In praise of Tony Windsor
By Don Watson
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The Hon. Tony Windsor
Member for New England
Dear Mr Windsor,
I can find no elegant way of saying this, so I will use plain terms: I have a kind of crush on you. Don’t worry, I’m not after a date or anything. I won’t be stalking you round the hills of New England. It’s more the sort of crush I had on James Stewart after I saw The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, or Yves Montand whenever he played a resistance fighter. It’s a political kind of crush.
I know when it started, to the day. I was at a cattle sale up your way – not to buy or sell, only to look. You and Rob Oakeshott had just signed up with Julia Gillard, and many of the men in moleskins would have thrown you in the river and held you under with their cattle prods. The bulls were all Angus and all black; the buyers were all farmers and all in RM Williams – boots, trousers, shirts and hats. I believe some of their socks and underwear were RMW. Bulls being bulls, they were all snorting and pawing the ground like Barnaby Joyce, but compared to the farmers they were cool reason itself.
I might have it wrong, but one way or another I thought you were telling the electors of New England that they should get that creaking, maudlin, passive-aggressive bush romance out of their heads and start bringing to politics the same sort of acumen that got them into crop rotation and no-till farming. Much as Labor gave up the socialisation objective and calling each other “Comrade”, you wanted them to give up their habitual allegiance to the major conservative parties and feeling hard done by all the time. As Labor found that there were all sorts of creative combinations to be forged while managing a capitalist economy, a less reflexive and herd-like approach in rural politics might not only produce material rewards for farming enterprise and effort, it might also see those fine rural values we hear so much about actually get a foothold in the nation itself. Your constituents looked at a hung parliament with a Labor prime minister and could see only misery. But you, sir, saw opportunity.
Shocking as it was to do a deal with the Labor devil, your deeper offence was to break ranks with the herd. The best way to turn intelligent human beings into dumb animals is to fire up the herd instinct. It works in war and football, and it works in politics. The union (including the farmers union) makes us strong, but it can also make us forget our capacity for rational thought. The same goes for mateship, in some ways the dopiest union of all. You committed heresy, and for that you got what Socrates got – poison: “vitriol” you called it at your last press conference. Your wife was given it, too, you said. It turns out that a lot of bushies – as they call themselves nowadays – are just as consumed by a sense of their own virtue as everybody else. All they want is a fair go and someone to blame.
And think what they have to blame you for! All those millions for hospitals, roads and universities; all that investment in the national broadband network, climate research, clean energy, agriculture; all the concrete expression of regional policy that usually receives only lip service. Has anyone done more to bring the regions into the national story and the national future? It was unbearable for them! Then there’s the Murray–Darling Basin Plan you did much to modify and bring about: it seems to come down fairly solidly on the side of farmers.
Now you’re gone, the natural National Party order will be restored in New England, if any order built around a cultivated hysteric like Barnaby Joyce can be called natural. But New England is the smaller element in the loss the country suffered when you decided to leave after the final spill. With hacked limbs and Labor blood all over the stage, it was like the last scene in Julius Caesar; but bad as it was to lose Gillard and Greg Combet and some of the others, losing you felt worse.
A good bloke lost as collateral damage, people are saying. If that is all we can make of it, we will only deepen the folly. You could be the dead-set best bloke in history and be no loss at all. What matters is that you were a good politician: good enough to be the measure of what’s missing in modern politics.
I mean the qualities that the media no longer much values or, in its more extreme and youthful forms, even recognises, and which the major parties only sometimes reward. Not “the vision thing” – though I suspect you have one – but the dependable, intelligent, worldly, unbreakable, character thing, on which democratic politics and our faith in it depend. This is more than “good blokeism” – or “good sheilaism”. It is having good judgement, including the judgement of others’ character. It means hearing and representing the people, but neither aping them nor manipulating them; nor being only for them, whatever the broader interest; nor telling them only what they want to hear, or only the messages that your spin doctors reckon they must hear to the exclusion of both the demands of intellect and the refinements of civilised discourse.
You reminded us that a good politician is more than the confection of a good media manager. You had force without it. In fact you showed us that a lot of what passes for media management is really something got up for the satisfaction of media managers. Julia Gillard had a media manager, and no doubt a very able and up-to-date one, but I’m sure there were days, if not whole weeks, when it would have made no difference if she had employed a billy goat or the auctioneer at the cattle sale.
Every time I heard you in the media, I found myself in a remarkable state of listening. Not wincing or groaning or cursing, or desperately seeking some less enervating experience. You made the others look and sound like early-model robots. Speech is humanity’s “connective tissue”, as your fellow New Englander, the historian Alan Atkinson, once explained. By heeding this simple fact about language, you also heeded a simple one about democracy and public life: that insofar as they depend on knowledge, trust and engagement, they depend on language. You spoke as good politicians used to: as if your brain was working at the same time as your voice and governing what you said. You sounded thoughtful, considered and frank. You sounded interesting.
A year or so after the Walgett Bull Sale, in the midst of the uproar over the Murray–Darling Basin Plan, I went to a meeting of farmers just outside Mildura. The hats were smaller, but the mood was much the same. Some of them were ropeable, and I imagine it was for good reason, but none of them was ropeable enough for the man who is going to replace you in New England. There was Joyce, screeching like a galah going home at dusk. It is “the whole aim of practical politics”, HL Mencken said, to frighten people with imaginary hobgoblins and make them “clamorous to be led to safety”. He was on the money, as usual. Yet word has it that a lot of New Englanders have come around, and you would have beaten Joyce at the next election. There is the saddest thing: not only will a base politician replace a good one, but the lesson you taught by your example, that democracies need not be governed by hobgoblinry, is much less likely to be learnt.
Might you not change your mind?
Yours in faint hope,
Don Watson is an award-winning author and former speechwriter for Paul Keating. His books include Death Sentence: The Decay of Public Language, Recollections of a Bleeding Heart: A Portrait of Paul Keating PM, American Journeys, The Bush and, most recently, the Quarterly Essay ‘Enemy Within: American Politics in the Time of Trump’.