Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce is facing a potentially dangerous, multi-pronged attack in his seat of New England, with the challenge of Tony Windsor to be augmented by a high-profile candidate representing the Greens.
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Tony Windsor's assault on his old seat
Former independent MP Tony Windsor will attempt to reclaim his seat of New England from Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce. Fairfax's Heath Aston explains.
Mr Windsor is set to announce his intention to again contest New England at a press conference in Canberra on Thursday, less than three years after his retirement from politics.
Fairfax Media can reveal the race for New England will get more crowded, with NSW upper-house MP Jeremy Buckingham close to announcing a dramatic switch to the federal sphere to contest the seat.
A senior Greens source confirmed on Wednesday that Mr Buckingham, who has established a profile in New England through years of campaigning against coal and coal seam gas mining around the Liverpool Plains, is being urged to run and is "seriously considering" putting his hand up.
Greens strategists believe his "attack dog" reputation, particularly against Mr Joyce's complicated stance on mining, can significantly boost the Greens' vote and "take more bark off Barnaby".
The Greens attracted just 4.6 per cent of the primary vote in New England in 2013 and the party believes that would be boosted significantly if Mr Buckingham stands.
"We want to make New England a referendum on coal mining," said a source.
Like Mr Buckingham, the former New England MP, Mr Windsor, has been a vociferous opponent of the Coalition's support for the giant Chinese-owned Shenhua Watermark coal mine near Gunnedah.
During his time as agriculture minister, Mr Joyce broke ranks with his cabinet colleagues, saying the "world had gone mad" when the open-cut mine received approval but his elevation to the second-highest office in the Turnbull Government will make it much more difficult for him to distance himself from the controversial project.
In response, Mr Joyce has already sharpened his lines about Mr Windsor being a hypocrite on the coal mine issue. The independent sold his farm to Whitehaven Coal.
The obvious danger is that Mr Windsor and Mr Buckingham split the anti-Joyce vote and ensure his re-election but a Greens source said Mr Windsor's "country gentleman appeal" is different to Mr Buckingham's and the Green would take votes directly from the Deputy Prime Minister.
A preference deal between Mr Windsor, the Greens and the ALP is a near-certainty.
A senior National Party colleague of Mr Joyce said a co-ordinated attack would make the race tight but the sitting MP would win through.
National Party federal director Scott Mitchell said Mr Windsor appeared to be suffering "relevance deprivation" and New England would judge him on his past record if he stands.
He said there would be no fear of a Buckingham candidacy. "You often get eight or 10 candidates on the ticket in rural and regional seats but we are confident of running a strong local campaign in New England," he said.
Mr Windsor declined to confirm he will stand, saying any announcement will be made on Thursday, but Fairfax Media understands his decision has been made.
He has scheduled a press conference in Canberra for 10am Thursday.
Mr Joyce declined to comment but has said in the past that "wonderful thing about democracy" is that anyone can run and he would welcome the challenge posed by Mr Windsor.
On Monday, local farmer Rod Taber announced he would again contest New England as an independent.
If Mr Buckingham is to run, Greens' candidate Mercurius Goldstein would be asked to stand aside for the good of the party.
When he stepped down in 2013, Mr Windsor gave Mr Joyce a clear run in his switch from the Senate to the House of Representatives. Mr Joyce holds the seat with a margin of more than 19 per cent.
In September, Fairfax Media revealed Mr Windsor was contemplating a tilt for his old seat, encouraged by seat-specific polling conducted by the CFMEU that found Mr Joyce would be under extreme pressure if he entered the race.
The polling suggested Mr Windsor would have pulled close to 38 per cent of the primary vote if an election had been called in August last year and favourable preferences could make New England a knife-edge contest.
His camp is braced for a big-spending campaign by the Deputy Prime Minister, who counts business titans like Gina Rinehart and Harold Mitchell as friends.