New England was created at federation and has changed remarkably little since, at all times accommodating Armidale and Tamworth and losing Glen Innes only between 1934 and 1949. Currently the electorate sits inland of the north coast seats of Richmond, Cowper and Lyne, extending southwards from the local government areas of Tenterfield and Inverell on the Queensland border through Glen Innes and Armidale to Tamworth, Gunnedah and Walcha.
Tony Windsor has been the seat’s independent member since 2001, when he ended an uninterrupted run of National/Country Party control going back to 1922. Windsor came to politics from a background as a local farmer and economist, winning the state seat of Tamworth as an independent in 1991 after unsuccessfully seeking preselection to succeed a retiring Nationals member. Windsor had received the support of seven out of nine local party branches, and his defeat prompted a revolt among local members of the Nationals as well as the Liberal Party, which did not field a candidate at the election. He went on to win election with 36.2% of the primary vote to 31.9% for the Nationals candidate, prevailing by 9.8% after preferences.
Windsor’s victory gave him an early taste of life as an independent in a hung Parliament, Nick Greiner’s Coalition government having lost its majority at the election. Windsor polled 82.2% of the primary vote in the absence of Nationals or Liberal candidates in 1995, which came down to 69.4% when the Nationals fielded a candidate in 1999.
Windsor announced his intention to contest New England two months out from the 2001 federal election, having also floated the idea of running against then Nationals leader John Anderson in the neighbouring seat of Gwydir. He duly recorded 45.0% of the primary vote against 38.9% for Nationals incumbent Stuart St Clair, who had come to the seat in 1998 in succession to retiring former party leader Ian Sinclair, and prevailed by 8.3% after preferences. Windsor’s primary vote would swell to 57.3% in 2004 and to 61.9% at consecutive elections in 2007 and 2010.
Windsor’s testy relationship with the Nationals worsened in the lead-up to the 2004 election, when he claimed he had been offered a sinecure if he agreed to quit politics, telling Parliament a few months later that the offer was communicated to him by a Tamworth businessman on behalf of rival politicians. This was denied by all concerned, including the businessman.
Household name status awaited Windsor after the 2010 election left him and four other cross-benchers holding the balance of power. With independent Andrew Wilkie and Adam Bandt of the Greens declaring early for Labor, Prime Minister Julia Gillard needed the support of two of the three remaining independents to achieve a majority. Each represented electorates that were rural and broadly conservative, especially in Windsor’s case. It was thus an especially bold move on Windsor’s part to join with Lyne MP Rob Oakeshott in throwing their lot in with Labor.
All indications since have been that Windsor and Oakeshott have paid a high political price for their decision, in contrast to Kennedy MP Bob Katter, who cagily declared for the Coalition as the Windsor-Oakeshott deal made his vote redundant. A Newspoll survey of 500 voters in October 2011 had Windsor trailing the Nationals 41% to 33% on the primary vote and 53-47 on respondent-allocated preferences. In June 2012, at which time it was anticipated Richard Torbay would be the Nationals candidate, a ReachTEL poll of 532 respondents 532 respondents gave Torbay a primary vote lead of 62% to 25%.