In the first of what will perhaps be a series of by-elections arising from the Section 44 imbroglio, Barnaby Joyce seeks forgiveness from the voters of New England who are being forced back to the polling booths to account for his own sloppiness. Joyce's status as a dual citizen by descent through his New Zealand-born father was unearthed by Fairfax Media in August, although Foreign Minister Julie Bishop notably preferred to emphasise the minor role played by an errant Labour MP in New Zealand. He was the only lower house member out of the citizenship seven whose cases were adjudicated by the High Court on October 27, and was one of five whose claims the court found wanting.
The government acted immediately after the High Court ruling in having the writs issued for a December 2 by-election, with the electoral roll closing one week later and nominations closing another week after that. The by-election has nonetheless drawn a large field, with a Labor candidate among the mix despite the party's historic lack of competitiveness. However, none has disturbed the prevailing view that Joyce will win easily, with reports circulating of party polling showing his primary vote well above 50%.
New England encompasses a 400 kilometre stretch of north-eastern New South Wales including Armidale, Tamworth, Inverell and Glen Innes, directly inland of the coastal electorates of Page, Cowper and Lyne. It has changed remarkably little since its creation at federation, having contained Armidale and Tamworth at all times, and Glen Innes for all but the period between 1934 and 1949.
The National/Country Party long dominated New England from the time of the party's foundation in 1920. It was held from 1963 to 1998 by Ian Sinclair, the party's leader from 1963 to 1998. Sinclair was succeeded for a term by Stuart St Clair, before the party's grip on the seat was finally loosed by Tony Windsor. Windsor had held the state seat of Tamworth as an independence since 1991, when his failure to win Nationals preselection provoked a revolt among local party members.
Windsor attained household name status when the 2010 election result left him on a cross-bench of five members in the first hung parliament since the Second World War. His decision to back Labor in goverment, together with fellow regional independent Rob Oakeshott in Lyne, was unpopular his mostly conservative constituents, and polling showed him to be headed for defeat, albeit by a narrower margin than Oakeshott. On the day 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.
Meanwhile, Barnaby Joyce secured the Nationals preselection after nine years as a Senator for Queensland, having been thwarted in his designs on the lower house berth in the Queensland seat of Maranoa. New England was another favoured option as he was born in Tamworth and raised in Woolbrook, and had moved back and forth across the state border through his adult life. However, the Nationals already had plans for New England centred on a new recruit: Richard Torbay, independent member for the Armidale-based state seat of Northern Tablelands.
Joyce's opportunity came in March 2013, when it emerged Torbay had received campaigning assistance in 1999 from embattled Labor operative Eddie Obeid. In short order, Torbay withdrew as candidate in New England, resigned his seat in the state parliament, and had his home raided by the Independent Commission Against Corruption. Joyce's move on the vacancy encountered some resistance from local Nationals, who reportedly sounded out state leader Andrew Stoner to forestall Joyce's claims on both New England and the leadership succession. However, Joyce ended up winning the preselection ballot without serious opposition.
Joyce's path to the lower house was then smoothed by Windsor's announcement that he would not seek re-election, and he duly dominated the 2013 election with a 54.2% primary vote. Tony Windsor's comeback attempt in 2016 failed to live up to some of the pre-election publicity, with Joyce outpolling him 52.3% to 29.2% on the primary vote.
Barnaby Joyce (left) was first elected as a Nationals Senator for Queensland in 2004, and quickly emerged as the party's most visible figure. Despite a penchant for crossing the floor, he became leader of the Nationals in the Senate in September 2008, although he had to wait until Tony Abbott's leadership coup in December 2009 before winning promotion to shadow cabinet. Joyce became Agriculture Minister with the election of the Abbott government, a portfolio which expanded to include water resources in September 2015. When Warren Truss stepped aside in February 2016, Joyce was elected unopposed to the Nationals leadership, and thus to the deputy prime ministership.
Despite the tight election timetable, the by-election has attracted a hefty 17 candidates, at least five above the recent federal by-election norm. But perhaps more notable are the omissions: Tony Windsor promptly announced he would not be running; One Nation is opting to focus their energy on Queensland; and Shooters Fishers and Farmers said they would only run if they found a sufficiently strong candidate, which evidently didn't happen.
Labor's candidate is David Ewings (centre), a Defence Department contractor who served in the RAAF for seven years, and polled 7.0% as Labor's candidate in 2016. Armidale businessman Rob Taber (right) is again running as an independent, having polled 13.8% to run second in 2013, but only 2.8% in the face of competition from Windsor in 2016. Australian Country Party candidate Ian Britza is a former Liberal state MP from Western Australia, where he held the seat of Morley from 2008 to 2017.