The 2016 federal election just got interesting for voters in the NSW rural seat of New England, where the new Nationals leader and deputy prime minister, Barnaby Joyce, is the local MP.
Joyce won the northern tablelands seat, based around the country music capital of Tamworth, at the 2013 election as independent MP Tony Windsor retired after 12 years.
This morning Windsor returned to Canberra to confirm he will stand at the upcoming election, which could be as soon as July 2, against Joyce.
His decision reignites a long-running political feud between the two men. Windsor famously backed Julia Gillard over Tony Abbott in the 2010 election, allowing Labor to form government. The 65-year-old stood down, citing health and family reasons, at the last election after more than 22 years in state and federal politics.
He started his political career as a Nationals candidate for the state seat of Tamworth, was disendorsed on the day of the preselection, but went on to win the seat as an independent. In 2001, he moved to federal politics and ended nearly 80 years of National Party rule in New England.
At the 2010 election, Windsor won nearly 62% of the primary vote with a two-party preferred vote of 71.5%.
Joyce was a senator in Queensland at the time and subsequently made the shift to the lower house as part of his recently achieved ambition to become the Nationals leader. He won the seat in 2013 with a 29% swing in the primary vote to 54.2% for the Nationals, finishing with a two-party preferred.
At this morning’s media conference announcing his intention to stand, Windsor he’d “feel bad if he didn’t do this”.
He cited mining on the Liverpool Plains, where the Chinese-owned company Shenhua Watermark wants to open a coal mine, and the use of groundwater by miners among his top concerns, along with the NBN, climate change and the Gonski education funding.
“Somebody’s got to stand up on these issues,” he said. “Barnaby Joyce is one of those people in this building not standing up for the future.”
Windsor said he wanted to give voters the chance to send a message to Canberra and “the political machines” about the current priorities.
“It’s not about sending Barnaby Joyce a message, it’s about winning the seat,” he said
“I’m fully aware it will be a David and Goliath event… and I’m looking forward to that.”
He dismissed suggestions that the seat was “conservative” saying “I know these people, very few are conservative in the sense of Abbott, Joyce and [Tasmanian senator Eric] Abetz.”
Barnaby Joyce pre-empted Windsor’s announcement with a media conference in Tamworth saying he relished the impending political fight.
“I’m ready to put my record on the line… I’ve been overwhelmed by the support I’ve got,” he said.
“We have the deputy prime minister’s office in New England, there’s a real strategic advantage to that.”
Windsor’s return to federal politics will nonetheless be a challenge for the Nationals leader, who holds the seat with a margin of around 19%. The Greens are also believed to be looking at running a high profile candidate. Mining on the Liverpool Plains, considered the state’s food bowl, is a heated and long-running issue in the electorate.
Polling in New England by the CFMEU suggested Windsor could garner around 38% of the primary vote, turning New England into a tight race, especially as the previously outspoken Joyce is expected to campaign as Nationals leader and stay in alignment with Coalition policy
But regional NSW has been volatile ground for the Nationals over the past quarter century, ever since Nationals leader Charles Blunt lost his far north coast seat of Richmond in 1990 following a scandal over postal allowances. A number of previously safe seats for the Nationals have been marginal ever since, often changing hands with a change of government.
This week, speculation has grown that Malcolm Turnbull will bring the federal Budget forward and announce an early election, as the gloss on the recently installed PM begins to wear off and the gap between Coalition and Labor under Bill Shorten continues to narrow in the polls.