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Tuesday, 27 October 2009 17:31

Tony Windsor: Flying the flag for regional Aussies

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The Government's telecommunications reform legislation remains listed for business in the Senate on Wednesday. It passed through the House last week.

We will have to wait to see whether it actually appears. A Senate motion that prevents consideration of the NBN related bills remains in place, although Senator Conroy's over exuberance in releasing at least one of the documents the Senate requested may have overcome that obstacle.

Either Government puts a motion seeking the removal of the order, or Nick Minchin puts one over-riding it. Regardless, the Nationals have settled on a response to the reform proposals: They will vote to defer a decision on the reforms until next year.

Which brings us to Tony Windsor, the independent MP from the regional NSW seat of New England. There are not many MP's who enjoy the kind of popularity as Windsor, who banked 71 per cent of the (two candidate-preferred ) vote at the last election.

And there are fewer still that the National Party would like to smother with pillow more than Windsor.

He has been a thorn in the Nationals side since even before he won New England from the Nationals incumbent Stuart St Clair – ending an unbeaten run for the party since 1922 (and it's Ian Sinclair’s old seat for goodness sake, one he held for 35 years.)

Then there was the touch-up Windsor gave the then Deputy Prime Minister John Anderson – a bun-fight still unresolved, in which the MP accused Anderson of offering him a diplomatic job if he agreed to get out of the parliament. Nothing was proved, except that all these blokes have bad tempers.

So when Tony Windsor starts saying things like the Nationals should "show some independent spine" on the Telstra issue, you know he's picking a fight.

Even a delay to the reforms, he says, puts at serious risk the broadband improvements for regional Australia that are on the table.

Windsor is wary that a delay has the potential to push back reform related to the separation of Telstra into the back half of next year, and that delivers the process directly into the weirdness of a run-up to a Federal election, with all the circus that attracts.

He makes the point that regional Australians aren't going to blame the Liberal Party for messing with broadband, they are going to blame the Nationals – because they know better.

Anyway, the Nationals thinking in the Senate goes something like this (and hold on tight, there are twists ahead): If Communications Minister Stephen Conroy can get the reforms through now with the help of the cross-bench, good luck to him – the Senate Nationals certainly wouldn’t be arguing against that outcome. But they will be voting to delay.

But when it gets put to the Senate again next year, the Nationals will be voting in favour of the legislation.

In the meantime, to the extent that the passage of the legislation would have acted as a "gun to the head of Telstra" as Nick Minchin delicately puts it, is unaffected, because Telstra, Stephen Conroy and the Liberals all know that the Nationals are indeed in favour of the reforms and will vote that way next year.

The 'prize' appears to be that they get to stay in the Coalition.

Which is why Windsor's dig about the Nats needing to grow a backbone is going to hurt.

"We have lived in a time, in the last century at least, where distance, smallness and remoteness have been disadvantages. We have seen a series of governments move towards concentrating people in more or less a feed-lot mentality in our cities," Windsor told the House during debate last week on the telecommunications reforms.

"The development of a national broadband network will break that nexus. Where you live will become less relevant to your capacity to do business, or be competitive, or to deliver health and education services to our young people, our families and our elderly."

"So I am very supportive of this legislation. It is long overdue."

And there's the simplicity of an argument that holds water.

The other nexus that needs to be broken is the one between the Nationals ETS policy and its telecommunications policy.

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