It is not often that retiring politicians receive the lavish praise that has been heaped upon the Independents Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott, praise so richly deserved.
In the turmoil of partisan politics where self-interest so often dominates, it was refreshing to witness the way in which these two gentlemen of politics placed the common weal ahead of any self-interest they may have had.
We may have never witnessed such levelheaded politics had there not been a hung parliament after the 2010 election. It fell to the Independents to decide who should govern: Julia Gillard and Labor, or Tony Abbott and the Coalition. Bob Katter soon declared his support for Tony Abbott, probably because his friendship with Kevin Rudd made it difficult for him to support his successor, Julia Gillard. Andrew Crook of the WA Nationals sided with the Coalition, and Greens Adam Bandt with Labor. Andrew Wilkie declared his hand when he rejected Tony Abbott’s promise of a billion dollars for a new teaching hospital in Hobart, an offer he considered to be irresponsible, an offer he believed was designed to benefit Abbott in his quest for prime ministership, rather than the people of Dennison. That left the count at 74 for each side. So it fell to Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott to make the decision about who should prevail. The way they went about making that decision will go down in our political history as an exemplar of sound and careful political judgement.
For seventeen agonizing days, the future governance of the nation swung in the balance. They were not going to be rushed – the final decision was too important. On 7 September 2010, they separately announced their decision to support Julia Gillard. Tony Windsor was brief. Rob Oakeshott took seventeen minutes to explain how he had reached his decision while edgy journalists waited impatiently to hear who he intended to support, characteristically more interested in who had won than the intellectual process of arriving at the decision. Finally, both said they would support Julia Gillard, giving her the 76 votes she needed to govern. He said it had been "an absolute line ball, points decision, judgement call."
The final thumbs-up decision and the explanation.
Oakeshott’s speech is worth replaying for its well thought-out approach to the decision he needed to make. Part1
; Part 2
. Here is Mark Davis’ account of that historic event
. Here are some more images of that fateful day, ‘Independents’ Day’
, courtesy of The Age
Oakeshott emphasized that for them both stability
in government was the main concern; they wanted one that would run its full term. The other requirement was that the government produced sound outcomes.
‘Stability’ and ‘outcomes’ were highlighted as essential requisites.
He stressed the need ‘to bring Australia together’, to unify. Divisive politics was anathema to them both. Therefore they looked for the party that presented the best chance to “work with us to keep parliament running as long as possible”
. Both had previously been involved in minority parliaments in the NSW legislature. They had experienced how they could work. They had confidence that a prime minister with a sound legislative agenda, and a capacity to collaborate, would likely attract support sufficient to carry it out over the three-year term of the parliament. An Agreement to Form Government
was drawn up with the Prime Minister.
Pressed later for more detail, both men said that they had more faith in Julia Gillard’s ability to manage a minority government than they had in Tony Abbott’s. They saw she had superior negotiating skills. They believed her when she said that she wanted the parliament to run its full term. In contrast, they felt strongly that Abbott wanted a quick return to the polls to install a ‘legitimate’ government, having already declared that a Gillard government would be ‘illegitimate’, a position from which he never retreated. They sensed he was not at all interested in a long-run parliament.
Yet they were aware that Abbott badly wanted to be prime minister, and would ‘do anything’
to get that prize in his hands, except, as Windsor later reported, ”to offer his arse, and he would consider even that”
, so desperate was he! They reported that he was even prepared to introduce a carbon tax if that was one of their conditions, although he had ruled out any such notion early in the negotiations. They judged Abbott to be not ready for the high office he coveted. After three years of minority government, Windsor confirmed that view when he said that they had “probably done Tony a good turn by not handing it to him”
, as clearly he was unready.
Oakeshott indicated that he and Windsor, both representing regional electorates, had been able to negotiate with Julia Gillard a good local package for their electorates, a good regional package that offered equity to regional areas, and a good national outcome. The NBN, climate change, mining and gas extraction, regional education and minimizing the chances of an early election, were crucial elements. They judged Julia Gillard as one who could successfully lead a minority government. Their judgement proved to be correct.
In reaching their initial decision, there were some parliamentary matters that were pivotal. They were interested in assuring ‘supply’ and ‘confidence’, and in lifting parliamentary standards and the quality of committee work.
Strongly supportive of the NBN, they recognized how essential it was for the development of regional business, and for its competitiveness. Armidale, at the centre of Windsor’s electorate of New England, was an early recipient of the NBN. Anecdotal stories soon emerged of how the NBN had benefitted businesses there, especially with the improved upload speeds it offered. Developing a plan for the management of water in the Murray-Darling system was a high priority to them both; they played a major role during committee work in achieving a ‘once in a century’ plan.
They were both convinced that man-made global warming was a reality and that urgent action was necessary to slow it down by reducing carbon emissions. They supported the notion of putting a price on carbon preparatory to moving to an emissions trading scheme. Oakeshott had the preservation of biodiversity at the top of his wish list. They could see that was Julia Gillard’s intent, which contrasted starkly with the Coalition’s Direct Action Plan, one that was supported neither by economists nor environmentalists as an appropriate answer to global warming. Both were prepared to say so, while most of the Fourth Estate avoided doing so.
They were keen to play down the notion that either party had a ‘mandate’ to govern, that one party had dominance over the other, that one party had been ‘endorsed’. Oakeshott emphasized how unimpressed they both were with the state of federal politics, stressed the value of strong independents, and highlighted the importance of private members’ bills. They underscored the need to be committed to the electorates, and for the electorates and the country as a whole to be the drivers for debate. They also proposed a plan for changes in how the House of Representatives worked, a streamlined Question Time, and the prospect of conscience votes on private members’ bills on controversial subjects such as gay marriage. Later they drew up an Agreement for a Better Parliament
that reflected these changes, referred to as a ‘new paradigm’ for the parliament, which was publicized as facilitating a ‘kinder, gentler’ parliament, one that responded to the public’s wish for “leaders who ... concentrate on making this country a better place to live”
Oakeshott described the wide range of politicians, treasury officials, federal departments, and stakeholders they had consulted, as well as Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott, in what he described as an open and transparent process, one that enabled them to reach the decision “to guarantee confidence and supply to a Gillard Government, unless exceptional circumstances dictated otherwise”
. In line with their desire to improve parliamentary committee work, they have both played a central role. Tony Windsor
became a member of the following committees: Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry; Primary Industries and Resources; Regional Australia; Privileges and Members' Interests; and the Joint Select Committees on Australia's Clean Energy Future Legislation and Constitutional Recognition of Local Government. He contributed enormously to the Climate Change Committee. He was also a member of the Speaker’s Panel. Rob Oakeshott
was a member of these committees: House of Representatives Standing Committees on Education and Training; Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs; Infrastructure and Communications, the Joint Statutory Committee on Public Accounts and Audit; the Joint Standing Committees on Foreign Affairs; Defence and Trade; Parliamentary Library; and National Broadband Network; Joint Select Committees on Cyber-Safety; Parliamentary Budget Office; Australia's Immigration Detention Network; Constitutional Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples; and Broadcasting Legislation. Together, through their committee work, they have had a particularly strong influence on deliberations about the NBN, climate change and carbon trading, the impact of coal seam gas exploration, regional Australia, the Murray Darling water plan, infrastructure, communications, broadcasting, indigenous affairs, and education.
Windsor took a special interest in coal seam gas and its impact on farming and the environment, and was heavily involved in the successful passage of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment that insisted on a proper independent scientific process for evaluating the impacts of coal seam gas and large coal mining developments
, especially in prime farmland.
It has not been without its costs to them personally and professionally. They were subjected to biting criticism by Coalition members “for going against the wishes of their ‘conservative’ electorates in supporting a Labor minority government”. The fact that both New England and Lyne voters had convincingly chosen independents rather than conservatives, four times in the case of Tony Windsor and twice in the case of Rob Oakeshott, makes that criticism tenuous.
Abuse was directed to their electorate offices, presumably from angry Coalition supporters who felt they had been robbed of power that was rightfully theirs, but they reported that generally the people they met in the streets of their electorates were supportive of them. Early indications were that Tony Windsor was doing so well in the polls against Barnaby Joyce that Joyce was concerned he may have a battle on his hands. Later Windsor indicated he would not be contesting the seat because of health concerns: “I am experiencing some health issues which have yet to be resolved, and as much as I love this job I don’t want to die in it.”
And anyway he felt he had other things that needed his attention – his family and his farming. Likewise, Rob Oakeshott felt his wife and young family of four deserved more of his time. For them, this oft-cited reason for retirement was not an excuse, but a genuine desire to leave the hothouse of intrigue, conflict, double-dealing and sabotage that is federal politics today, and attend to matters closer to home. It is to their eternal credit that they stuck with Julia Gillard throughout, until her own party removed her. They said their loyalty was based on mutual respect earned as each adhered to the agreement they struck in 2010. They said she had not let them down - she had kept her side of the bargain. In turn, they did not let her down.
In a touching tribute to a wistful Julia Gillard, in his valedictory speech
Rob Oakeshott told her he had tweeted her on the night of her replacement by Kevin Rudd: “Your father would have been proud of you”
. In the same speech he wryly observed: ““I have been shocked, frankly, over the last three years, to meet ugly Australia and just to see the width and depth of ugly Australia.”
Is it a surprise then that he would seek relief from the unremitting nastiness and ugliness that surrounded him for the life of the 43rd parliament?
What did they achieve? Virtually what they set out to achieve. The parliament ran full term, there was no motion of ‘no-confidence’ ever put, despite many threats by the Coalition, ‘supply’ was assured, and in the three years of the Gillard Government almost six hundred pieces of legislation were enacted with 87% bipartisan agreement. The crossbenchers directly altered 27 bills, and had the Government make changes to many others. It was the most productive parliament ever, the complete opposite of what was predicted by Tony Abbott, the Coalition, and much of the media, which preferred to characterize it as an incompetent, ineffectual, chaotic government.
Many major reforms were passed into law – a price on carbon leading to an ETS in 2015, the Murray-Darling water plan, the NBN, the NDIS, the Gonski education reforms being among the most significant. Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott were instrumental in facilitating all of them. They enabled a minority government to be spectacularly successful, even in the face of the most trenchantly negative and obstructionist opposition in recent history. Their role in successful governance has been immense. Not all their wishes reached fruition; for example, the debate on major tax reform was sidestepped, and doubts exist as to the future of the recognition of local government in the Constitution. When the history of these two gentlemen of federal politics is written, it will make clear just how much they contributed, just how much they enabled, just how much their support of the Gillard Government has meant to our nation. Together they have made a major contribution to good governance.
They were the epitome of commonsense, rational advocacy, balanced judgement and gentlemanly behaviour, always free of the nastiness and spitefulness so often associated with partisan politics.
The hurly-burly of politics too often distracts from the achievements of politicians. When the shouting and tumult of the 43rd parliament finally dissipates, the true value of these two outstanding politicians will on be record for all to see.
We who have followed them with admiration for the last three years acknowledge their enormous contribution. They enjoy our deep respect. We extend to them both our heartfelt thanks and every good wish for the future.