FORMER New England Independent MP Tony Windsor has left few of his old political adversaries standing in his recently released autobiography.
He saves two of his biggest literary serves for the federal National Party’s ongoing adherence to the Liberals and the National Farmers Federation’s inaction on climate change.
Windsor’s Way provides a historical overview of the cool-headed and no nonsense rural MP’s entry into NSW politics in 1991, from an agri-political grounding, and subsequent move to federal parliament in 2001.
He speaks openly of his intense passion for farming, but predictably most of the book is consumed by his final three-year term in Canberra - from 2010 to 2013 - when he controversially chose Labor over the Coalition to form a minority government.
It zooms in on the delicate 17-day post-election deliberation period involving senior figures in the two main federal parties and his fellow independent MPs Rob Oakeshott and Bob Katter.
Mr Windsor outlines the complex machinations which formed the $10 billion deal for regional Australia that the two independents eventually signed with Labor.
Mr Windsor consistently praises the effective personable leadership style and negotiation skills displayed by Julia Gillard, the woman he eventually anointed as Prime Minister.
But he shows little warmth towards current PM, the then opposition leader Tony Abbott, who he describes as being “more comfortable playing the man - an easy way to be negative”.
Mr Windsor also contrasts the thoughtful respect shown by Ms Gillard towards independent members and their role in parliament, before and after the 2010 election, against Mr Abbott’s brash style.
He said Mr Abbott’s “ad hoc and casual approach” to the hung parliament negotiations, “eventually led to panic”.
“He begged for the job during the latter stages of the process,” Mr Windsor writes.
“He would say: ‘I will do anything for this job, I will do anything. I will do anything but sell my arse’. I felt sorry for him. He was quite lost.”
As a reflection of their mutual respect, Ms Gillard wrote an opening to the book, calling it “the literary equivalent of spending a glorious, sunny afternoon chatting to Tony Windsor over a cup of tea or something stronger”.
“Tony is a wonderful Australian character and his common sense, decency and love of our nation, particularly the land that lies beyond the capital cities, shines through on every page,” she said.
Mr Windsor begins his literary journey by expressing his deep disgust at a discussion he held with his New England replacement and National Party deputy-leader Barnaby Joyce in his Tamworth electoral office, shortly after the 2013 election.
In that exchange, Mr Joyce reveals how millions of dollars in funding, earmarked for vital projects in the New England electorate, including the Armidale Hospital, was cancelled by Mr Abbott’s office after Mr Windsor decided to not contest his seat again at the 2013 election.
“I was outraged,” Mr Windsor writes.
“I sat there thinking this bloke is an idiot to tell me this.
“This is a classic example of why the Nats are a waste of space.
“When will country people wake up to these political frauds?”
But in his response to a letter from former Paul Keating speechwriter Don Watson, published in The Monthly, Mr Windsor praised the political stance adopted by former WA Nationals Leader Brendon Grylls.
He said Mr Grylls “got it right” when he considered working with both the Labor and Liberal parties before extracting the billion dollar Royalties for Regions Program after the 2008 WA election, “rather than taking the traditional National approach of just supporting one side and hence being taken for granted by both”.
“Hopefully a legacy of the Gillard hung parliament will be that country people learn to use their vote more strategically,” Mr Windsor wrote to Mr Watson.
“Too many people when it comes to election day look at the brand rather than the substance of the policy mix.
“The hung parliament’s policy mix was perhaps the most regionally orientated of any parliament in history, not only in a financial sense but also in terms of priorities.”
Mr Windsor also details his frustrations with the National Farmers' Federation during the Multi-Party Climate Change Committee process which underpinned formation of the carbon tax.
He accuses the NFF of being “blindsided by the politics” and not contributing to the process where billions of dollars in project funding was on offer, due to the peak farm lobby group’s disbelief of climate change.
“The Farmers’ Federation continues to be a useless organisation,” he said.
Mr Windsor also writes about the extreme difficulties with formulating and passing the Murray-Darling Basin Plan legislation in the last parliament due a climate of fear and angst about the federal government taking water away from irrigation communities, which he blames on Mr Joyce and other “political opportunists”.
“Barnaby Joyce was a classic vandal during the process, working on the modus operandi of telling the people what frightens them and gets the headline - retail politics Abbott calls it,” he said.
“The media print it and people believe it.
“If you are a farmer out there and you are on the edge and someone tells you that you are going to lose your water, it can push you too far.”
Selected extracts (by permission) from Windsor's Way:
Meeting with Barnaby Joyce in Tamworth electorate after the 2013 election (Page 3):
I raised the issue of the Armidale Hospital with Joyce, and whether he was on top of it. A twenty-first century hospital for a catchment of about eighty thousand people was needed and the long-term success of the medical school would depend on it. And then, without any shame, he said it.
‘You know, Tony, until you had decided not to run I had the money for the Armidale Hospital, as well as funding for the Legume to Woodenbong Road.’
I was outraged. I sat there thinking this bloke is an idiot to tell me this. This is a classic example of why the Nats are a waste of space. Here they are back in business but even before they are elected the first thing they do is take the electorate for granted by withdrawing funding from vital projects because they think they have the seat in the bag. He said the decision had come from Abbott’s office.
Everyone, other than four people, had thought I would contest the 2013 election. Barnaby’s leadership ambitions meant he wanted a lower house seat so he had decided on New England. And here was Barnaby, sitting there blithely telling me the consequences of that decision for the people of New England, as if in some way it was my fault for not standing.
‘When you were still the member and running,’ he said, ‘Abbott’s office said we could have a range of things, including $50 million for the hospital. But when you didn’t run they withdrew the money for the hospital and the road.’
My darkening mood mustn’t have registered with him because he then said, ‘You know the other day, when I was struggling with the flying college issue on ABC Radio and there was a possibility of it being removed from Tamworth, I rang Abbott’s office and said “the only thing I have going for me up here is the smile on my face. That was when they said I could have $5 million but that was it.”
Barnaby spent that money on the Armidale airport and additional money on Chaffey Dam. That this could happen infuriated me. This is exactly the reason why I have always argued for competition in these country seats. As soon as you remove any sense of challenge the major parties think, ‘talk the talk but don’t walk anywhere’. The fact that the bloke who could one day be the deputy prime minister sat there telling me why he couldn’t achieve an outcome for his electorate was extraordinary. It demonstrated the real problems ministers have in terms of their electorates. Instead of being more powerful as the mythology would have people believe, ‘being at the decision-making table’, they become more submissive and willing to give way on electorate matters at the behest of the prime minister of the day. Their electorates take one for the team.
I had difficulty working out why he was telling me this but on reflection I think it was in some way a genuine confession. I think he felt guilty and he wanted to talk about it. But that doesn’t absolve him from not being able to do anything to rectify the situation.
He couldn’t say publicly that Abbott took $50 million from the Armidale Hospital—that would be admitting that the target of the spending was to buy votes in a tight campaign and get rid of a political opponent, not funding infrastructure for New England. This is why political competition in the country areas is desperately needed.
For twenty-two years Independents had achieved real outcomes for the seat and Barnaby was sitting behind his new electoral desk saying that that was all gone now. With no competition there was nothing to get. For twenty-two years we had kept the focus on our region and country issues. After the 2013 election I was told ‘the Nationals had their seat back’ but all I heard was country people being taken for granted.
I had had twenty-two years in two parliaments, seven elections as an Independent, two balance of power situations, one in favour of Liberals, one Labor, and here was this guy regurgitating his guilt as though he was asking to be absolved of the burden of belonging to a major party. When will country people wake up to these political frauds?
National Farmers Federation and Carbon Tax negotiations (Page 136):
During the MPCCC process I also had two meetings with the National Farmers’ Federation and a couple of private meetings with President Jock Laurie. I had known Jock for years and he was a constituent of mine. On one occasion I explained that direct emissions from agriculture—emissions of animals, fugitive nitrogen from fertilisers, farm machinery— would be excluded and I asked for guidance as to the initiatives that they believed could assist the farming community. But its position was climate change didn’t exist so it didn’t want to be involved. I argued that some form of emissions reduction scheme was likely to happen and their organisation had an opportunity to be constructive in its establishment.
The only help I got was a piece of screwed-up paper handed to me on my way out by Andrew Broad, who represented Victoria on the Farmers’ Federation. It read, ‘Don’t let them impose the (tax) on long distance road transport.’ There were no other suggestions from the other delegates. His advice, though, reinforced the view I had already raised with the MPCCC. When the Treasury worked out the sums for the MPCCC the removal of transport fuel was costed at $2.5 billion. Andrew Broad contributed to the national debate but the Farmers’ Federation did nothing, even though their constituency were potentially the greatest victims of climate change. They were blindsided by the politics but Broad could see an opening. Broad went on to be the Nationals member for Mallee. The Farmers’ Federation continues to be a useless organisation.
Murray-Darling Basin Plan (Page 148):
The previous (MDBA) chair, Mike Taylor, experienced enormous difficulties at the start of the process by promoting a draft document that in effect conveyed a message that was interpreted by political opportunists, such as Barnaby Joyce and those opposed to any reform, as water entitlement holders having water taken from them by the government. No one had water taken away. But the Coalition jumped on that fear campaign by saying, ‘the government was going to take water off people’. That ignited the political process and created angst and real concern within the community.
The reality was that irrigators in catchments where the Basin Plan suggested there was overuse of water that would necessitate a reduced entitlement could avail themselves of water-use efficiency incentives or sell water to the Commonwealth in the market place via a voluntary ‘buyback’ scheme. The farming community, the irrigation community and political players had some years earlier argued quite strongly that there should be a market established for water so that it could be traded to highest-value use irrespective of whether that water would remain in the original area. So there was a degree of hypocrisy when some argued that because of the reforms water would be lost from those regions. Eventually the parliament endorsed a plan for the Murray–Darling system, which was remarkable given the confected division that originally fractured the catchment community. When it became law there were still people who disagreed but they could understand it and they knew no one was taking their water away, that they could sell it or they could become more efficient and be helped to be more so. If they wanted to be involved in group irrigation schemes, they could seek financial assistance; if they wanted to trade water from one catchment to another, they could if the water was physically deliverable.
Windsor’s Way by Tony Windsor. Published by Melbourne University Press, available now. RRP $32.99, eBook $14.99.