The contest between Independent Tony Windsor and the Nationals’ leader Barnaby Joyce in the seat of New England in NSW has been attracting national attention as something of a David and Goliath struggle, but unlike in the well-known biblical tale, this David is not on his own.
Although Windsor held the seat between 2001 and 2013 as a hugely popular local independent, Joyce is the incumbent on a margin of nearly 20%, as well as the deputy Prime Minister with a strong media profile.
Tony Windsor no longer has the resources of a sitting member, but he is gaining strength through volunteers, including one Sydney man who has moved to Armidale for a month to volunteer in his campaign office funded by donations from his family and friends.
Gavin Gilchrist, 59, from Annandale in Sydney’s inner west, crowd-sourced four weeks’ wages through Facebook and direct email and met his target within 24 hours.
“My wife and I have always been big fans of Tony Windsor. I am self-employed and therefore flexible, and I just thought why not do all I can to get him elected, but I do have a mortgage to meet so I did the crowd funding,” he says from the campaign shopfront in The Mall in Armidale.
Donations came from friends and family in Sydney, Newcastle, the Southern Highlands, Europe and the US, with individual pledges of $20 to $1000, while friends in Armidale agreed to put him up.
Tony Windsor says he got tears in his eyes when Gavin told him the story.
“And there’s a guy in Cairns whose sending $20 a fortnight from his pension, it’s touching to get this level of support from people outside the seat and to see there’s some sort of regard for me,” he says by phone from Tamworth.
Gilchrist is a self-declared eco-warrior, committed to fighting climate change and promoting renewable energy. For 15 years he ran his own company Big Switch Projects which worked on energy efficiency with businesses, and last year he worked for a brief time for the NSW Greens’ MP for Newtown, Jenny Leong.
He says it’s not just a case of why Tony Windsor, it’s also why not Barnaby Joyce, who he believes has badly let the people of New England down on crucial issues such as climate change, clean energy, Gonski, same-sex marriage and the NBN.
“The Federal Government’s policy on renewable energy led to delays in the development of two wind farms in the seat, the biggest capital works projects this region has seen in years,” Gilchrist says.
Gilchrist believes Tony Windsor can be effective in Parliament as an independent.
“He’s a man of huge integrity, great judgement and a man of vision and I think he showed that in the hung parliament during the Gillard Rudd years,” he says.
“Tony knows how the system works, he’s an experienced politician and he’s relentless. He campaigns hard on behalf of the community. And when he campaigns on behalf of the community and when he’s got right on his side, he often wins.”
But if Tony Windsor has garnered support from unlikely quarters, so too has Barnaby Joyce.
Ashleigh Baker is a 27-year-old student and waitress who moved to Armidale from Sydney and wants to make her future in regional Australia.
As a member of the Young Nats, she is campaigning for Barnaby Joyce because she believes he will deliver jobs to the seat.
“Barnaby wants to move the HQ of the APVMA (Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority) from the ACT to Armidale. That’s the industry I want to work in, I’m studying Animal Science and I’d hate to have to move away for work,” she says.
Outside the trendy café where she works as a waitress, Ashleigh supervises the recycling of the waste from the day’s breakfast shift into large tubs on the back of a ute. She’s a believer in reducing her carbon footprint.
But she’s confident she can influence policies on issues where the Young Nats have differing positions to the party, such as action on climate change and same-sex marriage.
“We do get to have a say,” she says.
She acknowledges that many of her friends don’t share her political preference, but is glad to live in a democracy. And she likes that Barnaby doesn’t take himself too seriously.
Back at Windsor HQ Gilchrist is busy fielding inquiries from passers-by and organising the roster of volunteers for the pre-polling and polling day booths in Armidale and surrounding towns.
“We reckon to cover the polling booths for the whole electorate we need about 1000 volunteers and I’ve got no doubt we’ll get them,” he says.
Sarah Johnstone from Armidale is one of those volunteers. She says about a dozen volunteers who live outside the seat have turned up to help, so Gavin is not unique, apart from his “brilliant” crowd-funding idea.
She’s there to support Tony Windsor because she says he did a lot of good work during the minority government, but also wants to send a message to the National Party that they are no longer supporting rural and regional Australia.
“My gut feeling is it’s going to be very close, with more people voting for Tony this time around than did before and with Labor voters wanting to dislodge Barnaby at least giving their preferences to Tony,” she says. “But I don’t know whether that swing is going to be big enough, it’s going to be close.”
During this exchange, a middle-aged woman in a raincoat and pushing a stroller, manoeuvers her way through the campaign office door and asks permission to make a crude remark.
“I just want to thank Tony for keeping the bastards honest,” she declares before turning the stroller around and heading back into the rain.