More than any others, independents Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor hold the fate of the Gillard government and its legislative agenda in their hands. And more than anywhere else, their regional electorates have been the key beneficiaries of the minority government.
The deal to back Labor in the minority government delivered serious “regional development” funding, including to their electorates. Labor’s NBN, which includes satellite broadband access for rural and remote users, was a key factor in supporting Gillard. Windsor’s electorate of New England, which includes the University of New England at Armidale, was the first mainland NBN test site.
And Oakeshott and Windsor have continued to use their bargaining power to secure more from Labor. To back the mining tax, Windsor and Oakeshott secured $150 million for a new development approval process for coal seam gas development.
It’s all in the big-spending tradition of the Country/National Party.
Because, to understand how Oakeshott and Windsor work, you need to understand the Nationals. Or more precisely, what’s happened to the Nationals in the last 35 years, since the National Country Party won 11.3% of the House of Reps vote in 1975. In 2010, outside Queensland, the Nats won only 3.7%.
It is the two independents’ Nationals background that, oddly, explains their decision to back Labor after the 2010 election. “This isn’t about philosophy, philosophy in terms of both these parties died about a decade ago,” Windsor said when declaring his support for the Gillard government. “It’s about using the political system to advance the people we represent and those people in regional Australia.”
Neither Oakeshott or Windsor were ever a senior figure in the National Party (their fellow independent, Bob Katter, was a Bjelke-Petersen era Queensland minister). But Oakeshott was once one of the bright hopes of the NSW Nationals. A staffer to Mark Vaile, he was elected to the state seat of Port Macquarie in 1995 and spent six years becoming disillusioned with how conservative and racist the NSW Nationals were, before jumping ship and keeping his seat as an independent. Bob Carr’s Labor was rampant at the time and Carr encouraged him, showering funding on Port Macquarie as a reward for his independence.
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In the 2007 state election, Oakeshott racked up 66% of the primary vote. He easily won Lyne the following year.
Tony Windsor’s journey from the Nats was nothing to do with ideology. He lost preselection for Tamworth on the eve of the 1991 state election but stood anyway, and won. That was the election in which Bob Carr’s Labor opposition drove Nick Greiner into minority government and set the stage for Windsor, Clover Moore and John Hatton to initially support, and then overthrow Greiner in controversial circumstances in 1992. That was Windsor’s first experience of minority government.
Since he switched to New England in 2001, Windsor has lifted his margin at every election, from 58% in 2001 to 67% in 2010.
The contrast between the remorseless rise in the votes of Windsor and Oakeshott, and the slow decline of the Nationals, says much about the current state of the notional party of the bush. Both men hold seats once held by Nationals leaders.
And both men have become increasingly hostile to Tony Abbott over the course of the Parliament. Like Bob Katter and Andrew Wilkie, they have made clear they’d far prefer to deal with Malcolm Turnbull as Opposition Leader and potential Prime Minister. Windsor claimed last year that Abbott had joked about even ‘selling his arse’ to be Prime Minister in 2010 – a charge the Opposition Leader denies.
But it is their support for the carbon pricing package, which Windsor helped to design, that has wedded them most closely to Labor – and could prove their undoing.
There are now regular claims from the Nationals that supporting Labor has made Windsor vulnerable, but the truth of that is to be found in Barnaby Joyce declaring he wants to run for a lower house seat in Queensland, rather than against Windsor. Instead, National Farmers’ Federation Jock Laurie is now being mooted to try to seize back what is National Party heartland.
Rob Oakeshott, however, is likely to struggle at the next election. The Nationals are confident of finally being able to remove the man who has been a thorn in their side for over a decade.