Big Trouble In New England


If you believe the news, Tony Windsor is not only likely to lose the next federal election, but will be dragged by his feet through the streets of Tamworth so the good folk of New England can vent their rage at the independent who sold his seat to Labor. 

Recent news suggests that Barnaby Joyce may end up playing the part of the sheriff. Joyce claims his roots are in New England and is planning to parachute into the seat, preselectors willing.

The Coalition’s preferred narrative presents Windsor’s political death as a foregone conclusion: Windsor sided with Labor to form government against the wishes of his constituents, resulting in a government without a mandate that is corrupt and unpopular. New England will punish him for it.

Labor and the broad left think Windsor’s integrity and genteel manner, coupled with his support for the NBN, Australia’s biggest ever infrastructure project, will get him over the line. The more "progressive" parts of the electorate — like university town Armidale — will be working hard to make that happen.

But beyond issues of thin political narrative, does Barnaby have a chance?

First, he needs to overcome the NSW National Party residence requirement that mandates candidates have 12 months of NSW party membership under their belts. Although the Nats’ council can overturn the rule under "exceptional circumstances" it’s unclear whether parachuting Joyce into the seat would meet the criteria. At any rate, if Campbell Newman can prevail in the Queensland LNP anything is possible.

If Joyce can leap that hurdle, preselection is a foregone conclusion. Tim Coates, the Nationals’ candidate in 2010, has neither the profile nor the record to resist being pushed out.

Once outside of the Nationals’ incubator, the job of getting elected will be more difficult than the Coalition would have us believe. At the 2010 Federal Election Windsor held onto the seat with a margin of 21.5 per cent over Coates. He won 61.9 per cent of the 91,172 strong first preference vote, but also took in the lion’s share of preferences from Country Labor and the Greens, amounting to 8320 votes. He even bagged another 460 odd votes from the CEC and One Nation.

The minor players amounted to around 11 per cent of the total vote, and the Labor and Greens voters would probably rather see Genghis Khan elected than Joyce. So if he wants to oust Windsor he’ll need to reclaim around one in three conservative voters from the independent’s personal vote. That prospect is by no means a done deal, whatever the rhetoric says; Windsor has held the seat since 2001, and has increased his vote in each subsequent election — 57 per cent in 2004 and 62 per cent in 2007.

Despite the "NSW factor" now being applied helter skelter to election punditry, the state result is a poor barometer for Windsor’s chances. Two independent NSW seats fall inside New England’s boundaries and they each suffered a different fate. Former speaker Richard Torbay suffered a 10.6 per cent swing against him in Northern Tablelands, but still romped home with 69.7 per cent of the two party preferred vote. Tamworth’s former member Peter Draper was defeated by National Kevin Anderson with a 12.5 per cent swing, although the vote was closer with a 7.7 per cent margin separating the candidates.

So even if a similar swing were to befall Windsor, amplified by Barnaby Joyce’s folksy star power, it might not be enough to visit a change of member on New England. If the Nats’ characterisation of the seat as a true country conservative heartland is on the money, why would over a third of Windsor’s constituents be so radical as to jump ship?

Numbers aside, Windsor is a more canny politician than bumblers like Barnaby Joyce and his crank-calling mate Bill Heffernan care to realise.

Windsor staked his political future on Labor’s successful implementation of the National Broadband Network, saying in his post election address that you "do it once, and do it with fibre". He has been panned time and again for being computer illiterate himself and for having been hoodwinked by the ALP.

But lo and behold, yesterday The Land reported that the town of Armidale had an 89 per cent take-up rate for the NBN, and would be the first in mainland Australia to receive the roll-out. One wonders whether any politician understands his electorate this well and can deliver on promises so comprehensively.

Independents trade off party support and resources for a relationship with constituents based on personal integrity and community involvement. Windsor has ticked all the boxes here, delivering on his promise, but simultaneously demonstrating to voters that he can play the new paradigm politics quietly and without bluster.

That’s a skill Barnaby and co are yet to learn.


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