Opinion

Tony Windsor
Tony Windsor on why he is running in 2016

When Australian of the Year David Morrison challenged Australians on the behavioural standards they will accept by saying “the standard you walk past is the standard you accept”, it hit a nerve. I had been thinking about a possible return to the political fray, and had hinted at it, but Morrison’s challenge pushed my consideration to another level.

Even though the context was very different, the message was similar. Was I prepared to sit back and allow life to go backwards in the electorate of New England, in regional Australia and in the nation generally without attempting to do something about it?

Was I prepared to see key local, regional and national issues relegated to second-class standards – issues such as the national broadband network, climate change, the Gonski education reforms, renewable energy and sustainable resource management and the interface of extractive industries to Australia’s key water resources? Was I prepared to stand by while regional Australia was relegated to a lower standard? The answer was no. The future of future generations is more important than my immediate present. Australians need to challenge the short-term nature of political debate and demand better.

Within the electorate, things began to move backwards when Barnaby Joyce arrived. Tamworth, Inverell and other towns were to miss out on fibre-to-the-premises NBN. The Australian Defence Force’s contract for basic flying training was lost to RAAF Base East Sale in Victoria after it had been delivered from Tamworth for many years. The hard work of putting the so-called “water trigger” together to achieve independent objective scientific advice on potential groundwater impacts at the Commonwealth level was unravelling under direction from Environment Minister Greg Hunt, with our local member being complicit by neglect. And the standard of debate in relation to substantive long-term issues was obviously drifting back to slogan politics.

The national broadband network is the technology that has the potential to reverse the continued centralisation to our cities. If done correctly, it has the capacity to address distance and remoteness, undoing the disadvantage of location and actually presenting a case where location in country centres with the appropriate fibre-to-the-home technology is the way to go.

I recall a conversation with the current prime minister when he was denouncing the then ALP government on the lack of a cost-benefit analysis. I asked Malcolm Turnbull whether he included in any cost-benefit analysis of his own policy uses of technology that hadn’t yet been invented, to get a better picture of the potential of fibre to the premises.

I also raised with him the use of real-time fibre to the premises and its capacity to alleviate the capital and operational costs of the provision of aged care over time. This is an important point. It goes to the economic problem, raised at the time by Peter Costello and others, that Australia will face as the “baby boomer” generation gets old. A part of this conversation is about how the then process of building aged-care facilities would in fact result in stranded assets as the numbers diminished after the peak demand.

What if the NBN could enable 5 per cent of the aged-care population to reside in their homes for one, two or three years longer than the normal trajectory of entry to aged care, via real-time monitoring of vital health indicators, monitoring of food and domestic facilities, and access to medical services and family under prearranged signals? In this question, even on the most simplistic maths, are many billions of dollars to be saved.

As we were talking, Turnbull said a cost-benefit analysis is only as good as the assumptions it is based on and the material that is fed into it. The same is true of politics, Malcolm.

And so here we are with a prime minister who is trapped in an agenda built by the politically opportunistic crazies from whom he wrested back control of the party – people such as Abbott, Joyce, Abetz and other right-wing loons – still maintaining that the NBN is just more of Labor’s waste and mismanagement.

It’s just one example, but it grates. The benefits of first-class NBN are on display in the New England city of Armidale, while in Tamworth the stark reality of neglect is there for all to see.

The Gonski reforms are another indicator of an area where children with special educational needs will be disadvantaged. There is a mountain of evidence to confirm that remedial assistance at a young age can dramatically change their lives. The call to arms for innovation, agility and an exciting future starts at school. It also calls for proper funding and a commitment to fairness. Both are lacking. This is not the standard we want for Australia.

Climate change had always been an issue of interest, and was another driving force in my decision to stand again. In 2008 I moved the Climate Protection Bill as a private member’s bill but failed to get support. In 2010 I stood on a platform of supporting positive policies to address climate change and it became very clear that Tony Abbott was only interested in short-term politics and not long-term solutions. His attitude and the supporting stubbornness of Joyce, along with the NBN issue, were pivotal in choosing Julia Gillard to form a minority government. There is as much to do now as there was then.

The agriculture white paper, which is supposedly the blueprint for the future of the farm sector, is bereft of meaningful policy initiatives on climate change or mitigation. Again there is a backward-looking approach, with a diversionary trinket of new dams everywhere, none of which have moved past the rhetoric stage.

The negative attitude of the Abbott period meant many investment decisions in renewable energy did not take place and, even today with a more forward-looking PM, investors are wary. The damage has been done and will take some time to repair. The notion that climate change was crap and wind towers were ugly sent a destructive message to the investment community. All in the name of political opportunism.

Then there is sustainable resource management – presented as some form of anachronism, with attempts to marginalise the impacts of the “water trigger” and various assaults on key environmental legislation. Malcolm Turnbull has tried to intervene, but again he is driving with a handbrake on – that is, Abbott, Joyce and Abetz, and their own political gamesmanship.

Their position is this: bugger the environmental conditions that farmers and the descendants of all of us will have to live with, let’s just play our little games and forget about the future. I thought about this. I thought about it a lot. The appallingness of this scenario became a key point in my decision.

This campaign is not about sending Joyce a message; it is about winning the seat. It will be a David-and-Goliath event. I know that. But Barnaby Joyce and the right-wing cabal he sits with inside the Coalition is not a standard I can walk past. It’s not something this country should walk past and accept either.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 19, 2016 as "Why I am running". Subscribe here.

Tony Windsor
is the former independent member for the federal seat of New England. He has held balance of power positions in both the NSW and federal parliaments.

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