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Tuesday, 24 August 2010 01:18

NBN looms large for regions: Independents


The three rural independent MPs who hold the key to forming of the next Government of Australia - all of them ex-Nationals - will meet in Canberra late today to discuss areas of cooperation before negotiations start with the Prime Minister and Tony Abbott later this week.

The member for New England, Tony Windsor, Rob Oakeshott from Lyne on the mid-North Coast of New South Wales and Bob Katter from the electorate of Kennedy in far north Queensland have been the focus of fierce media attention since it became clear on Saturday evening that it would be a hung Parliament.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard would not say what Labor might take to the negotiation table, but said the most important outcome of any discussion was the stability of government and the stability of the economy.

She said the policies that Labor took to the election would stand, but by entering the negotiation in good faith expected to find common ground in areas like broadband, health, and education.

But she also says her negotiations will promote Government as the most stable, long-term option for the three independents.

On a day when markets were on edge as a result of the cliff-hanger election, 'stability' was the word of the day in Canberra.

Mr Windsor, who has been a strong supporter of both the National Broadband Network and the structural separation of Telstra, cautiously told ABC television's Q&A program that he did not plan to take a list of policy demands to negotiations, but would work with the most stable option.

But broadband services for the bush, which with health was a top two issue for Mr Windsor, is clearly in the frame. Regardless, he is holding his cards close to his chest.

"If there has ever been a piece of infrastructure if it is done correctly that negates distance being a disadvantage in living in country Australia, (broadband) is it," Mr Windsor said.

"And I am not suggesting that it's simply a choice between the Labor party and the Liberal party. I don't trust either of them," he said.

"But we have got to get it right. And we have an opportunity in this Parliament to actually get it right. And if we are talking about the delivery of health services and education services, and business services in the future '¦ (broadband) is a key driver that we have got to have."

Like Bob Katter, Mr Windsor says he has watched the debate about population growth with frustration. Population pressures might be an issue in Southeast Queensland and western Sydney, but regional Australia is bleeding people to the cities, and improved services infrastructure like broadband is seen as a means of reversing the stream.

Rob Oakeshott says broadband policy will clearly be a big part of discussions with both sides of politics.

But he says it doesn't need to be an either-or choice, and there may be parts of each party's policy that can be "borrowed" to make a workable scheme for regional Australia.

"I come from a regional area where if I was sitting in my electorate office right now, I could walk you 500 metres to find people who are still on dial up. That's 1980s technology," Mr Oakeshott told Lateline Business. "But its not only a technology question in play here, it's also a cost question."

"If you were going to make me choose one policy or the other, it would probably be (the Government's National Broadband Network scheme)," Oakeshott said.

"But in the end I think we could work through a policy that I think is a combination stir fry and still get something that's pretty exciting."

"There is a choice here and its not just rocks, paper, there is scissors too," he said.

Analysts and commentators aren't quite sure what to make of the three ex-Nationals and where they will ultimately place their loyalties.

Each looks a natural conservative. But regional seats aren't the conservative strong-holds they once were. And regional electorates have changes vastly in the past 30 years - influenced by drought, dwindling population, poor infrastructure and lower real wages.

Also, each of these independents has had a difficult history with the Nationals. Tony Windsor has held his seat since 1991 and is incredibly popular, winning more than 70 per cent of the popular vote.

He has been attacked constantly by the Nationals since he took the seat as an independent, who have coveted his seat in the NSW heartland. (One of the great feuds of modern politics was Tony Windsor and the former deputy Prime Minister John Anderson, who held the now defunct neighbouring seat of Gwydir.)

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