If there is one stand out politician in this Parliament, it has to be Tony Windsor.
A David in a Goliath’s game, Windsor has put his backside on the line and if he loses his seat, it will be a crying shame.
He’s a maverick. A farmer prepared to “die on the political altar” for climate change. A conservative who sided with Labor. A negotiator who talked former Liberal speaker Peter Slipper into resigning for the sake of the Parliament.Independent MP Tony Windsor – photo by Alan Pryke, The Australian
Like the late Peter Andren (and fellow independent Rob Oakeshott), he is proof that an effective independent can rise above the dark arts of party politics and achieve reform.
And yet common political wisdom says he will be banished at the next election for daring to side with Labor, against what commentators assume is the conservative wishes of his New England electorate.
Certainly, like most rural electorates, the people of New England are inherently conservative. But they are also independent enough to have wanted to secede from the state of NSW for most of 20th century. That dream was over, as Neil Finn would say, only when it was defeated in the 1967 referendum after two royal commissions.
So it is perhaps fitting that they would throw up an independent with a certain amount of good old-fashioned country bloody-mindedness like Windsor.
For someone who has been in state and federal Parliament for 22 years, very little is said about how he came to be holding the cards.
Windsor grew up on a farm and lost his father in a farming accident when he was just eight. He credited his mother for providing him with guidance and was inspired by her courage taking on the family farm.
“She has been a great strength in that as a child growing up there was never any demarcation of class in our family,” he said in his maiden speech.
“It was not really until I was at university that I came to the recognition that some people thought they were more important than others.
“I had a family background that did not pursue that in any way at all, and I hope that is reflected in the way in which I represent the electorate.”
In a tweed coat and a hat, he looks a hell of a lot like the Nationals who so despise him.
And that is probably because he was almost preselected by that party in 1991 until allegations of drink driving were raised.
Bugger that, he declared, ran as an independent and won the state seat of Tamworth.
It happened to be the same election that Liberal premier Nick Greiner lost his majority and Windsor became one of four independents to hold the balance of power.
That time, he kept the Coalition government in power.
But it was when he was presented with another hung Parliament in 2010 that things took a different turn.
Windsor said his controversial decision to sign an agreement with Julia Gillard was based on policy terms, such as the NBN, as well as a belief that Opposition Leader Tony Abbott “would have been hopeless in a hung Parliament” because negotiating was not part of his “natural style”.
Tony Windsor with Julia Gillard – photograph via news.com.au
He told Lateline this week that Gillard had done “an extraordinary job” in the hung Parliament, which required much more negotiating work behind the scenes than a majority Parliament.
Windsor has made no bones about his dislike of Tony Abbott. The independent alleged in Parliament that during 2010 private negotiations over forming government, Abbott joked “the only thing I wouldn’t do is sell my arse – but I’d have to give serious thought to it”.
And yet, he considered the Prime Minister’s recent speech to Women for Gillard “a bit constructed” even if he believes a lack of respect has developed for public office.
“We’ve got to respect people even if we mightn’t like them or we’d rather see someone else in their particular position. Democracy is something that’s very fragile.”
Windsor is facing a challenge from high profile National Party frontbencher Barnaby Joyce (pictured below), who hopes to make the leap from the Senate to the House of Representatives to fulfill future leadership ambitions.
Joyce has accused Windsor of picking up his voters on one philosophical bus and taking them to worship at another church.
Windsor countered: “If that’s the church that Barnaby wants to be in, I don’t want to go to that one because I think that’s last century’s church and the bricks and mortar are starting to get a bit weak.”
Asked if he is still a conservative, he maintains the only box he fits is the pragmatic one.
“What is a conservative these days? What is a liberal? What’s the difference?”
“I’d rather be in a parliament that’s trying to do something about long-term issues like the Murray-Darling, like NBN – incredible for this century.”
At the start of this hung Parliament, I wrote that country people appreciated independents who made a stand. Much of the dissatisfaction with the National Party lies in its refusal to make a stand on any issue against their senior Coalition partner.
Part of Joyce’s own appeal is that he is one of the few members who is prepared to stand apart from the Liberals on issues he believes in. His leap into New England is more evidence of this crazy brave approach.
New England may yet conjure up electoral torture on a religious scale for their longstanding MP for taking them to the wrong church.
But he can go to the stake with a clean conscience: he’s an honest broker whose dealings have restored the faith of many voters in the art of politics.
MORE ARTICLES BY GABRIELLE CHAN
*Gabrielle Chan is The Hoopla’s political correspondent. She is a journalist and author with more than 25 years experience, having worked most recently as a regular columnist with The Australian. She has previously worked for The Daily Telegraph, the ABC and the South China Morning Post. Gabrielle has written and edited Flickers of History, War On Our Doorstep and FEAST and is a member of the NSW Anzac Advisory Council. She blogs at www.gabriellechan.com and you can follow her on Twitter: @gabriellechan.