Family heavy, politics lite
Review of ‘Tony Windsor: The Biography.’
By Ruth Rae
Allen & Unwin, 336pp, $35
ACCORDING to author Ruth Rae, this book — an authorised biography of the former independent federal MP for New England, Tony Windsor — was written “because there was a gap in (our) political history. Fair enough. But whether its subject, who before he was elected to federal parliament in 2001 had previously been an independently minded independent member in the NSW Legislative Assembly, deserves a 300-plus page treatment is moot.
What is indisputable is that Windsor, a popular state member for Tamworth from 1991 to 2000, came to national prominence only after the federal election of August 21, 2010, produced a hung parliament. This eventually resulted in the New England MP and other key federal independents supporting a minority Labor government led by Julia Gillard.
On the positive side, Windsor’s biographer was, as she explains, afforded complete and unfettered access to information about all aspects of his life, although whether the former MP, who before he entered state parliament had been a member of the Nationals, had the ultimate right of veto remains unclear.
On the face of it, it seems helpful that Windsor’s schoolteacher wife, Lyn, and their children, Andrew, Kate and Tom, shared their stories, as did his mother, Ruth Windsor. As well, Rae conducted what she describes as open and frank interviews with Gillard, former NSW premier Nick Greiner and present and past federal independent MPs Andrew Wilkie, Bob Katter and Rob Oakeshott.
After lengthy and highly publicised deliberations, it was Queenslander Katter and NSW’s Oakeshott (another former Nationals member) along with Windsor who finally decided to support a minority federal Labor government. As we know only too well, the dysfunctional and divisive minority governments of Kevin Rudd and Gillard (and Rudd redux) clung on to office until Tony Abbott became prime minister in September last year.
As they had both announced their retirements before the federal election last year, this was the last we saw of Windsor and Oakeshott as parliamentarians.
Rae’s often unsubtle book inclines at times more towards hagiography than dispassionate analysis. Nevertheless, she usefully points out that even though Windsor was “famous for his advocacy on behalf of his regional electorate and of regional Australia generally, his father, Tom, was born in the inner-Sydney suburb of Redfern. The family later moved to nearby Newtown and then to Bondi.
It is also useful to know that the WindsorsÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ lucrative family company Cintra Investments is named after the family’s historic property and farm near the NSW town of Werris Creek, north of the Liverpool Plains where Windsor worked for years as a primary producer. As Rae explains, the property Cintra itself was named after Cintra House, a grand late Victorian villa in West Maitland listed on the NSW Heritage Register. This Cintra seems to bear no relation to the historic Moorish hillside town of Cintra near Lisbon, which was once the summer residence of kings, and then of the aristocracy, until the Portuguese revolution of 1974.
Windsor was only eight when his war veteran father was killed by a train. He died intestate so, as Rae explains, Ruth had to “wait until her youngest child, Tony, turned 21 before the estate could be settled. In legal terms this meant the family property could not be mortgaged and would have to somehow provide income for Ruth and her three young boys — Mike, Peter and Tony. The family’s neighbours and friends were sometimes able to help, but the decision to continue to work the property was Ruth’s alone.
Tony’s eldest brother, Mike, sums up the situation: “Mum carried on the running of Cintra in memory of Dad, knowing how much it meant to him, and for their sons.
For this reviewer, the jury is out on the value of this authorised biography. In the main, it is really a detailed family history. In this, although sometimes pedestrian and overly concerned with personal minutia, it succeeds quite well. Sadly, the same cannot be said for the book as a work of sustained and illuminating political analysis. This is despite Rae’s numerous interviews with political heavyweights.
However, from time to time, ‘Tony Windsor: The Biography’ does afford us a rare glimpse into the pressured workings of a hung parliament from the point of view of a principled and, in the main, esteemed independent member of the House of Representatives.
Ross Fitzgerald is emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University.
Tony Windsor: The Biography
By Ruth Rae
Allen & Unwin, 336pp, $35
The Weekend Australian, August 9-10, 2014, Review, Books pp 20-21