NEW England’s by-election was going to be the rural political equivalent of the famous Rumble in the Jungle world heavy-weight title boxing match held in the African Congo Republic more than 40-years ago.
But now it’s set to fall well-short of a dull roar - more like a Squeak in the Forest - without a major challenger on the canvass to antagonise and threaten the title-holder and only a field of virtual no-name amateurs from minor leagues, turning out to take a wild swing in hope.
Barnaby Joyce’s New England by-election is set to be held on December 2 following his disqualification from federal parliament last week.
It was shaping-up as one of the most bitter and heated political contests in decades between two experienced, prized fighters, aching to thump each other into yesterday.
But Mr Joyce’s arch nemesis Tony Windsor has indicated he won’t contest the fight, to try to reclaim his former rural NSW electorate; despite raising his fists at the Nationals leader via social media, with regular ferocity.
Mr Windsor’s stirring-up of his 33,500 followers on Twitter has been akin to Congolese audience members repeatedly chanting ‘Ali Bomaye’ - meaning ‘Ali, kill him’ - in their native language, passionately supporting Muhammad Ali during and leading into the 1974 fight between he and George Foreman in Zaire.
Some say his Twitter-antics however largely fall deaf on the ears of New England voters, and only appeal in any great depth to inner-city constituents with an axe to grind on climate change or other left-leaning political ideologies.
But the one-time independent king-maker for the Gillard government - who held the seat for over a decade before stepping down in 2013 when voters would have held him accountable for that controversial decision in the hung parliament - said last week, after the High Court’s citizenship ruling which sent Mr Joyce to a by-election, that he didn’t want to put his wife through another election campaign.
“I actually love elections - but my wife doesn't - and she had a pretty rough time last time with the tactics and strategies that were used, not only against me…but also against the families," he said.
In the wake of Mr Windsor’s withdrawal, other political forces with strong claims to win seats and challenge a reigning champion like Mr Joyce - the Deputy Prime Minister and Agriculture and Water Resources Minister - have also pulled out.
One Nation and the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party - who’ve given the Nationals headaches and blood noses at recent by-elections in NSW - have indicated they’re unwilling to contest New England, fearing they’ll struggle to land any blows.
The likely hefty cost of political campaigning, to employ advertising and other standard items like bill-boards or paying staff, is also likely to subdue any challenge by core rivals Labor and the Greens to run against a highly fancied incumbent.
Internal polling by the Nationals indicates Mr Joyce is likely to win his seat comfortably; with our without Mr Windsor sparring against him.
CountryMinded founder and local farmer Peter Mailler said his fledgling party was considering running a candidate – but the cost was a “challenge” and Mr Joyce had a “natural and unassailable advantage”.
“It has become a circus now and the fact is Barnaby Joyce is out of parliament now and he isn’t a minister so it makes things very difficult for everyone else who have things to do outside of campaigning,” he said.
“He has nothing else to do but campaign and he can just turn up at every cattle sale – but there should be a contest because we need a credible alternative, which is what CountryMinded was set-up to do.”
Local farmer Rod Taber has announced he’d run again, as an independent.
Chair of the Nationals’ New England electorate council Russell Webb said despite Mr Windsor and others indicating they won’t be nominating after the High Court’s decision last week to disqualify Mr Joyce from parliament due to dual NZ citizenship, those positions wouldn’t materialise formally, until after the nomination deadline passed next week.
“All people have up until November 9 to lodge an application to be a candidate in this by-election and until that date comes and goes, we won’t really know who is or isn’t going to stand,” he said.
“While some are saying they’re not going to nominate, potentially they could, if they change their minds between now and then.”
Mr Webb said he didn’t know of any high profile or shock candidates with the potential to cause an upset but stressed, “We’ve got to be prepared for everything”.
He said there was a lot of “hype” and speculation that former WA MP Ian Britza – who is 63 years-old and lost his metropolitan seat after eight years but has never lived in New England – would nominate but nothing is confirmed.
“We’ll just deal with the cards that are dealt,” Mr Webb said.
“The organisation is in good shape and is well disciplined and we’ll work hard to get the best outcome.
“We’ll wait until November 9 and then we’ll know who we are facing and who we won’t be facing, at the by-election.
“Tony Windsor could still nominate and there’s nothing to say that he can’t but I don’t think he will and I think he’d look foolish if he did now - but you just never know with him.”
Mr Webb said a campaign team for New England was also being assembled headed-up by Nationals federal director Ben Hindmarsh and NSW Nationals political communications and campaigning expert Ross Cadell.
“They’re working very hard to try and develop strategies that suit what our candidate Barnaby Joyce wants,” he said.
“This is a local campaign and we’re fighting it on local issues and that’s the way Barnaby certainly wants it to be run, as well as highlighting some of his other political wins in Canberra.
“Many of the local issues he’s talking about are things that he said he’d do at the last federal election and he’s been steadily delivering on those promises.
“And the promises he made, if they haven’t been delivered already, are in the pipeline.”
Mr Webb said decentralising the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines from Canberra to Armidale and setting up the Regional Investment Corporation were two such core election promises made by Mr Joyce.
He said mobile phone towers to address communication black spots and digital connectivity, funding for road works and bridges and the $8.4 billion for the inland rail project were also priorities for New England voters.
“There are many things Barnaby said he’d do at the last election and he’s delivered on most of them and the others are in the pipeline, so he’s in a good position,” he said.
Mr Webb said the mood around the New England region on the citizenship drama that’s struck the Nationals and Mr Joyce was that it was “absolute BS”.
“People feel we need to get over it and get on with it and get Barnaby back to where he needs to be,” he said.
“People are saying they’re ‘over it’, they voted for him last time and they’ll vote for him again this time, so we can just get on with governing this country and making it a better place to live in.
“Our attitude now is we have to work very hard to make sure he does win the seat.
“And not withstanding who says they’re going to run or not going to run, you still have to run this as a full campaign and work very hard with your candidate and Barnaby’s working extremely hard to ensure that he can retain the seat.”
Mr Joyce said “this is one of those campaigns where people ask 'what have the Nats done?’ and you sit down, make a cup of tea, roll a smoke and start talking for half an hour”.
He said issues like funding for major roads and infrastructure remained important to New England voters and enhancing farm-gate returns, through ongoing work expanding trade and building on existing Free Trade Agreements or tax incentives for farmers.
“I’ve never taken anything for granted and have always been ready to go,” he said.