague on the crossbenches, the late Peter Andren. The former newsreader was a popular rural independent who held the seat of Calare in the central west of New South Wales from 1996 until his death from cancer in 2007. As Windsor reminded me, Andren remained popular with the conservative voters of Calare even when he adopted unpopular positions. His opposition to the Howard government’s handling of the Tampa crisis in 2001 is probably the best-known example. But despite taking such stands, Andren remained both electable and respected.

“Country people,” Windsor says, “inherently respect people who take a position. They might not agree with you, but they’ll say, ‘At least he had a view.’” He is obviously hoping his support for the Gillard government will be seen in the same light. If he can help deliver on broadband, convince the sceptical about climate change and get a decent compromise on the Murray-Darling, he believes the voters of New England will maintain their respect for him, despite his having chosen Gillard over Abbott.

In the meantime Windsor continues to work happily with the prime minister, whom he respects “for her capacity to negotiate.” He and Rob Oakeshott have a meeting with her every sitting week where they can raise issues and seek information from ministers and staffers, and they talk to her regularly by phone when parliament isn’t sitting. Yet everyone knows it’s an alliance of convenience; Windsor has to maintain his hard-won autonomy, in appearance and reality, or pay a heavy political cost. But then if an independent in a hung parliament can’t stay on the unicycle while juggling the flaming batons, maybe he shouldn’t be in the circus.

So can Windsor’s dominance of a seat in the National Party’s heartland survive his decision to give the kiss of life to a Labor government? We will find out at the next election. But as Windsor says himself, “If you get voted out, what’s wrong with that? It’s democracy, isn’t it? At least you don’t get shot!” •

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