Back in November, I commented (Slippers, feather dusters & the mining tax) on the appointment of Peter Slipper as speaker of the House of Representatives. At the time, I thought that while it gave the Government one more vote on the floor of the Parliament, things such as the passage of the Minerals Resource Rent Tax were of more importance.
As it happened, Mr Slipper proved to be an extremely good speaker. However, his appointment has also proved to be yet another poisoned chalice for the embattled Gillard Government.
I have deliberately not commented on the scandal involving Mr Slipper. However, for the benefit of international readers, Mr Slipper has been forced to stand aside as speaker amidst allegations that he criminally rorted cab charge entitlements. He also faces civil court action over a claim that he sexually harassed a male staff member. The Government says that they will support his return to the chair if Mr Slipper is cleared of criminal behaviour. However, the two key New England independents have reportedly indicated that they would not support such a move until the civil case is settled.
It's all very messy.
Meantime, the National Party has launched an on-ground blitz to try to get back the four New England seats (the two independents plus two ALP) that they don't hold. Northern NSW, the broader New England, was Country Party then National Party heartland from the Party's formation. It provided a solid base for a Party whose fortunes elsewhere could fluctuate wildly. This held true despite the long term structural decline of the North, something that I often write about.
As part of the push, Matt Harvey reported in the Armidale Express on 23 April that the Nationals had approached Richard Torbay, the independent member for the Northern Tablelands, to run for New England against Tony Windsor. I quote:
Mr Torbay told The Express that The Nationals, Liberal Party and Bob Katter’s Australia Party had all approached him in recent weeks to step up from State politics for a run at preselection in the seat of New England.
“I’m not the sort of person who changes my values, and my values are about delivering outcomes,” the independent MP told The Express.
“I’ve worked closely with both sides of politics, and in fact I’ve been accused of being part of both sides of politics in my career.”
Another to be courted in recent weeks by The Nationals is Walcha farmer and National Farmers Federation president Jock Laurie, who refused to rule out a run at preselection.
Mr Torbay confirmed that if he was to align himself with a party, it would probably be The Nationals.
He reiterated that the independent brand had been “greatly damaged”.
“I am concerned that, federally, for an independent at the next several Parliaments, it’s going to be very difficult to have influence in that situation, given what’s happened with the independents in the current hung Parliament,” he said.
“I can confirm that I have been approached by The Nationals to run for the seat of New England, or run for their pre-selection for the seat of New England.
“I’ve actually been approached by more than The Nationals,” Mr Torbay said.
“The Liberals have approached me, as well as the Katter Australia Party. That was a very interesting meeting, but I don’t quite have the hat for that particular party,” he added tongue-in-cheek.
Asked how strongly he was considering a move to federal politics, Mr Torbay said: “Well, I have made no secret of my disappointment about the trashing of the independent brand.
“There’s no doubt it’s been damaged by a hung Parliament, and that’s been very disappointing from my perspective.
“We’ve seen that reflected in a number of State polls, where Victoria now doesn’t have any more independents in their Parliament; there were three lost at the last NSW election; and at the recent Queensland election we saw three independents go.
“So, there’s no doubt there’s been massive brand damage, and that’s what I think has caused these approaches to occur.”
He said that if he sought pre-selection, his decision would not be based on a personal offensive against Mr Windsor.
“It’s not about personalities for me,” he said. “It’s about outcomes being delivered for our local areas. I really like speaking up on local issues, and representing the community. Those are matters that will not be negotiable for me in the future. I think it’d be smart for a party to pick up those sorts of approaches.
“And if there are political members of parliament who don’t believe there has been damage to the independent brand, they are clearly not hearing the very strong messages in the community. I think people will vote away from a hung Parliament in their droves.”
He added that, “I don’t want to see New England sidelined in the future. We can’t afford to pay a price”
Mr Windsor yesterday said that, “I won’t give a running commentary on this”.“The time for debating it will be when the next election is called,” he said.
The popular local MP said that if he did accept an offer to join a party, it would be “on my terms and not a strings-attached deal”.
Scot MacDonald, Guyra based Liberal member of the Legislative Council or Upper House was not impressed. He and Richard have recently been trading blows in the local papers over regional population growth. He commented:
Sorry Richard, but you must have been wearing your tights too tight.Mmmm!
The Liberal Party has not approached you.
The LP doesn't sit well with value free, policy free political opportunists.
Scot MacDonald MLC
Two days later, the Express's Stephen Jeffrey filed a follow up story. Richard had been approached, an approach that had been endorsed by the National's state deputy leader Adrian Piccoli. The story went on:
His backing came as the war of words between Mr Torbay and Liberal Duty MLC for Northern NSW, Scot MacDonald, heated up yesterday.
Mr MacDonald lashed out at Mr Torbay,describing his interest in running federally as being driven by “political opportunism”.
Mr Piccoli, who is also the Education Minister in the O’Farrell Government, told The Express that Mr Torbay would be an asset to the party if he were to accept the offer of running federally as a National.
“The Nationals have known Richard for a long time - I’ve personally known him for 13 years - and he has been an incredibly effective member for his community, so why wouldn’t we approach him to become a part of our team?” he said. “The people of New England want an effective member of parliament, and if Richard was to run for one of the Coalition parties it would be fantastic from our point of view.”Now all this must sound pretty obscure, especially for someone outside Australia. Yet this is the working out at local level of steps that will affect Australian national politics.
The National Party's Barnaby Joyce has expressed his interest in returning to his New England home by running for the New England seat, thus allowing him to compete for the leadership of the National Party. The approach to Richard may scupper that.The Labor Government survives because two New England independents support it. All the talk about the instability of minority governments conceals one basic fact.
The most stable element in national governance has been the support of the New England independents. Tony Windsor in particular has been steadfast: he and Julia Gillard made a deal and he will stick to that so long as she keeps her word. If only the Labor caucus or, for that matter. the media had been that stable!
I will write some posts on my New England Australia blog about some of the regional implications of all this,
For the moment, I want to make a simple point.
I was not a supporter of Mr Windsor when he entered politics. I regarded his decision to leave the Nationals and run as an independent as a betrayal. Yet as time has proceeded, he has grown in stature.
I have been just so impressed by his recent performance. When Tony Windsor is asked a question about his position on an issue such as Mr Slipper's present position, he sets out a view clearly and simply based on principles. One may disagree with his view or indeed his principles, but you know where you stand. More importantly. you know that he will hold to his position until there is evidence to change it.
What a contrast to Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott!
By the time their positions have been managed though the spin system, you a need a PhD in logic to understand the linkages. I actually have no idea what either stands for! If Richard Torbay runs, and I have a high opinion of him too, he had better be ready to explain why he is running. And local self-interest is not enough!