New England
Adam Blakester, independent for New England (Image: Erin Handley)

On a bridge that rolls the Sydney train into Tamworth, above the main street, three dead, gutted fish hang by a string. Next to the rotting flesh is an election poster for incumbent Barnaby Joyce with black dollar signs spray-painted over his eyes and a sign reading “the smell of corrupt politicians”.

In Saturday’s upcoming election, Joyce is widely expected to stroll to victory. But there’s a new independent candidate in New England — one who local papers say is shaping this poll into a “two-horse race”. Who is Adam Blakester, and does he have a chance at wresting away Joyce’s safe seat? 

Is the New England ready for a new independent?

The New England electorate starts north of Hunter Valley’s coalmines and stretches up to the Queensland border. Historically, it’s been staunch in asserting its independence — New England once wanted to secede from NSW and for a time was represented by independents at both the state and federal levels. It’s dominated by Tamworth, with its sweltering country music festival, and Armidale, with its cooler climate and university. On the road connecting them there are just two election signs nailed to trees — Blakester’s and Joyce’s.

A rural sustainability strategist and businessman, Adam Blakester, 48, is instantly recognisable with his shock of white hair. His hand is cold as he shakes mine — he’s been talking to voters pre-polling on the streets of Armidale, which saw a cold snap over the weekend.

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At the Armidale Bowling Club over mugs of coffee, he says he always intended to enter politics, but this venture is 10 years earlier than planned. Due to what he describes as Joyce’s “litany of failures”, the time was ripe to mount a challenge.

“The ‘why now’ is because it’s so bloody bad,” Blakester said.

“I think our democracy is broken, fundamentally. I think it needs an upgrade — the dysfunction and toxicity of the parliament, the politics, are overwhelmingly working for big business, big mining, certain sections of the media, and not us.”

Joyce’s fall from grace

Joyce enjoyed a sizeable swing at the last byelection, sparked by the foreign citizenship debacle. But since then, the political sands have shifted significantly, after Joyce’s affair with his former staffer and a sexual harassment complaint were made public.

Joyce is no longer the deputy prime minister, no longer the agriculture or water minister, and no longer the leader of the Nationals. It’s a very real possibility that the Coalition will lose government.

But many say Joyce is the best representative for the area, pointing to local projects like funding for road upgrades. They see his failures but think all politicians are corrupt in some way. He’s often affectionately called “Barney” on the streets of Tamworth.

For his part, Joyce says he’s put in the work in and he expects a “strong vote” come election day. “Obviously in any campaign you meet people who like you and you meet people who dislike you, that is democracy,” he said in an email. “But whether they like me or not they believe I have worked hard for them.”

Yet there are rumblings that this poll could be closer than it appears on the surface. A (small and imperfect) exit poll from a local “meet the candidates” event in Tamworth put Joyce ahead on 46%, with Blakester following on 43%. A similar forum in Armidale was far more favourable to the independent, giving Blakester more than 97 of 153 votes, while Joyce took just 31. Those polls, small samples cast by the politically-invested, hardly represent the broader voting trends of the electorate, but they nonetheless give pause.

Rotting fish near Tamworth Station (Image: Erin Handley)

What’s in a name

In a community where it’s not uncommon for locals to start tracing back your relatives through your surname, Blakester is unique. His surname is a blend of his original name (Foster) and that of his former wife (Blakeney). Along with their teenage daughter, they’re the only three people with the name.

At this point in the election, name recognition is his biggest challenge. He said community members might well be aware of one of his local projects, but they won’t know who he is.

“I’m as uncomfortable as all get out that it’s my face and my name,” he said. He says he’s no “rock star”.

Ego, the cult of personality politics and the rise of populism is something he’s trying to shun. When he talks about his candidacy, he says “we”, not “I”.

His work has spanned Indigenous issues, the disability sector and the environment. His key strengths, he said, are in good governance, strategising, collaboration and facilitation. He wants to see more “direct democracy”, like a nation-wide poll on climate change.

“One of the policies we’re advocating is a plebiscite for national legislation to achieve the Paris 1.5 degree target,” he said.

Blakester was born in Sydney but highlights his local credentials as a “fifth generation New Englander”, with his parents hailing from Gunnedah and Werris Creek. He studied accounting and law at UNSW before becoming a financial director at Greenpeace. He went on to be the CEO at NAPCAN, a peak child abuse prevention body.

Blakester relocated to the New England area thirteen years ago, where he began Starfish — a charity with a focus on sustainability and working with rural communities to establish renewable energy projects. He now resides outside Uralla, in a mudbrick home on eight acres of bush and wetland.

Windsor’s tick of approval

Blakester describes his scramble for recognition ahead of election day as a game of snakes and ladders. One of the biggest “ladders” of his campaign was Tony Windsor’s public endorsement.

Windsor’s endorsement was gladly accepted, but Blakester’s campaign didn’t make a big show of it, fearing a symbolic handing over the baton might not be politically expedient given Windsor’s controversial local reputation.

Windsor says Blakester would be a natural fit for the local representative aspect of the job. “He’s not doing it for himself,” Windsor said, speaking over the thrum of his tractor on his Werris Creek property.

“A lot of people think politics … is a lot of theatre and legislating, but the big part — and this is where Joyce fails miserably — the big part is actually representing our people in the electorate.

“My personal view is the bloke we’ve got representing us is a fool.”

Windsor says this election is one he just can’t pick.

“The old rules aren’t there any more. These massive swings can occur,” he said. “The big unknown, in Joyce’s position, is what do the women think?”

Water woes

Aside from women, water is key to the New England vote. The tomato-growing town of Guyra, right in the centre of this electorate, has less than 100 days of water left. Without water, local jobs are at risk.

Chaffey Dam, which supplies Tamworth’s drinking water, is at 25% (down from 100% in October 2016). As of December last year, nearby Keepit Dam had dropped from 99% to .045%.

The Murray Darling fish kill, the Watergate scandal, the drought — all could play a part in sinking Joyce. But as one conservative voter pointed out, Joyce’s infamous “Labor Labor Labor Labor Labor Labor” interview, where he deflected questions on the $80 million water buybacks, could have played well in the electorate, where the Labor party is roundly despised and has never been able to gain a foothold.

The upcoming election has been described as the “climate change election”, and a recent Lowy Institute poll found almost two thirds of adults regard it as the most serious threat to Australia’s interests.

Joyce maintains electricity prices are more pressing for the average voter.

“The climate is changing but Canberra can’t change the climate,” Joyce said. “The people who feel least represented in this election are those who cannot afford their power bill. The child who comes home to a house without power and a hot meal on the table is the issue that brings silence to the crowd, not climate change.”

Blakester said water is one factor that could prompt a redesign of democracy. He said Joyce and others failed to acknowledge the human impact on the changing climate.

“The cheapest forms of new power now are renewables with storage, not coal or gas, so Barnaby has been out of step on that for years now,” he said.

Defying gravity

On the drive back from Armidale to Tamworth, motorists pass by the Moonbi ranges, where there’s a small quirk of nature well-known to locals. You take a turn off the highway, face your car up the slope, put it in neutral and take your foot off the brake. Against all expectations, the car starts to roll up the hill, not down.

Joyce’s victory might look as certain as gravity. But here in New England, where whisper networks can lead to a swift undoing, a new wave of independent spirit is hoping to defy expectations.