Tag Archives: New England

Heresy in the High Country for #NewEnglandVotes

“To turn this region into a true believer, New England voters need to decide if we want fossil fuel extraction in the energy plan.”

WHEN state member for the NSW seat of Northern Tablelands Adam Marshall put pen to paper in favour of renewable electricity generation in mid-2018, the news made barely a ripple in a media landscape apparently hungry for stories about alternatives to burning coal.

In his opinion piece for the local Fairfax Media weeklies, Mr Marshall ramped-up the religious rhetoric, calling renewables a “miracle” and himself an “agnostic” on the issue.

AGNOSTIC ADAM Adam Marshall, NSW Member for Northern Tablelands.

He also made a bold prophecy: that the NSW New England region — an agricultural heartland — could become a net exporter of renewable energy. Jobs, local economic boosts, and low-cost energy would be the outcomes of change the state minister claimed was driven by community sentiment in a Climate Institute survey.

Heady stuff, especially considering Mr Marshall is a National Party MP in a region more clearly associated with its federal counterpart, coal-loving conformist Barnaby Joyce, who calls renewables “a religion”.

Lest Mr Joyce try to claim credit for Adam Marshall’s renewables pilgrimage — he’s not above attending photo opportunities at renewable project sod-turnings in the region — it’s time to consider what this identity crisis for New England Nationals means for the federal election.

True Believers

After working in rural media in the United Kingdom, North America and Australia I moved home to the New England region in 2017. One of the greatest surprises of my return were the regular sightings of wind turbines and solar arrays.

As I soon learned, the locals all know about our Chinese-backed renewables miracle even if the Canberra press bubble doesn’t join the dots and ask Barnaby Joyce about it. If you ever get around to driving to Inverell from Glen Innes along the Gwydir Highway you’ll see some of the most iconic grazing land in the region, with an increasing number of wind turbines and solar panels hiding in plain sight of some very high-profile renewables naysayers.

Perhaps the real miracle is that this stretch of country has given hope to those who believe the links between pollution of the soil, air and water and global warming.

But to turn this region into a true believer, New England voters need to decide if we want fossil fuel extraction in the energy plan, and someone is prepared to ask us: newly-announced independent candidate Adam Blakester wants to know what constituents think, in fact he’s prepared to create his policy platform on our views.

It’s an unexpectedly abstract start to what may prove to be a refreshing campaign.

Sacred Ground

Without ruling out extractive industries, Adam Marshall, who also serves as NSW Parliamentary Secretary for Renewable Energy, stated: “I’m all for a sensible energy mix,” in his 2018 piece.

Agnostic, yes. Renewables purist, no; although his plan for the region to export renewable energy hints at the New England doing its fair share of heavy lifting in national electricity generation in years to come. If we punch above our weight with wind turbines and solar panels, surely that means we won’t have to allow more coal and coal seam gas (CSG)?

INDIE ADAM Independent candidate Adam Blakester.

Mr Blakester has sat at the table with Mr Marshall in this space, whereas Mr Joyce is firmly on the record as pro-fossil fuels. In 2018 he headed an inquiry into the mining sector aimed at increasing community benefits. As recently as the Wentworth by-election he was calling for the Snowy Hydro 2.0 project to be scrapped and the savings used to fund new coal-fired power stations.

Apart from publicly defending prime agricultural land at threat from the Shenhua Watermark project’s plan to mine coal on the Liverpool Plains, Mr Joyce prevaricates on how much extraction should be allowed in New England. A public spat with former independent member for New England Tony Windsor during the 2016 election campaign was fought around accusations about mining affiliations.

So the sacred centre ground on fossil fuels is available for Mr Blakester to occupy, although he’s waiting to see if New England voters will lead him there.

Energy Battleground

The city of Tamworth had strong leadership on energy innovation well over a century ago when it embraced a new form of power. The town was the first in Australia to generate electrical street lighting, in 1888, replacing gaslight with a municipal power supply. Advocated by mayor Elizabeth Piper, that push was bitterly fought through a local media war fuelled by vested interests.

We’re back on similar battle lines, although the benefits of new energy generation are only just starting to show. Community grants have been rolling out of the wind farm projects, and a recent NSW Valuer-General’s report attributed a 3.5 per cent increase in residential land values for the Inverell Shire area to increased demand due to wind farm projects in the region.

However, the more pressing issue for New England right now is the ongoing drought.

Pray For Rain

On what seems to be an unfolding tour of the region to launch his campaign, Mr Blakester will be unable to avoid climate talk. From the ranges above the Northern Rivers in the east, to the Western Slopes and Plains, we’re seeing local mass fish deaths and intense bushfires during such a severe lack of rain that it’s hard to find consensus on whether conditions signify the new normal or just business as usual in a dry spell.

Still, it’s positive to see our electoral options expand since country Labor announced its candidate Yvonne Langenberg in June, 2018 and Barnaby Joyce was preselected unopposed.

Adam Blakester’s public-vote approach to leadership is innovative, although starting with a blank policy canvas is a high-stakes move.

The non-executive Lock The Gate director has a track record in the sustainable governance and worked extensively on the New England Sustainability Strategy (NESS) with the company he serves as executive director of: Starfish Initiatives.

But what happens if this region’s voters tell him we want to extend our faith to, say, CSG?

This week, at Inverell, combined churches are eschewing earthbound leadership by praying for rain. With decisions due on the Shenhua Watermark project in 2020, New England voters are yet to see if we’ll get a federal candidate willing to speak what some would call heresy on the climate change benefits of renewables, while excommunicating fossil fuel extractors once and for all.

At the end of the day, a leadership drought during a big dry might result in business as usual at the ballot.

Barnaby Joyce does not own New England

AS I approached the polling station at the Tenterfield Memorial Hall on by-election day in December 2017, I suspected Barnaby Joyce would put in an early appearance.

If Mr Joyce was going to cover New England glad-handing and holding babies, finishing in triumph at Tamworth, he’d have to start early in this town at the far reaches of the electorate that had recently been stripped of its sitting member.

Despite being a local boy, Mr Joyce had been found by the High Court to be a dual citizen of New Zealand and dumped from parliament under the clear terms of our Constitution.

I was at Tenterfield to hand out how-to-vote cards for CountryMinded candidate Peter Mailler, and as I tied a couple of Pete’s signs onto the picket fence, Mr Joyce arrived to greet his ‘Barney Army’ in their yellow National Party shirts.

He settled his nerves by introducing himself to the competition. As he approached me, I was struck by his height. On television he never seems to carry his 1.85 metres, but he stood on eye level with me. I saw his elbow draw back and his hand flatten into a shape akin to an axe, signalling in a manly show that a handshake was expected.

“I’m Barnaby,” he announced.

I’ve long believed in the importance of meeting politicians, particularly those who represent us. Having recently moved from the South East Queensland electorate of Bowman, I’d spent years challenging sitting Liberal MP Andrew Laming about his inexplicable fence-sitting on marriage equality.

Barnaby Joyce and I have more in common that he realises. I’m slightly taller, he’s a bit older. We were both born in the New England region, me at Inverell and he at Tamworth. Our fathers were both graziers. We were both dual citizens of New Zealand by birth, until he revoked his in order to stand for election again.

The similarities seemed enough for him to feel safe with me, until I opened my mouth.

“If you win the seat today, and you’re back in parliament in time, how will you vote on marriage equality?” I asked, since the opportunity was unlikely to come again, and the people of New England had recently returned a result of 52 per cent in favour of allowing same-sex couples equal access to the Marriage Act.

Barnaby looked at his feet (I realised then why he often appears shorter), rolled his eyes, winced, and proceed to huff and puff.

“Look, I always said I’d never vote against the will of the people,” he said, scuffing his feet together like a schoolboy.

“That’s good to know,” I said. “Thanks,” I added. Then, the clincher: “What about religious exemptions?”

I didn’t see Barnaby signal to his security guard. All of a sudden a blob of a boy stood in my face, but I kept addressing Barnaby, who’d moved out of the brief common ground we’d created.

“I’m your constituent, Mr Joyce,” I said, even though technically at that point he wasn’t our MP. “I’m allowed to ask you questions, I believe?”

With a distinct look of fear, Barnaby retreated up the pathway to stand with the yellow T-shirts, before he and his crew swept south across the electorate he’d go on to win back that day.

New England voters were almost universally slammed on social media for backing Joyce, but we were acutely aware that progressives expected us to topple the Turnbull Government. The voters of Bennelong had the same experience just one week later.

Not all of us voted for Barnaby, of course. Just shy of 40,000 voters picked someone else or voted informally.

He might have won in a landslide, but in running away from scrutiny, Barnaby Joyce was heading inevitably towards defeat.

Sooky Chook

As it turned out, Barnaby abstained from the final vote that brought about marriage equality in Australia’s House of Representatives on December 7.

I should have noticed him telegraph his intention to betray LGBTIQ. Despite being a major architect of the divisive public vote on human rights, Barnaby Joyce, ‘family man’ was never going to get his fingerprints on a policy that made his marriage equal to ours. His immature blather to me had been code for abstention.

Yet the rumour about his extramarital affair and the pregnancy of his new partner had done the rounds at the polling station and the district on the ubiquitous Bush Telegraph. I witnessed the fallout when comments deemed defamatory were removed from Facebook threads under stories published by my former employer, Fairfax Regional Media. Commenters were unafraid to detail what they’d heard about Barnaby’s trashing of his own family values, and angry the local media was inexplicably protecting him. One comment labelled Barnaby a “sooky chook” if he needed such protection.

What was more concerning about the local pre-election vibe was the struggle other candidates had getting cut-through for their messaging. Sixteen alternatives threw their hats in the ring and despite being a more natural Greens voter, I decided to back the grain farmer from Boggabilla who was clear about his support for marriage equality. In places where the Greens don’t usually register high numbers of primary votes on election day, I have often voted strategically this way.

I’d met Pete years before while sub-editing his columns for FarmOnline, and knew him to be a progressive thinker. I also knew he stood for holding the Nationals to account after years of taking the country vote for granted. After Tony Windsor endorsed him, I took it on myself to contact several national political journalists in case they were writing stories about Barnaby’s competition. The trouble is, most of them weren’t.

And Barnaby was thumbing his nose at all of us by avoiding public forums, a decision that provided fertile ground for gossip.

A pub fracas with another local posing questions to him at Graman was reported. Mr Joyce had not been in the mood for providing answers, not even to his constituents when delivered in person. Instead, he claimed he was being stalked.

A sooky chook indeed.

Out of place

Barnaby had expert social media support during the by-election campaign. One of the most intriguing examples was the video of his visit to Bingara cemetery where his great-grandfather is buried.

Here, in the heart of Kamilaroi Country, he whined about being called into question for possible allegiance to a foreign nation, using a relative he’d never known as evidence. Clearly, he exuded, he was a hard-done-by Aussie to his bootstraps and all this talk about dual citizenship was bull-dust.

What really struck me in that clip was how very out of place Barnaby Joyce appears in this electorate.

Held for eight decades by the Nationals (many of those under their old Country Party permutation), New England could be considered their heartland and not the Kamilaroi’s, if only it weren’t so very different on the ground for those of us looking closely.

After forty years living in other regions both in Australia and overseas, in October 2017 I returned to live at Deepwater, a stone’s throw from the place of my birth and the region my parents farmed outside Delungra, on the way to Bingara.

My ancestors have lived in and around Inverell for as long as Barnaby’s, and I have a different take on the experience.

Ever since I was a child I have known of my mother’s connection to New Zealand. I’ll never forget seeing her cry as she revisited for the first time since she was a baby, on descent into Christchurch as we passed over the west coast of the South Island.

She told me when I was a child about the Myall Creek Massacre of 1838, which took place just a few kilometres from our farm. The crimes of settlers against Kamilaroi rang strongly throughout Bingara and Delungra families, and led to one of the country’s most enduring reconciliation projects, the annual Myall Creek Massacre memorial.

The day Richard and I moved into our new home, I drove the hire truck back to Glen Innes at dusk and saw the hundreds of wind turbines on the ridges. Since then, we’ve seen them in all directions, often situated with solar farms in upland valleys and ranges. Employment in renewables often tops the search engine results for jobs in the New England region, and plenty of farmers and greenies are allied in their desire to lock the gate against CSG exploration and mining.

In 2001, for the first time since 1922, the seat was won by independent candidate Tony Windsor, who was re-elected three times. Windsor’s incumbency broke the notion that the seat needs to be held by a deeply conservative National Party pollie in order for locals to be happy.

At the regional Farmers and Producers Market started at Tenterfield in late 2017, we’ve enjoyed working alongside African immigrants, also commonly sighted on the streets of Armidale. The resettlement program at nearby Mingoola has been an example of how refugee assistance can be mutually beneficial for remote Australian communities.

It seems out of character, but Barnaby has led the way.

Clearly, he is capable of being progressive when it suits him. It’s just one of many paradoxes about the man who once had a home base at Tamworth, but now seems to belong nowhere.

Border Country

Lately, I’ve encountered a few people who are shocked to hear that Barnaby Joyce comes from the New England region and not Queensland, where he entered politics as a senator in 2005.

Politically, he seems a more natural fit for the state that produced Joh Bjelke-Petersen. It’s not surprising, since the NSW New England region and Queensland’s Darling Downs are often blended into a kind of “border country”.

As kids at Delungra Public School we knew enough of Sir Joh to make up songs about this amusing old politician with a lyrical name. We used Queensland vernacular (“port” instead of “school bag” being just one example) and Brisbane was geographically closer than Sydney.

Queensland Nationals certainly claim New England. At Tenterfield polling station on by-election day Senator Matt Canavan and Toowoomba MP Trevor Watts put in hours handing out for Barnaby and posing for selfies with fans.

But where the pro-mining, ‘family values’ man who won’t countenance the Uluru Statement sits in the community of his birth, which is getting on with renewables investment, reconciliation and social progression regardless of him, is the question.

It’s firmly rural, New England, but it’s definitely not Sir Joh country. Quirindi-born Tony Windsor knows it. Pete Mailler knows it too. The Kamilaroi know it and I suspect even Sir Joh came to realise it. I doubt Barnaby Joyce has ever given it any thought whatsoever.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.