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On the Campaign Trail With Tony Windsor

Windsor is driving around the NSW seat of New England, trying to wrestle votes from Barnaby Joyce. I tagged along to discover he's got a real thing for Chiko Rolls.

by Lee Zachariah
06 June 2016, 12:00am

That's Tony driving. I'm on the right, handling selfies. All photos by the author.

I've been on the road for nearly eight hours when Tony Windsor's office calls to confirm our interview. "Tony's doing an event in Uralla tonight. He's leaving up in 20 minutes. Do you want to drive up with him?"

The petrol light is flashing furiously, and I haven't seen a servo for hundreds of kilometres. "Sure," I say. "That sounds great. See you soon." But I know there's no way I'm going to make it. At that second, the town of Currabubula comes into view. I throw a quick $20 into the tank and adopt a creative interpretation of NSW speed limits to get to Windsor's office in time before he leaves.

If you remember Tony Windsor from the 2010 election, you'll know why I'm so keen to talk to him. When all the votes were cast, neither Labor nor the Coalition held enough seats to form a majority government, so the responsibility went to independent crossbenchers. Windsor was one of the most prominent faces of the moment, and he joined with Julia Gillard and Labor. Six years on, this remains a hugely controversial move. Windsor retired from politics in 2013, but now he's back to wrest the seat of New England back from its current member, Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce. Who doesn't want to see how this one turns out?

I pull up behind Windsor's office and my feet barely graze the concrete as I jump from my beat-up Hyundai to Tony's slightly-less beat-up Land Rover. I'm really over being in a car, but happy to no longer be behind the wheel. We head north towards the last of 21 community meetings Windsor's been doing across his the electorate.

The turnout at the bowling club wasn't huge. An event at Armidale just up the road had drawn 300 people the previous week, and most went to that.

First stop, the Uralla Bowling and Recreation Club. Tony begins greeting the 25 or so people who have gathered. It's not a big turnout but they don't want to leave any towns off the tour.

Tony takes to the podium in the function room, and pre-empts questions about why he's come out of retirement. "Why am I standing again?" he asks himself. "Why would I do this again?" A year ago he was watching from the sidelines, and wasn't happy with what he was seeing. In January, a speech from Australian of the Year David Morrison got under his skin: "The standard you walk past is the standard you accept." It challenged him to get back into the game. "I'm in a unique position where I could win. Doesn't mean I will. But I could."

He takes questions from the audience. The questions are thoughtful, and dive deep into policy both local and national. It seems like a friendly crowd; for the most part they appear to be here because they already support him, but there are still some key issues they want to know his stance on. Gonski education funding. Local tourism. The Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement. Aside from one man who doesn't seem satisfied with an answer to his question about Chinese currency manipulation, the mood in the room seems positive.

I like the way Tony holds his Chiko Roll. Like it's a trophy.

It's late and nobody's eaten. As we drive off, Tony announces his desire for a chico roll. I figure he's kidding, but we pull into a service station with an attached diner and it becomes clear that you don't spend your time crisscrossing the electorate without becoming acquainted with servo cuisine. "There's a place down the road that I sometimes get chico rolls from," Tony confides, "but I think these ones are fresher."

After a fitful night in Tamworth's cheapest motel, I Google breakfast places and dutifully follow the map in search of eggs and coffee. The café that Google delivers me to is, it turns out, right next door to Windsor campaign HQ, and I notice something I hadn't noticed the night before: Barnaby Joyce's campaign HQ is right on the other side of the café.

Political opponents side by side, and a coffee shop in the middle

Why do these campaign headquarters gravitate to one another? A few weeks ago, I discovered three campaign headquarters within one hundred metres of one another. How does this keep happening?

Tony tells me it's a coincidence. "I don't think he planned to be where I was, and we didn't plan to be where he is either, but that's how it works out. I don't have a problem with it," he adds. "At least if people want to go and get the views of the candidates, they don't have far to walk, and they can get a coffee in the middle."

We set off out of Tamworth. We're in search of an anti-Windsor billboard I've been told about, one that reminds voters that Tony was key to helping Julia Gillard form government. That seems to be the biggest strike against him in the eyes of his detractors, and I ask if he thinks it's going to harm him.

"Those who have never particularly liked me, the die-hard Nationals supporters in this electorate, they will use it as a badge of dishonor to throw at me," he says. "I'm quite proud of the work that was done in the hung parliament."

[Abbott] didn't believe in much, it was all about the slogans.

The hung parliament was remembered as disastrously unproductive, yet boasts the highest rate of passed legislation by any Prime Minister. Tony lists the Murray-Darling System, the National Disability Insurance Scheme, the National Broadband Network, the Royal Commission into Child Abuse, all initiatives that came to be while during his time in parliament.

But any record of achievement was overwhelmed by the narrative of a dysfunctional minority government, one that many in New England blamed Windsor for. Theirs was a traditionally conservative seat, they said. He should have formed government with the Coalition, not Labor.

But with Abbott's legacy in arguably worse shape than Gillard's, has he been vindicated in the eyes of the electorate?

"One of the comments I get in the street is, 'I didn't agree with what you did at the time, but I now know why you did it,'" Windsor tells me. "Once they had a good look at Abbott as a Prime Minister, they could see he was all over the place, he made promises he didn't keep... he didn't believe in much, it was all about the slogans."

"Even Barnaby Joyce in Nikki Savva's book said, 'If Abbott hadn't gone by Christmas, we were going to go and tell him to get out of the place, we had no confidence in him.' I don't think anyone can argue that we made the wrong choice in 2010 and they made the right choice by sacking him in 2015. We both arrived at the same destination, but some years apart."

The polls in this year's federal election are close, and the possibility of another hung parliament hangs in the air. If Windsor wins re-election, he may be asked to form a government once again. What would he do this time?

"In terms of formal arrangements, I won't be making any," he says. "I doubt whether there will be a hung parliament, but if there is, I think the last parliament showed there's no real need to sign any documentation. The document is not worth the paper it's printed on, anyway."

It's a sunny day as we head north along the New England Highway. The rain forecast the night before didn't show up. We reached our destination, and pull up onto a patch of grass beside the highway.

Tony seemed to get a real kick out of this.

Tony has a good laugh at he looks at the billboard before us: in the picture, he's smiling as Julia Gillard looks at a piece of paper, mouth open in what looks like quasi-amused surprise. The text reads: "Carbon tax. Live export ban. Chaos on our borders. NOT THIS TIME TONY."

"That was taken on the floor of Parliament," he says. "I'm showing her a comic from First Dog on the Moon." He laughs again.

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