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Blasting Tony Windsor out of New England


'Blasting Tony Windsor out of New England' by Chris Johnston

The Nationals have made their first big play for the next federal election. The Torbay Affair is either a masterstroke or a revealing insight into their problems and weaknesses as a regional and rural political party.

Richard Torbay, former Speaker of the NSW Parliament and the Independent member for the NSW state seat of Northern Tablelands for 13 years, has been offered pre-selection by the local Nationals to stand against the Independent federal member for New England, Tony Windsor. He has the support of federal leader Warren Truss.

Torbay is a capable, experienced person. That is not at issue. In fact he was apparently once seen as capable enough by some Labor powerbrokers to replace Nathan Rees as NSW Premier.

At one level the move can be seen as ensuring that the so-called renegade Windsor is consigned to oblivion.  The Coalition would be immensely satisfied because Windsor chose to support Labor after the 2010 election. Torbay is very popular and Northern Tablelands, based on the university city of Armidale, overlaps New England. The Nationals have done their local polling, according to Senator Barnaby Joyce, and are more confident that Torbay will beat Windsor than any other possible Nationals candidate, including Joyce himself.

Windsor may fear his erstwhile Independent ally Torbay, but would still be gratified that the Nationals are pulling out all stops to unseat him. Despite the Coalition’s  current popularity and its relentless campaign against Windsor they think he still has to be winkled out of his seat by a celebrity opponent.

The Nationals couldn’t produce a likely candidate from within its own ranks, a sign of its organisational and philosophical weakness.

So desperate were the Nationals to attract Torbay to defeat Windsor that the new recruit was able to insist on his own special conditions. He retains the freedom to speak out for his local electorate as he has done as an Independent. The Nationals are still not trusted to do so. Torbay knows this and has campaigned against the Nationals for more than a decade on just this basis. The Nationals at federal and state level are perceived by many country voters as mere junior coalition partners, submerged in and taken for granted by city-based Coalition governments and their pro-market ideologies.

He also implicitly accepts that Windsor’s role in the minority government has directed profitable attention to the electorate. Torbay says that “It’s very important to me that this area does not become very important in this hung parliament and then is forgotten after, or even punished.”

Remarkably Truss claims that he has even has no problem with Torbay crossing the floor. Earlier Torbay remarked that his arrangement with Truss would allow him not only to speak out on matters of local concern but, when necessary, vote against party policy. This deal is fraught with dangers for the Nationals unless it is mere verbiage.

The broader context is the Nationals’ troubles in maintaining the loyalty of the bush, which preceded the rise of Pauline Hanson and One Nation in the 1990s. The performance of another rural Independent Bob Katter’s  Australian Party at the recent Queensland state elections is a current indication.

The Nationals have an opportunity to consolidate at the 2013 federal elections. They will pick up seats if the Coalition wins easily, including the coastal NSW seat of Lyne where they have preselected a local doctor to defeat the other rural Independent Rob Oakeshott. But overall they lack the organisational discipline and coherence to rebuild from the ground up.

Joyce, raised on the local family farm and educated at the University of New England, has been openly interested in Nationals pre-selection for New England but has missed out.  Not only are the Nationals a divided party but Joyce, its Senate leader and putative parliamentary leader if only he can get himself into the House of Representatives, cannot be especially popular among his own party members.

The Nationals’ logic is flawed. Long-term Independents like Torbay rarely settle into a party. It risks stirring up their existing internal instability. They have betrayed their inner doubts and revealed their utter determination to stamp out Windsor and his Independent ilk come what may.

John WarhurstJohn Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University and a Canberra Times columnist. He was Professor of Politics at the University of New England from 1985 to 1993.

Topic tags: John Warhurst, Tony Windsor, Nationals, Richard Torbay, New England, Federal Politics



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Existing comments

And who will replace Torbay in the NSW parliament? Another National hack? Seem to me that the only people who are going to lose out here are the New England/Tablelands electors who, whatever the outcome of the federal election, will lose one of their two very competent and capable independents.

Ginger Meggs | 02 July 2012  

It's not that unusual for coalition members to cross the floor, Mal Washer and maybe some others were prepared to do so a few days ago. Wilson Tuckey did so four times, Peter Rae 21 times, Reg Wright (Lib, TAS) did it 150 times Ian Wood (Lib, Qld) 130, Neville Bonner (Lib, Qld, Aboriginal) 34 and Flo Bjelke-Petersen (Nat, Qld) 18 did so too. From 1950 – August 2004 there were 439 crossings, only 28 by Labor. Another name, Phillip Ruddock. ALP's George Georges (in 86) & Graeme Campbell (88) did and were suspended.

Santa | 03 July 2012  

It wasn't that long ago that predictions were made that the Nationals were 'finished' as a political party. Tony Abbott likes to chastise Julia Gillard's deal with the Independents but will accept any behaviour from his National Party cohorts if it leads to power for his party. No doubt every pressure (subtle and overt) will be put on Torbay to 'toe the party line'.

Pam | 04 July 2012  

This article and the few comments I have read seem to me to be very critical of the National party, but forgetful of how Labor has hastened 'celebrity' names' to boost their chances of winning seats in an election. Names like Peter Garrett, Cheryl Kernot, Maxine McKew etc..

The National Party is far superior to the present terrible government which is led by one of the most woeful and incompetent, feckless prime ministers in Australian history.

But some people are welded to the name "Labor" and refuse to see the faults of this present Labor government and they hasten to besmirch anyone else's efforts to put up a better candidate than those presently in the Labor Party and the so called independents who continue, even at this present time, to back the Labor government (which is in total disarray) no matter what.

Trent | 04 July 2012  

Torbay cannot win the seat as an Independent, an outcome that would be no different from retaining Tony Windsor so he has instead traded Political integrity for the forty pieces of silver.

Terry Flanagan | 04 July 2012  

Trent, Your response is very one eyed. While Julia may seem a bit weak it is very hard in minority government ,in practice Australia is very well off in terms of stability and life style compared to the rest of the Western world at present. Had we "gone down the gurgler" in 2008 then you may have something to be critical about.The raw facts are we didn't and to a large extent it was government policy and cool heads under KR that saved us. I spent some time in the New England at Uni and the locals up there are no mugs. They will see through Torbay for the hollow man he is. Windsor remains extremely popular and well respected.I am sick of hearing from whingers.Talk to people in the UK. They are doing it tough!

Gavin | 04 July 2012  

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