The bipartisan kingmaker: an interview with Tony Windsor

By and

Wednesday August 26, 2020

Independent candidate for the seat of New England, Tony Windsor, arrives to cast his vote at Werris Creek public school, at Werris Creek near Tamworth, Saturday, July 2, 2016. (AAP Image/Dan Himbrechts)

Earlier this year, Scott Hamilton and Stuart Kells caught up with Tony Windsor while he was sitting in his tractor on his New England farm. Windsor is the widely respected independent who gave Nick Greiner government in NSW and then joined with federal MP Rob Oakeshott to deliver Julia Gillard government in favour over Tony Abbott.

On his personal and political life

I first went into politics in 1991 as the state member for Tamworth. I was a state member for ten years and then stood for New England, and was a federal member for twelve years. During that period, I was in two hung parliaments, and one parliament where there was a majority of one. As an independent, it was quite an interesting time. It’s all about numbers.

How did you become an independent?

I was a card-carrying member of the National Party and I’d been critical of the party at a local branch level. My argument, back in the eighties, was that the National Party had the capacity to represent all country people, not just those on the land or in business. I’d also been critical of the party at a number of levels. I moved a no-confidence motion at one time against Ian Sinclair — whom I quite liked as a person — but people were very disgruntled with him, and the motion nearly got up.

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When I stood for preselection it was actually against John Anderson. I wasn’t successful there. I then stood for the state seat — and that was a pretty vicious affair. I won it and it was my vote that essentially gave Nick Greiner government. Not long after I gave Greiner confidence, the other independents signed a similar document. Not to support all legislation, but giving confidence in supply unless there was maladministration or corruption. I did an almost identical thing with Julia Gillard.

Why the change from state to federal parliament, from Tamworth to New England?

I had the safest seat in NSW at the time. I had 70 or 80% of the two party preferred vote. I used to jokingly say the move was about the money, because I think federal parliamentarians got ten dollars a week more! But the main reason I had a go at the federal seat was about competition policy. I kept running into a whole range of policy issues where the state or local government was affected by the commonwealth government.

In a non-democratic way, the commonwealth through the Council of Australian Governments process was able to circumvent their own electorates. The state governments coming to an agreement with the commonwealth virtually bypassed the state parliament in terms of whatever the issue was, on the basis that it was in the national interest or it was this or that. Particularly for country people, they were getting fenced out of the political equation, because of the competition policy rules that were put in place.

It wasn’t a very glamourous reason for going federal. Some would ask, did I have great success in making a difference? Well, probably not, in terms of changing competition policy, but I think what we’ve seen just in recent years is that a lot of things that were put in place because of the competition policy rules have failed. Not just for regional people, but more broadly as well.

On aged care

Years back, in the early 2000s or even before 2000, the states were under enormous budgetary pressure in terms of providing aged care and healthcare to country people. John Howard and others were using the rules to apply financial pressure on those people, and virtually to say to them, look, unless you tidy up some of these inefficiencies, we will withhold competition payments from you. It was virtually blackmail.

The smaller towns were being told — I’m paraphrasing — you’re not big enough to be efficient in terms of delivering aged care services. Therefore, we will shut them and you’ll just have to travel to visit your grandma or whoever. Or if you’ve lived in a town all your life, you can die in another one. That, to me, was quite incredible.

When I was in the state parliament, I’d been involved in getting ‘multi-purpose services’ set-up — for where a small town with a small hospital was judged to be inefficient because it didn’t have the economies of scale. A lot of the people who were occupying the beds were aged people who weren’t sick. The commonwealth, which had responsibility for aged care, was getting a bit pissed-off because these people were using a state institution and then asking the commonwealth for money because they had aged people being cared for.

So, out of that, these multi-purpose services were developed to solve the problem. What this means is that in a country town, there won’t be a thing called a hospital, there will be a multi-purpose service. The health component is funded by the state and the aged care component is funded by the commonwealth. So rather than being at loggerheads and in competition, with policy rules saying ‘you are inefficient just go away’, that problem was able to be solved.

In talking of bipartisanship, the commonwealth and the states working together for the benefit of country people has been a great success. I don’t want to sound egotistical, but if there hadn’t been independents in the parliaments whinging about the problem of people being dumped in towns they didn’t know — if there hadn’t been other voices in parliament — we would have shut a lot of small hospitals in country towns and never had aged care premises there.

Coincidently, the electorate of New England has more multi-purpose services than any electorate in Australia, but there are a lot of them around Australia now. That’s a great example of where governments, if they really put their minds to it, can actually solve the financial dilemma. Whereas, historically, they couldn’t look outside the competition policy rules, which were broadly saying, if you’re not big, if you don’t have the economies of scale, you can go to buggery.

On privatisation

I think a lot of the energy stuff hasn’t gone to plan. A lot of the privatisations haven’t worked effectively. You look at TAFEs, not that TAFEs have been privatised but private providers have come in, cherry picked, butchered and defrauded. The actual issue of providing the services seems to have been forgotten. A lot of the services where governments have thought we can do it better by giving it to the private sector have failed.

On climate change

One of the things I always worked on in politics was listening to and engaging with people when you have all different groups in the room. I initiated a process called the Country Summits, where we would bring everybody together who claimed to represent something about the country — whether that be the farmers, the unions, the Greens, the Country Women’s Association, the country airlines, whoever.

There are about a 180 different groups in my electorate and we had a series of meetings over a number of years with all those groups. The principle was to try to find what country people actually agreed on, because our politics — the Westminster system – is based on what you disagree on. It was quite extraordinary. At the first one, the farmers and the Greens had never been in the same room together. Different people were looking at other groups as if they had four heads!

We were there to find out the issues everyone agreed on. This was not a 51% wins thing. If one person stood up and argued against this particular motion, we didn’t debate it, we just moved on. Once they all got the hang of that, at the second one they actually started to really focus on things that could be of advantage to all of them.

The reason I mention that is because there are two issues in my political career that should never have been used to divide the community. One was the National Broadband Network and the other is climate change. Tony Abbott was responsible for using the petty politics of division, and he did it very effectively on those issues. I said to him on a number of occasions, ‘Why do you have to do it on these? There are hundreds of issues you could divide the nation on.’

Agriculture, energy, renewable energy — these are where we should have had bipartisanship. If we had, we would be following a completely different direction now. I think we’ve missed extraordinary opportunities — not only to be a global leader in policy but to take advantage of the market. It’s just terrible.

One of the problems is that, in areas like the Latrobe Valley, there will be huge costs as the world changes. The impact on those regional communities, and especially on disadvantaged groups, will be profound. That is where governments have a responsibility to manage that transition.

Rather than manage it, this lot are preying on those fears. They know that at some stage it is all going to change, and it will. It was Abbott and his short-termism. It’s still in there. A fellow like Angus Taylor, for instance, he is only carrying orders from the fossil fuel lobby that are terribly short term.

On friendship

Political friends are a bit like the friends you make at boarding school — a lot of friendships that probably wouldn’t have happened. I still keep in touch with people on both sides. As an independent you are sort of a wanderer.

In politics there is a fair bit of friendships across the divide. Christopher Pyne and Anthony Albanese would try to assassinate each other on the floor, but always got on well personally. I would say they were good friends. I have great respect for Julia Gillard. I always liked Russel Broadbent from Victoria – a very good, decent person. He didn’t speak in parliament all that often, but when he did he had an impact. I often wonder how he exists in the Liberal-National environment.

Tony Windsor and Sam Dastyari on You Can’t Ask That (Series Four, Ex-Politicians, 2019, ABC):

Windsor: As an independent…you don’t have to waste all that energy on trying to kill your mates. You can waste your energy on trying to develop logical arguments on something that is good for people.

Dastyari: The Dark Arts are about how do you use the media to tear down your opponents, be they external or internal. And it happens all the time. There is no doubt, there was a conservative dirt file done on you that would have been a mixture of everything. Any rumour or innuendo whether true or not that anyone had said, anything about your personal life, anything about your private life, anything that’s going to make you tick. And they will leak it and feed it to the media. The really hard thing in politics is when people within parties are doing it to each other all the time.

Tony and I lived through, in different ways, the Rudd-Gillard years, which was all about backgrounding to journalists, all about dumping stories. And then we have seen it happen again with the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison years.

Windsor: Where is does hurt though, is in terms of the family. I think most politicians don’t mind taking a bit of crap themselves, they are in a crappy game – but they do mind when it impacts on family.

We got a number of death threats. That’s when you really start to get concerned. What if some idiot gets to one of the kids, or my wife, or a member of my family.

On the revolving PM door

I was one of those who were terribly disappointed in Turnbull. I thought he would have made a good Prime Minister, but he was a failure. I would never have thought that Morrison would ever get anywhere near the Prime Minister’s office. I never thought I’d say that Abbott wasn’t the worst Prime Minister that Australia’s had. But Abbott’s legacy is going to be far worse, in terms of long-term damage.

Some observations from us

The days of just two major parties running the political show in Australia are well and truly gone. There has been a steady rise in the number of parties — you only have to look at the increasing length of the Senate ballot papers. Perhaps more importantly, there has also been a discernible rise in the number and influence of independent members in Australian politics.

This has famously played out in hung parliaments and in the phenomenon of independents holding the balance of power on the parliamentary floor. On several recent occasions at both the state and federal levels, independents have become kingmakers and queenmakers. In that role, they have helped drive compromise and more inclusive policy, and they have helped keep governments honest.

Equally important for good policy and finding the middle ground is the role of independents on parliamentary committees. A strong theme in many of our interviews on bipartisanship is the importance of these committees and the thoughtful work that they do, often away from the political spotlight and daily news cycle. Significant recent examples include federal parliamentary inquires into auditing regulation, sports rorts and COVID-19. At the state level, too, committees with independent members are crucial in holding governments to account.

The state and federal committees are foundation stones of our democratic system, and they need to be protected and nurtured as engines of good policy and multi-party solutions. We will need those engines if public policy is to have any chance of solving the wicked problems of pandemics, aged care, reconciliation, climate change and inclusion. With a few notable exceptions, the committees are also engines of civility and professionalism in politics. They are a place to find agreement, build respect and cultivate cross-party friendships. The serious, everyday deliberations of committees are central to the status of political work as a vocation, not a vacation.

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