The Poll Bludger
Margin: Nationals 20.0%
Region: North-Eastern Regional, New South Wales
In a nutshell: New England looms as a delayed bout between Tony Windsor, who bowed out as an independent member in 2013, and Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce, who used the seat to transfer from the Senate to the House.
Candidates in ballot paper order
ROBERT HENRY WALKER
PHILIP GORDON COX
New England is a naturally conservative seat in north-eastern New South Wales that nonetheless looms as one of the election’s most absorbing contests, as the former independent member of 12 years, Tony Windsor, seeks to return to a seat now held by the Nationals leader and Deputy Prime Minister, Barnaby Joyce. The electorate lies to the interior of the coastal electorates of Page, Cowper and Lyne, encompassing a 400 kilometre stretch of rural territory from north to south that includes Armidale, Tamworth, Inverell and Glen Innes. It was created at federation and has changed remarkably little, having contained Armidale and Tamworth at all times, and Glen Innes for all but the period from 1934 to 1949. The latest redistribution has transferred the Shire of Gunnedah and its 8700 voters to Parkes in the west, while adding the 9500 voters of the Shire of Hunter from the Hunter electorate in the south, and 2000 in part of the Shire of Gwydir from Parkes.
Barnaby Joyce was first elected as a Senator for Queensland in 2004, and soon became his party’s most publicly visible figure. Despite a penchant for crossing the floor, he became leader of the Nationals in the Senate in September 2008, and served in a range of shadow ministry portfolios from December 2012 until the September 2013 election victory. Joyce was open in his desire to move to the lower house, but his designs on the rural Queensland seat of Maranoa were thwarted because the sitting member, Bruce Scott, was set on another term in 2013. His second favoured option was New England, as he had been born in Tamworth and raised in Woolbrook, and had moved back and forth across the state border through his adult life. However, the seat was at that time held by Tony Windsor, and the Nationals’ plan for recovering it was to enlist Richard Torbay, independent member for the Armidale-based state seat of Northern Tablelands since 1999. Torbay agreed to do so in mid-2012, on the condition that the party allow him “freedom to speak with an independent voice on local issues”.
Torbay’s ambitions became rapidly unstuck in March 2013, when the Financial Review reported he had received assistance from embattled Labor operative Eddie Obeid in his first run for state parliament in 1999. Over the next two days Torbay withdrew as candidate and resigned as member for Northern Tablelands, and his home was raided by the Independent Commission Against Corruption the following week. Joyce was quick to reiterate his interest in the seat, despite a degree of disquiet in the local party that had prompted his opponents to sound out the party’s state leader, Andrew Stoner, both as a candidate in New England and an alternative successor to Warren Truss as leader. Joyce did not ultimately face serious opposition in the local preselection, and his path to the seat was assured when Windsor announced his retirement two months later. He went on to score 54.2% of the vote at the election, finishing 14.5% clear of independent candidate Rob Taber at the final count.
Now established in the lower house in a newly elected government, Joyce assumed the role of Agriculture Minister and further gained the water resources portfolio in September 2015. He was then elected without opposition to the Nationals leadership when Warren Truss stepped aside in February 2016. However, a new cloud appeared on his horizon the following month when Tony Windsor announced he would seek to recover the seat he had relinquished at the 2013 election. Windsor came to politics from a background as a local farmer and economist, winning the state seat of Tamworth as an independent in 1991 after his failure to win Nationals preselection provoked a revolt among local party members. The result contributed to Nick Greiner’s Coalition government unexpectedly losing its majority, and gave Windsor an early taste of life in a hung parliament. Windsor was at first the most accommodating of the independents in shoring up Greiner’s position in parliament, but he would join the others in forcing Greiner’s resignation following an adverse ICAC finding in June 1992.
Windsor announced his intention to contest New England two months out from the 2001 federal election, at which he unseated Nationals incumbent Stuart St Clair by an 8.3% margin. Household name status awaited after the 2010 election left him and four other cross-benchers holding the parliamentary balance of power, and he joined with his fellow New South Wales regional independent, Lyne MP Rob Oakeshott, in decisively throwing his lot in with Labor. All subsequent indications were that both Windsor and Oakeshott had paid a high price for the decision among their conservative constituents, with polls suggesting both were headed for defeat, although by a narrower margin in Windsor’s case. On the day that Julia Gillard was deposed as Labor leader in June 2013, both Windsor and Oakeshott announced they would not seek re-election, with Windsor invoking health concerns. Since his departure from parliament, Windsor has kept his profile up by campaigning against the government’s decision to approve the $1.2 billion Shenhua Watermark coal mine near Gunnedah, which Joyce himself had characterised as “mad”.
Shortly after Windsor announced his planned comeback in March, a ReachTEL poll credited him with 32.2% of the primary vote compared to 39.5% for Joyce, suggesting Joyce would be at serious risk of losing the seat after distribution of Labor and Greens preferences.
A few days before the election was called, Mark Riley of Seven News reported that polling conducted for Liberal sources on April 29 credited Barnaby Joyce with a 53.1-46.9 two-candidate preferred lead over Tony Windsor.
Analysis by William Bowe. Read William’s blog, The Poll Bludger.