New England is a naturally safe conservative seat in north-eastern New South Wales that nonetheless looms as one of the most interesting contests of the election, as Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce takes on the seat’s former independent member of 12 years, Tony Windsor. The electorate lies to the interior of the coastal electorates of Page, Cowper and Lyne, covering a 400 kilometre stretch of rural territory from north to south that encompasses the population centres of Armidale, Tamworth, Inverell and Glen Innes. It has existed since federation and changed remarkably little over that time, at all times accommodating Armidale and Tamworth and losing Glen Innes only between 1934 and 1949. The latest redistribution has transferred the Shire of Gunnedah and its 8700 voters to Parkes in the west, while adding the Shire of Hunter to the southern end of the electorate, home to 9500 voters formerly in Hunter, and a thinly populated area in the southern half of the Shire of Gwydir, adding 2000 voters from Parkes.
Barnaby Joyce was first elected to parliament as a Senator for Queensland in 2004, and quickly became the Nationals’ most 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 portfolios in the shadow ministry from December 2012 until the September 2013 election victory. Joyce had been open in his desire to move to the lower house, but his designs on the rural Queensland seat of Maranoa were thwarted by the determination of the sitting member, Bruce Scott, to seek another term at the 2013 election. His second favoured option was across the state border in New England, as he was born in Tamworth, raised in Woolbrook and moved back in forth in his adult life between the electorate and Queensland. However, the seat was at that time held by Tony Windsor, and the party’s favoured plan for recovering it was to enlist the services of Richard Torbay, who had held the Armidale-based seat of Northern Tablelands in the state parliament since 1999. Torbay agreed to do so in mid-2012, when the party granted 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 ahead of his 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 raised the following week by the Independent Commission Against Corruption. Joyce was quick to reiterate his interest in the seat, despite a degree of disquiet towards him in the local party that had earlier seen his opponents sound out the party’s state leader, Andrew Stoner, with a view to running against Windsor and assuming the federal party leadership in Joyce’s stead. In the event, Joyce did not face serious opposition in the local preselection, and went on to serve as Agriculture Minister with the election of the Abbott government, further gain the water resources portfolio in September 2015, and finally became Nationals leader and Deputy Prime Minister after Warren Truss stepped aside in February 2016, having been elected unopposed.
A new cloud appeared on Joyce’s horizon in March 2016, 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 unsuccessfully seeking preselection to succeed a retiring Nationals member. Windsor benefited from a revolt of local party members after receiving the support of seven out of nine local party branches, and he went on to defeat the Nationals candidate by 9.8% after preferences, and effortlessly win re-election in 1995 and 1999. Windsor’s first victory gave him an early taste of life as an independent in a hung parliament, Nick Greiner’s Coalition government having lost its majority at the election. 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, and duly prevailed by an 8.3% margin over Nationals incumbent Stuart St Clair. His testy relationship with the Nationals worsened in the lead-up to the 2004 election when he claimed he had been offered a sinecure if he agreed to quit politics, telling parliament a few months later that the offer was communicated to him by a Tamworth businessman acting at the behest of John Anderson and Nationals Senator Sandy Macdonald. This was denied by all concerned, including the businessman. Household name status awaited Windsor after the 2010 election left him and four other cross-benchers holding the parliamentary balance of power, and he together with the other New South Wales regional independent, Lyne MP Rob Oakeshott, threw their lot in with Labor, despite the conservative complexion of their electorates. All subsequent indications were that both Windsor and Oakeshott had paid a high political price for their decision, with polls suggesting he was headed for defeat. 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.
Windsor returned to the spotlight in July 2015 when he campaigned against the government’s decision to approve the $1.2 billion Shenhua Watermark coal mine near Gunnedah, which Joyce himself had characterised as “mad”. His announcement that he would run against Joyce came shortly after a ReachTEL opinion poll found he would attract 32.2% of the primary vote compared with 39.5% for Joyce, suggesting Joyce would be at serious risk of losing the seat after distribution of Labor and Greens preferences.