Retired independent politician Tony Windsor is considering a political comeback – with the potential of unseating sitting Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce – following Coalition approval for a giant coal mine in his former electorate.
Environment Minister Greg Hunt on Wednesday gave approval to the $1.2 billion Shenhua Watermark mine, a massive project by a Chinese government-owned company in the heart of the rich Liverpool Plains farming region in northern NSW.
Windsor, who stepped down due to ill-health before the last election, described the decision to mine in what he described as the world’s second richest agricultural region as “atrocious”.
He said the mine, which would dig up 200 million tonnes of coal over 35 years, would have severe impacts on the water table and the Darling River Basin.
Windsor’s retirement paved the way for Joyce to move from the Senate to the lower house in the seat of New England. But it is thought that Windsor has such large support in the region that he would unseat Joyce in a direct contest.
“I am considering it …. I haven’t made a firm decision one way or the other, but I’ve found that since I left politics that I’m still very interested in it,” Windsor told ABC radio on Thursday.
Windsor, of course, played a prominent role in the last parliament, when he and fellow independent Rob Oakeshott, held the balance of power, and helped usher in the Labor government’s clean energy future package, which included the carbon price and institutions such as the Climate Change Authority, Clean Energy Finance Corp, and the Climate Change Commissions, which has now been slowly dismantled by the Abbott government.
Windsor was one of the eloquent and most powerful speakers on the issue of climate change and the environment, a quality that appears almost absent in the current parliament, apart from the Greens.
Windsor said the approval of the Shenhua mine yesterday was another reason to consider re-entering politics.
Windsor was damming of the efforts of Joyce, who despite being agriculture minister has said he was powerless to act, and had described the approval as an “absurdity”.
The Watermark mine promises to be another major flash point between the coal industry, which has the unwavering support of the Abbott government, and the farming community.
Tim Duddy, whose family has farmed the region for nearly 200 years, flagged a possible legal challenge and blockades to the prevent the mine going ahead.
“Farming is dead today in the Liverpool Plains,” he told The Guardian newspaper. “I really hope Greg Hunt realises he has signed its death warrant.”
Duddy later told the ABC: “When mining does start here, there will be no stopping it. Once that occurs, there will be nothing left here.” He said Hunt “did not have a clue” about the potential impacts of the mine.
The issue surrounding coal mining and coal seam gas threatens the National Party in regional areas.
Windsor says the approval for Shenhua Watermark was the result of “shonky” deals among both Labor and Coalition state governments in NSW. And now that the Coalition had signed a free trade agreement with China, Abbott, Hunt and Joyce had felt “beholden” to the Chinese.
Joyce last weekend launched the Coalition’s agriculture white paper with Abbott. The document made scant reference to climate change, although Abbott said agriculture was important because “One day the coal will have been dug up, the gas will have been extracted, but we will always need food and our land forever.”
Duddy and Windsor, however, point out that if the coal is to be dug up, then it will destroy the farming land forever.