Reporting Indi: A reflection by Margo Kingston

Margo Kingston

Margo Kingston

Co-publisher & editor-in-chief at No Fibs
Margo Kingston is an Australian journalist, author, and commentator. She is best known for her work at The Sydney Morning Herald and her weblog, Webdiary. Since 2012, Kingston has been a citizen journalist, reporting and commenting on Australian politics via Twitter and No Fibs.
Margo Kingston

@margokingston1

Recovered journalist uncovered in 2013. #frightbat Queen in 2014.
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Margo Kingston
Future

By Margo Kingston,

1 December 2013

I take the Gold Coast train to Brisbane airport, the plane to Melbourne, the sky bus to Southern Cross Station, the train to Seymour, and the bus to Wangaratta train station. Wayne Jansson leads me to his battered old car and drives me to the hamlet of St James.

A late frost has killed the canola oil crop, and the farmers who couldn’t afford to let the crop rot as fertilizer for next year have rolled it up into hay. The cherry trees look good.

Wayne says his Mum Glenys and step father Mark will host my stay because he lives in a ramshackle rental a few miles past St James. They moved from Goulburn twelve years ago after buying the Post Office. Wayne was a Sydney photographer and one of the stage crew at the Sydney Opera house before moving to Indi 10 years ago after a work injury.

He says he knew early on in the digital revolution that it would shape the future so he taught himself how to build, maintain and administer websites. He has enough clients to get by, just, supplemented with some professional photography, but he’s shy and doesn’t like selling himself. Like me. And he’s reclusive. Like me.

Intrepid @NoFibs citizen journo for  #IndivotesWayne and Margo

Intrepid @NoFibs citizen journo for #IndivotesWayne and Margo

Wayne joined Twitter early and became a Twitter warrior, a left wing political junkie regular on its hard-core #auspol hashtag. But face to face he’s an observer. He doesn’t impose himself and he takes his time. He’d reported full time in the end, after thinking he’d just dip his toe in to see what happened.

And he’s found it hard to get back to work since the intensity of covering the Indi campaign for No Fibs ended two months ago. Me too. Journalism as mask, gives you confidence.

I’d tweeted several times with increasing desperation for a citizen journalist to report Indi for No Fibs. I’d spoken to Wayne with a sinking feeling when he said in his laid back drawl that ‘I sort of might give it a go but I’m hopeless with words – I’m only good with 140 characters. I’m a photographer.’

Oh well, I’d replied, that’ll be different, a photo-journalism seat report.

So why did he volunteer? “I was silly enough to let a bunch of people on Twitter know that I lived near Wangaratta and they all hassled me. Do it, do it. Eventually I succumbed to the pressure.”

***

We sit in the kitchen of an old wooden home Glenys and Mark renovated from the stumps up and extended with the help of a Croatian builder who never stops drinking and never gets drunk. I tell them Wayne was one of my star citizen journalist reporters during the election – curious, skeptical, persistent and committed. Glenys shows me her local paper The Moira Independent, a monthly 14 page newsletter she’s edited and published for many years. It runs in the family.

Had they read his work?

No, we didn’t need to. We heard it all as it happened around this table.

I pull up one of Wayne’s pieces on my computer and we get talking about his campaign.

CJ-Indi

Wayne’s answer to writing nerves was to take a portrait of each candidate and ask them the same questions for publication as a Q and A. He wanted to do them all before publication so no-one had an advantage, but he had a Sophie problem. Her office would not say yes or no, and when he’d asked her in person at a candidates forum she’d said no, loudly, in Cathy McGowan’s hearing, because SHE only had time for her constituents. So we published interviews with Independent Jennifer Podesta, Green Jenny O’Connor, Labor’s Robyn Walsh and McGowan, and a report on Sophie’s boycott, But Sophie, @jansant IS a constituent and others are reading his posts.

Wayne became immersed, and his writing confidence grew as he “stopped thinking how to write and started thinking what to write”. He engaged with candidates and local journos on Twitter and filed regular comprehensive updates with links, key tweets by locals and national tweeps, photos of campaign material and his assessments on the state of play, all of which proved astute (Mirabella under siege in Indi, Coalition big guns and generic letters leave locals cold in Mirabella’s Indi, Mirabella in front, but McGowan claims support from all camps: @jansant #Indivotes update, Indi locals protest Mirabella’s claims on health centres – and her preferences stir bad bushfire memories, Tactics get tough as McGowan’s orange horde surprises Mirabella in Indi.) He drove hundreds of miles to file blow-by-blow accounts with photos and live-tweets of ever more well attended and passionate candidates forums (Indi’s grassroots QandA, with hashtag and Wangaratta goes wild for democracy: @jansant reports hot #Indivotes forum).

Wayne critiqued McGowan on her lack of policy detail and picked up early that she had significant National Party support. He pressed her hard in an interview on speculation that former National party leader Tim Fischer was advising her (McGowan a close friend of Tim Fischer, but denies she’s a National Party front).

https://twitter.com/Indigocathy/status/350830453390974976

Cathy’s Twitter momentum began on June 30, more than a month before the election was called, when Tony Windsor said on Insiders: “Sophie Mirabella – she wins the nasty prize. I know there’s an excellent independent running down there… they’ve got a great group of people – so, people of Indi, just have a look at your representative and see how much better you could do.” It intensified on August 7 when Crikey reported a leaked email from a Sophie staffer warning Liberals they were being outgunned. Indi locals began joining Twitter to tweet pictures of orange campaigners on the road across the electorate, and McGowan used Twitter to retweet them and announce events and press conferences. Her campaign seemed see-through, spontaneous, very positive and ultra-inclusive. I was enthralled.

To ensure easy access to Indi action so I could keep up and retweet to my followers, I tweeted Indi’s Twitter-active candidates Podesta, O’Connor, McGowan and Labor’s campaign manager Zuvele Leschen to seek consensus on a hashtag. Wayne pressed for #IndiVotes and all agreed, as did the Border Mail Indi reporter Natalie Kotsios. The Wangaratta Chronicle and other local media joined in, and I tweeted in the occasional mainstream media story. #Indivotes became Twitter’s news and views feed for journos, locals, Indi expats and interested Tweeps across Australia, and at Wayne’s request No Fibs publisher Tony Yegles added the #Indivotes feed to our website so people who weren’t on Twitter had access. At Indi’s first big candidates forum, in Wodonga, broadcast live on ABC radio, the #IndiVotes hash tag was displayed up front on a big screen.

To my surprise and enormous pleasure the Border Mail and other local media began retweeting No Fibs. As a former big media insider now citizen journalist writer and editor I loved the collaboration of mainstream media, indie media local and national tweeps. Real-time reporting. Powerful. Exciting. And so transparent anything could happen.

On the day of the Wodonga candidates forum, local Tom Anderson tweeted a request for details into #Indivotes, and I suggested he live tweet the event. He did, including selfies with all the candidates (his photo with Sophie was her only contribution to No Fibs coverage). He then stayed up all night writing up his experience and his hunger to get more involved (The night I got politically involved: How @TomAnderson62 found himself live tweeting #Indivotes). Tom became my second citizen journo in Indi. He scrambled to get to the press conference of former National Party MP Tom Jasper announcing his support for Cathy, and spent hours typing up the transcript. His campaign assessment on 2 September bubbled with enthusiasm:

Every day in the two weeks (since my first post) has seen a forum, a press conference or an event. It’s almost a full time job just trying to stay up to date on everything happening around you. I’ve been riding the ‘sugar high’ and am addicted to the election goings on in the seat of Indi and fully engaged in the #Indivotes Twitter discussions every day and night.

Tom  live tweeted the Wangaratta forum, asking Sophie why she boycotted the stolen generations apology, and interviewed the independent film makers who’d arrived to record the campaign ten days out from the election.

BRtRAS0CUAA8ID4-(2)

Cathy’s media adviser Cam Klose wrote me a piece describing the mood shift in Indi and the importance of social media to Cathy’s campaign (Cathy McGowan’s campaign for Indi enters the national spotlight as tweeps get the message out):

With a mixture of Twitter, Facebook and Nationbuilder software we have been able to organise our 300-plus active volunteers effectively and connect our team on the ground through social media.

Through Twitter we have also been able to engage with people outside the electorate. After the flurry of media attention last week, we had thousands of dollars donated to the campaign. The majority of those donations came from outside Indi and most of the calls for donations came through people on Twitter.

Melbourne playwright Van Badham led the Tweep fundraising campaign, and I commissioned a piece from her (a friend of mine donated her fee) about why she got involved, Latte-sipping city slicker @Van Badham gives thanks for rural independents and sees a new dawn for values in politics:

The miracle of the internet is the communities it brings together. A glib ‘why not give five bucks to the independent who’s taking on Mirabella?’ tweet was shared by hundreds of people, not because I’m particularly influential but because the sentiments aroused by Mirabella’s public nastiness and Tony Windsor’s niceness were already shared by the friends I’ve made in my digital community. As the internet continues to tear down the boundaries between old and new media, old and new politics, so it has torn down the old separations between electoral communities, the city and the country.

Whether McGowan can actually win the seat is secondary to what makes the contest in Indi important. By allowing the easy acquaintance of individuals across formerly prohibitive geographical and social space, the internet is undermining the authority of political representatives to own the identities of their enemies. This inner-city girl may not have a lot in common with Cathy McGowan in terms of life experience or outlook, but I respect and admire her, and I want her to win.

Van’s piece inspired Cathy’s nephew Ben McGowan to write a piece on how the Voice for Indi used rural networks to create the community movement backing McGowan. In How Indi got itself on the map: The blueprint he revealed that the Victorian Women’s Trust Purple Sage project in the late 1990s was the basis for its kitchen table conversation beginnings and that its CEO Mary Crooks had advised them on the process:

We’re getting towards the end of a successful 16 month project but its origins were inauspicious, just talking about politics around the chipboard tables in the community room of the Wangaratta Library.

Talking about politics around the kitchen table with friends and family. And now talking about politics across the whole electorate. With a bit of luck they could be talking about our style of rural politics in Canberra next year.

And in the campaign’s last week Podesta and O’Connor penned fascinating pieces on being part of the Indi drama and how they interpreted what was happening (Jennifer Podesta inside the Indi contest: slurs, setbacks and why she came up smiling, Greens Indi candidate @JennyJenocon on #Indivotes,

No Fibs was seriously value-adding. We were on top of the best yarn in the election campaign and creating a valuable record for future analysis and interpretation. A Twitter-based website featuring citizen journos on the ground in Indi was producing the most comprehensive, innovative national Indi coverage in Australia. I was thrilled.

***

After a fine meal and good conversation I lie in bed with my computer working out how I got here. Yes, there’s the May 20 Facebook message from Sarah Capper, an old friend I’d met online through Webdiary 10 years ago who now edits the online magazine Sheilas for the Victorian Women’s Trust (I later learn that a Voice for Indi founder Alana Johnson is on the board). “You seen Candidate to lead vision in the Border Mail? New community candidate for Indi taking on Sophie Mirabella.”

I checked the Voice for Indi website and loved its grassroots engagement and the involvement of young people so I followed McGowan and asked her for a piece. She said yes but I’d heard no more by June 6, when I got an email from a Twitter follower:

There’s a grassroots political campaign brewing in Victoria that you may find interesting. Sophie Mirabella is the Member for Indi… It’s not exactly a marginal seat as she won by 59.19 per cent of the two party preferred vote in the 2010 Election. However, there is a movement afoot to unseat her, if not at this election, then the one after, by means of grassroots action in the community. Among its aims is to become a case study for grassroots community engagement. They want to get someone elected in the mould of Tony Windsor – from an agricultural background who would appeal to the (mainly) conservative voters of the electorate – and have endorsed an independent candidate called Cathy McGowan in the upcoming Federal Election. They aim to get her elected by engaging with people in the electorate, i.e. actually talking to them! In local household events, in people’s lounge rooms, by door knocking etc. The reason I know about the campaign is because my sister is involved in it.

I chased up Cathy, and on 8 June she emailed a piece that did not sing:

I need to confess that I am not the author. While I do have lots of skills writing about myself is a challenge, so I asked one of the ‘young people’ on my team to give a hand. The author is Cam Klose and he is a key member of the ‘Indi Expats’… a group of young people from Indi currently living in Melbourne who are managing the social media and campaign communication strategies. This is our first ‘shared’ writing piece and we are very interested in your reactions – have we covered off on the main topics – are there other things you’d be interested in knowing? Let us know.

I was taken aback by her candour and openness. And trust.

Cathy’s Team

And the timing. After a break from Twitter in despair at broken record political reporting I’d posted a column on 7 June called @NoFibs new directions foreshadowing a project asking citizens to report democracy’s dance in the seat where they lived. Just before reading her email, I’d tweeted “I’m on the prowl for citizens who would like to report regularly on what’s happening on the ground in the seat where they live. Interested?”

I replied to Cathy:

Well this is interesting. The content is fascinating but it reads a bit too much like a press release for maximum impact I reckon.

Idea – the writer, Cam, tells the story from his angle of vision. How he got involved, the process, interviewing you.

I would LOVE to know more about the expats group too.

So my feedback is that the content is great, it just needs to to be grounded in the voice of the writer.

I would also like links to the report, relevant twitter handles, your website.

Regards, and good luck – what an adventure this will be.

She replied:

Great feedback, thanks Margo – will get onto this very promptly and get back to you… ‘Interesting” is a good word for what we are trying to do. Some mornings I wake up terrified…yet the community response has been so strong we know we are doing a good thing.

On June 10 No Fibs published her media adviser Cambell Klose in Chasing involved democracy in Indi: @indigocathy v @SMirabellaMP, which I now see it as the opener to No Fibs grassroots coverage of more than twenty seats during the election by volunteer real estate agents, public servants, teachers, musicians, consultants, retirees, students and current and former journalists. They covered safe seats and marginals, city and country, and showed how disengaged most citizens were on the ground. Except for Indi.

***

Wayne picks me up early next morning for a drive to Benalla for Voice for Indi’s ‘open day’ to discuss the movement’s future. We reminisce about election day.

Cam had emailed asking whether I was coming to Indi on September 7. Hmmm. I rang my friend Julie Lambert in Sydney, who’d rescued Tony and I during the campaign when we’d been overwhelmed by the volume of citizen journalist reports. She’d just been made redundant as AAP’s chief sub-editor when she read my piece in the Walkleys magazine about my accidental return to journalism in December 2012 and rang to volunteer her help while she looked for work. Lucky me, lucky writers. Julie couldn’t think of a place she’d rather be on election day. Cam offered to pick us up and find us a place to stay. OK, I’ll relax, enjoy the day, meet the writers, celebrate the end of non-stop work. Macquarie University’s seed funding for the No Fibs experiment with Twitter-based citizen journalism would end on election day, so Indi would mark my transition back to post-journalism life after my brief return.We published Wayne’s piece Sophie’s desperate choice: Indi booths blanketed with negative ads, heavies on guard at 2am on election day, after Indi tweeps posted photos of the operation on Friday evening. The result was overwhelming in Wodonga, my first stop with the indie film makers who’d collected us from the airport. Long continuous strips of plastic posters on endless repeat wrapped around polling buildings – ‘The failed record of independents DIVISION CHAOS INSTABILITY. Don’t risk it.” Blue posters “ONLY THE LIBERALS CAN REPAY THE DEBT’ next to red posters ‘AN INDEPENDENT CAN’T SCRAP THE CARBON TAX’. Orange posters – “THE LABOR GREEN INDEPENDENT GOVERNMENT HAS FAILED – WITH SO MUCH CHAOS DON’T RISK YOUR VOTE ON AN INDEPENDENT”. McGowan’s advertising was orange balloons and lots of smiling orange-clad volunteers – she fielded 650 local volunteers that day.

I couldn’t resist Twitter-reporting. Maybe it was work, but I thought, how lucky am I to be here as a citizen journalist, no-one telling me what to do or when to file, free to tell my story of Indi’s election day as I wished when I wished for anyone on Twitter who wished to see it. And I was one of so many – Wayne, Tom and I joined local journos, candidates, supporters and voters to fill #Indivotes with real time colour and photos from all over the electorate. Sophie’s camapign boycott of Twitter by Sophie meant that even on election day, she was absent from the news feed, save for the odd photo taken by Cathy supporters. I tweeted:  “Sophie to Cathy volunteer ‘Democracy a good thing, a playwright from Melbourne funds your campaign’ ‘And big tobacco funds yours’ #indivotes” The Border Mail ran a live updates page “for all your #indivotes election news and pictures” telling the story in selected #Indivotes tweets until 11pm. Twitter-connected Indi reported democracy’s dance in real time for itself and for Australia. Magic.

The only input I saw from outside Indi came from ABC press gallery journalist Latika Bourke, who tweeted she was hearing that Greens were bussed to Indi to support McGowan at the polling booths. Huh? McGowan had volunteers to burn and any spare Greens would be in Adam Bandt’s seat of Melbourne – wonder where she’d heard that silliness? I replied ‘False – no Greens bussed to Indi for indie. Many Libs bussed from Melbourne for Sophie – your source confused’. Jenny O’Connor tweeted “Total lie – retract this’. No reply.

The film crew who’d picked us up from Albury airport criss-crossed Indi in search of Cathy, and I met her for the first time at Rutherglen polling booth,. ‘Hello Margo,’ she said with a radiant smile. “I remember you as a high flying journalist in Canberra. You didn’t know me – I was working for a Liberal MP’ (the former member for Indi Ewen Cameron). I tweeted her quote with a photo: “It’s gunna be close. We’re celebrating democracy in Indi today. Flags are flying.”

I hitched a ride in her car to the next booth. She said her biggest fear was that the campaign might get dirty, and she was grateful Sophie had run a clean campaign. ‘Well she had no choice, given her history,’ I replied. ‘She ran a clean campaign, and I give her credit for that.

*

The last time I reported on the ground on election night was in 1998 in ipswich, where Pauline Hanson relied on reporters to explain what the television numbers meant in the seat of Blair and I had to explain to distraught supporters that she’d lost even though she led the count due to the preferential voting system. While orange people gathered in the entertainment area of the Wangaratta Arts Centre to enjoy the evening, Cam Klose, Cathy’s young geek Nick Haines and others settled in a side-room in front of computers linked to a big screen. A spreadsheet listed all the booths to record votes as they were rung through by scrutineers and update candidate overall tallies.

Our evening began with the second intervention from the big smoke – Natalie Kotsios tweeted a Sky news exit poll claiming Sophie would retain Indi. Huh? None of Cathy’s supporters had seen polling at any booth.

Most journos were at Sophie’s party or with Cathy at her Wodonga party, so I worked non-stop tweeting results as they went up – booths and progressive tallies – amid growing excitement that Cathy was in with a chance. Outside intervention three – I was inundated with tweets asking if I was on another planet, as the ABC had called Indi a Liberal retain. Wrong, I tweeted, and heard that ABC local radio was desperately trying to convince Sydney to change the call. Why wouldn‘t they – several journos at Sophie’s party had tweeted that she’d just declared her party a ‘private function’ and removed them, just like Hanson did in 1998 when she’d realised she’d lost.

Just before 8pm Sophie Mirabella was the number one trending topic on Twitter in Melbourne, and the side-room packed out. At 8.30pm I tweeted that Cathy “is hanging in there” before Ken Jasper pumped his fist in the air to tell an ecstatic crowd that “It’s on the line – Cathy could win it”. The count was done by nine – I tweeted “No #Indivotes result tonight… 20+ percent pre-poll votes counted Monday. Too close to call. Cathy party on fire. People power!”

For the first time I left the numbers room and experienced the party – hundreds of people in orange, lots of children, teenagers, people of all ages, high. Indie political podcasters Something Wonky called me:

Everyone’s waiting for Cathy. It’s too close to call but it is a very positive result. She’s pulled Sophie down to under 43, she’s about 32 she’s getting all the preferences from Labor and the Greens. I’ve got two citizen journalists on the ground in Indi and they have a strong feeling, as do Cathy’s people, that the pre-polls will favour Cathy so there’s a feeling of some confidence tonight that Cathy will get over the line.

You can say yes, us lefties can avoid slashing our wrists and get some pleasure in this, but it isn’t just an ‘anyone but Sophie’ result. There’s a very big story here in Indi of a grassroots movement that’s brought together the oldies, the newbies, the blow-ins, the farmers, the young people, the old people, who have really built something special out of this, that has pulled together a community and defined a community. Everything they’ve done has been done with a smile, has been creative, has been cutting edge – they’ve got young expats who’ve brought in some amazing grassroots campaigning inspired by Obama. I feel this is a way forward to reinvigorate our democracy. It’s a huge positive story as well as an ‘anyone but Sophie’ story…

I was drowned out by a roar as Cathy arrived and held the phone up.

This is an unbelievable scene. I’d say there’s about 400 people dressed in orange just going crazy. It’s gone off. In a way she’s won because she’s come so close – but OK I’m gunna go out on a limb and say I reckon she’s won this.

It’s a blueprint for doing things better. And it had to come out Victoria. There’s been a lot of Melbourne money behind this, it’s been a movement that’s tapped into social media. The indivotes hashtag – the Twitter newsfeed – has gone off during this campaign. Cathy’s campaign has run sessions on how to do Twitter.  The local media has been extraordinarily vibrant here, and they’ve really collaborated with social media. It was a test of social media – social media has failed in large measure in this election, but the interest around Australia in Indi – a Melbourne playwright called Van Badham ran a Twitter ‘could everyone donate 5 bucks’ campaign and Cathy got donations from around Australia of more than $100,000. We’re just starting to see the power of social media and grassroots democracy coming together. It’s been an interesting election in a jaded, cynical sort of way but here in Indi something’s special is happening. Green shoots maybe.

The Voice for Indi had planned a celebration no matter what the result, decorating a stage for a show. Susan Benedyka, like some other founders of the movement a specialist in community building and rural leadership, gave me a copy of its vision statement of 6 September 2012. “Reckon we’ve done it?”’ She read it to the crowd, and you could almost taste their pride in what they’d achieved. Indicators of success:

  • The people of Indi are recognised for their progressive and interesting ideas, and for transforming these into action (rather than Indi being perceived as being the ‘personality’ of the sitting member).
  • Indi is known nationally for the way its citizens engage and for their enthusiasm for new ideas to build their community
  • Indi becomes a case study for ‘grass roots’ community engagement
  • Indi is recognised for its innovation in connecting its citizens
  • Indi has a respected independent candidate who improves public discourse across the electorate and who attracts wide support from voters at the 2013 election.

Cathy, flanked by dozens of young people, accepted the flowers and the love. She thanked the “joy and love” teams, the booth teams, the scheduling teams, the legal teams, the food teams, the back-up teams, the badge-making teams, the driving teams, the doorknocking teams and “the Twitter and the Facebook mob – I had a tweet today from Parliament House press gallery in Canberra telling me that everybody there was following our tweets”.

She shared a quote found in a toilet at Mittagundi “because it captures what we’ve done”.

The future is not some place we are going to but one we are creating. And the paths to it are made, not found, and the activity of making them changes the destination and the makers. We used to be called a safe seat, but we’ve changed that. We’ve made the future a swinging seat of Indi.

Cheers, claps and then the chant, “Cathy, Cathy, Cathy….”

Not only have we changed the future but we as a community are changed by the journey. And we, the people of Indi, are claiming the power to be the architects and authors of our future and our community’s future. (Cheers) I’m extraordinarily proud to be one of the leaders of this campaign and the catalyst for so may people re-engaging with politics – and I’m particularly proud of the fact that so many of our young people have been involved (Rapturous applause).

Before we have any results, I’d like to acknowledge the current member of Indi. She has been a hard working and passionate member of Parliament (and) I would like to thank her and acknowledge what she has done. (I waited for boos, but there were none).

Melbourne musician Sal Kimber, an Indi expat from Wangaratta, played her guitar and sang her Indi Lyrics for ‘From little things big things grow’ with Paul Kelly’s permission.

Young people are frustrated, they don’t trust the system, they’re tired of the fighting, guessing who’s on whose side. We’re facing huge problems when solutions are short term, let’s vote for respect, compassion this time

They’re not a pollie party, the community of Indi, we’re not just a one off, we’re in for long term, it’s time for our MPs to engage with their people, with honesty and trust, it can all be transformed.
Vote for a voice, the voice for Indi, vote for the voice that comes from the land, we must make a choice, we must make a stand.

I swear every person there waved their arms high and sang the chorus in full voice. I tweeted: “And now the music. ‘From little things big things grow. The crowd is singing. #indivotes shows us how democracy can inspire us all.”

Magical. Transformative. And no big media or big media TV cameras to disturb the ambience – only the unobtrusive indie film maker David and his team captured the moment. I could feel the sense of achievement, win or lose. That win or lose they had a ringside seat at what could be a miracle that they had helped make happen. Country gents with long poker faces, little kids, everyone glowed. And they kept glowing for hours. I heard people say this was the best night of their lives. Children danced, adults chatted, no-one got drunk, no voices were raised,. People seemed to move in slow motion to a buzz of easy, excited chatter.

So, I muse to Sarah Capper, who’d just arrived from Melbourne with Victorian Women’s Trust CEO Mary Crooks, Victoria’s way to protest bad big party politics is Cathy, Queensland’s way to throw a bomb called Clive Palmer. What a combination.

Susan shook my hand and said thanks, I wasn’t sure what for. “In the early days we didn’t realise the power of social media. It had an enormous effect – older people got involved because they had more time and it was wildfire by the end of it. Sophie didn’t play in that space.”

Labor’s campaigner Lauren McCully dropped in and said Hi. “She’s won it, the preferences have all gone her way.” She was happy to go on record, and I tweeted the news. Then David returned from Sophie’s press conference, which he’d sneaked into with The Age photographer. She’d been aggressive, accusing Cathy, Labor and Greens of a conspiracy against her, but said the seat was too close to call. But when the political performance was over he’d kept filming as she crumpled and collapsed into the arms of family members, crying. She’d lost it. A miracle.

***

I woke up next morning in the Wangaratta homestead of farmer Phil Haines,  Cathy’s campaign manager, his partner Helen, another prolific newbie tweep, and son Nick. While Phil began making breakfast for the after-party Ben McGowan arrived with the news that the preliminary pre-poll vote count done early in the morning was so bad for Cathy that no matter how he crunched the numbers he couldn’t find a way for her to win once postals were counted. They were traditionally were very strong for Sophie and she, unlike Cathy, had mounted an aggressive postal votes campaign.

I watched for them to sink into a black hole, to bemoan their lack of a postal campaign, to sink into depression. Phil continued to collect plates and cutlery, Helen arrived to help. Equanimity held. We gave it our best shot, we wanted to make Indi marginal and we did. These people were Zen, I thought. They’ve worked out the secret of detachment. And it’s infectious. My frown disappeared. I tweeted the news, “Morning after, Sophie firming as survivor” and took a walk outside, tweeting photos of the deck beside a breathtakingly beautiful billabong flanked by very old Red River gums. Of the Cathy McGowan truck near the shed. The cubby house in a tree. The flowers in the front garden.

Helen placed photo-boards of volunteers election day photos off Twitter across the electorate at the deck’s entrance. Voice for Indi leaders drifted in, accepted the bad news and began breakfast by the billabong. I tweeted photos of the gathering – they’re all smiling. Cathy arrived after a family reunion in town (she’s tweeted a picture) and she too received the news with acceptance. The Victorian Women’s Trust CEO Mary Crooks arrived with Sarah Capper and reacted like I had – intense, downcast, wanting briefings from the numbers man.

Cam Klose arrived with a long list of media interview requests. The Age reporter Henrietta Cook arrived with her photographer. The ABC chopper landed in a field next door.

I tweeted photos of the ABC camera recording Cathy asking her team to train scrutineers for the week’s “footie match” who could “find their inner mongrel”. I tweeted a photo of Henrietta interviewing Cathy. And I remembered Hanson’s geek Scott Balson papping us Hanson reporters for One Nation’s website and telling me on election night 1998 that “What I’ve been doing is just a taste of what’s to come”.

Fifteen years later I was on the inside photographing the media for instant publication on Twitter. Wondering how I got there, negotiating in my head how far I could go as a journalist in this odd and privileged position, and how far I wanted to go. Henrietta asked if I was part of the McGowan team. No. Her photographer lined up a shot of Cathy with her team and she asked me to join them. No, I’m a reporter.

The indie film crew arrived as Cathy began one of many phone interviews, and David agreed to record my interview with her when she was done. All the questions the media was asking my readers and Twitter followers already knew, and I wanted to understand the Zen vibe despite the morning-after disappointment. I wanted to get personal.

M: Cathy, No Fibs readers and my followers on Twitter have followed your journey with enormous interest. We know why you’re doing it, how you did it, your inspiration, your volunteers. We don’t really know much about you. So on behalf of my readers I’d like to ask, how was this journey been for you?

C: It’s been amazing. Personally challenging, really difficult, probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life – and it feels the most worthwhile thing. This year I turn 60. I had a really big party for my 50th birthday that set me up for the next bit of my life, and I’ve been thinking about my 60th (November 29 this year). I’m really influenced by Jane Fonda’s book, and her ‘third act’ when she got to be 60 – how she was going to play out her life. So I’ve been thinking what the third act of my life’s going to be like. I was planning a big 60th party and I’d invited lots of friends and we’d set the date aside. And when this project came up I thought, ‘This could be a good thing to do’. So part of the personal journey has been, ‘How is my life story going to be re-told’ and the idea of ‘What’s’ the third act going to be, where do all the parts of my life come together?’

This has been a chance to pull together lots of the life skills I’ve learned on my journey – of advocacy, rural communities, working with young people, putting out the idea of a long term plan for a community. And the idea of investing in something that’s really important to me, the long term future of the community I really love – the environment, the people, and agriculture.

Now I’m at this spot I feel enormous delight that we took the risk and that we’ve carried it off, that we’ve survived it in such a good way and we’ve kept ourselves nice. Could we be our best selves and deliver on it? We’ve been able to do it. And I’m so pleased that I’ve had the opportunity in my life to represent rural and regional Australia in this way, and that the circumstances in my life have come together for me to be in this place at this time to be able to do it.

This is the beginning, this is the foreword. It’s setting in place the foundations for what the next bit’s going to be like, regardless of if I get elected. If elected I will do this work as the member for Indi. If I’m not elected I will do this work as a member of Voice for Indi. We will continue to work with the volunteers, we will build on this community spirit, we will build on the courage  and conviction our community has shown to work on a long-term plan for Indi. What do we want our community to be like? What are the foundations we need to put in place – the physical and community infrastructure? Let’s design and let’s make this journey. No one else is going to tell us what the future is. It’s ours to make.  And let’s do it together as a community. I’m really excited about being able to give 10,15 years of my time to that, and that all these young people can come on board and we’ll pass on the learning.

One of the characteristics of this campaign has been the fun we’ve had – there’s been celebration all the way through –  so it behoves the next bit well if we have as much joy and happiness in doing the next bit as we’ve had so far.

M: The empowering aspect of what you’ve done is bring people together all the way from the left to the right – it’s an incredibly broad Coalition which is revolutionary and therefore fragile. How are you going to show the rest of Australia that there is another way to do politics – that you can bring people together rather than rip them apart?

C: This is not about the rest of Australia. This is about us, and us doing our job of community really well. So we’re doing it for ourselves with the hope that other people can watch and learn and can go and do it in their communities for themselves, and can learn and be energised from it. It’s not about doing things to people, it’s about the community doing our learning together. Every community must do their own learning. Models can’t apply – you’ve got to do the work, you’ve got to do the engagement, you’ve got to do the invitation.

I think we will hold it together because we have that very good process in place of ‘It’s not about politics, it’s about how we want to live in community together and what we need to put in place so we can do it’. We’ve shown there’s a willingness for the community to to do that because people know how horrible it is when you’re polarised, and that when you drop out of relationship you’re can’t have the conversation. We know we will survive because we can work together, that our resilience will come out of community. We’ve had enough experience of floods and fires to know that that’s much more important to us than political perspectives.

So that’s part of the 21st century politics, how do we learn to live in tolerance and harmony together and accept difference and bring people of difference together? That won’t be everyone’s cup of tea in Indi, clearly – but we’ve made a fantastic beginning. We’ve done a values-driven, frank, community-based campaign. Many people have got the message and come onboard, so if they’ve come on board for a political campaign, how much more will they come on board for something that builds community for their children and people they’re caring about in their old age. I’m really optimistic.

M: What have learnt about yourself in the course of this incredible journey?

C:  I’ve learnt with great humility that I don’t have to be in charge of everything. I’ve never been part of such a large community movement and I’ve learnt that engaging with people and then letting them do their own work and trusting them to do their own work creates such power and energy. I’ve learnt that I don’t have to lead from the front, that I can be a leader from the middle and from behind.

And I’ve learnt this lovely thing that winning or losing is not the issue. It’s absolutely the journey that you go on. Every moment of this we’ve stopped and reflected and we’ve claimed the small wins and we’ve had the celebrations. The meaning is in today, not in the future.

My personal journey has been a faith commitment – can we really live the values? It sounded corny when we started out, but people liked it and we walked the talk. And at last night’s party a colleague read out our statement of success and we are all so pleased that we’ve been  able to achieve these behaviour changes for ourselves and the things we did because we concentrated on the here and now. And while we wanted the end, it’s not the be all and end all. That’s a really nice lesson.

I’d got my answer. I flew home.

***

Two months later Wayne drives me to the Benalla Arts Centre for a Voice for Indi open day, the movement’s first public gathering since the election. It’s a debrief and a conversation opener on the next phase of its participatory democracy experiment, an Indi summit next year.

Wayne and I are excited to meet Nicola Bussell, the Liberal Party member and farmer who’d ignited local #indivotes debate by joining Twitter in the campaign’s last two weeks. She wasn’t part of Sophie’s campaign team, and agrees its lack of Twitter presence was a mistake. “The election campaign taught me about the power of social media. I didn’t mind that I felt like a lone soldier. I was trying to open the debate up and bring some balance to it, because people get carried away and emotional. It doesn’t matter who’s in power, you need good, serious, useful debate drawing on factual information.”

It’s a big electorate, Indi, and there’s 80 people here from all parts, some of whom have never met. Naturally someone tweets proceedings from the Voice for Indi twitter handle – Twitter is by far the biggest driver of traffic to its website.

People sit around several large round table for two rounds of ‘Word Cafe Conversation’, chats about the campaign successes people think they can build on and what needs to happen for them to continue to be politically engaged and active. They jot down thoughts for collation and feedback.

Participants liked learning about how to use Twitter, how the preference system worked and scrutineering. They liked the organic model of the movement and the local autonomy it gave members. They liked the sense of energy, possibility and hope, the coming together of several generations and the inspiration of the young. They liked the feeling of people across the political spectrum working together and the engagement of Indi ex-pats. They liked the focus on what matters to them locally and how that connects with national issues. They endorsed the value of values; the ethic of respect and civility all volunteers signed up to. And they loved the fun of it.

They want more political education. They do not want the movement to become a political party, but a means to connect the people of Indi across the electorate no matter how they voted. Several participants raised the question of whether the Voice for Indi would endorse state or local candidates, a topic left hanging and the one the Wangaratta Chronicle reports from the meeting, It ends with a brainstorm on what the summit might look like, how to organise it and what to cali it.  ‘Connecting Indi’ and ‘Imagining Indi’ are the favourites. People leave smiling.

Cathy tells me that as the member she doesn’t represent the Voice for Indi, and must listen to many groups in her electorate. There are several Liberals present – a breakthrough – and she is low key, listening, taking notes. I ask if she has fears about her new role and she says no, because she has clarity of purpose (I learned later from my niece that after the election she did a ten day Vipassana silent retreat in Melbourne with some family members). She says she knows what she wants to do and how she wants to do it and if after three years the people of Indi didn’t want her to do it any more she’d be happy to return to her old life and her Voice for Indi vision.

***

Next day a founding member of Voice for Indi, Dennis Ginnivan, and his partner Helen McGowan, Cathy’s sister (their daughter Leah was a volunteer on Cathy’s campaign team) give me a lift to Melbourne for the Victorian Womens Trust tribute to Julia Gillard. Helen says she’d asked Nicola to come to the open day. And that she’d become a Twitter addict during the camapign and still is.

We re-live that incredible week after election day when #Indivotes was invaded by leftie tweeps seeking solace, right wingers incensed that there was comfort for them and big media who at last added #IndiVotes to their tweets. The week the national media invaded Wangaratta to report the count and write features on how on earth this happened and Cathy became a national media celebrity. The week several Tweeps regularly crunched the statistics of Cathy’s ever diminishing lead due to postal votes to predict the result and someone created a Twitter handle to report each Electoral Commission vote update. The week Tweeps blew up at the slowness of the count and Indi businesses seized the moment to tweet the wonders of Indi lamb, Indi wine and the Wangaratta Jazz Festival.

The week #Indivotes became the top trending topic on Twitter after the Electoral Commission found 1,000 more pre-poll votes at the Wangaratta booth for Cathy and the right exploded with conspiracy theories until it became clear that the votes were not lost but ‘mis-transcribed’. The week Sophie effectively conceded defeat because the missing votes secured Cathy’s victory, triggering nasty triumphalism from many Tweeps outside Indi celebrating with ‘ding dong the witch is dead’. The week several Indi Tweeps left the hashtag in protest at the tone and a mainstream media debate flared on whether the left was as sexist as the right. The week porn spam tweets flooded the hashtag to wreck the feed.

No Fibs published a Storify of my first Twitter news reporting, photo-galleries of Wayne’s Indi election campaign and election day and night photos, Tony’s video tribute to Indi democracy and Wayne’s transcript and photo-gallery of Cathy’s victory press conference, McGowan to apologise to Indi Aborigines. And a a piece by the person who began No Fibs’ Indi journey, Sarah Capper, on the Victorian Womens Trust role.

I worked hard to keep local perspectives of the boil-over in the mix as big names in national media begin telling the story, publishing assessments on how Cathy did it by Jenny Podesta and Jenny O’Connor (Where Sophie went wrong, by #Indivotes candidate @jenpodesta, Reflections on a unique campaign: Greens candidate @JennyJenoconon on #Indivotes)

And Twitter, as always, delivered unexpected treasures. I pounced on a tweet by Wodonga businesswoman Kate Sleeman on the power of Cathy’s family networks in Indi and she delivered a piece on the sociology of her success. When Cathy’s team tweeted that she’d be the first female independent MP in federal parliament, several tweeps said Pauline Hanson beat her to it and one found the true pioneer – Doris Blackburn in Melbourne in 1946. I asked for a profile and within hours published professor Robin Tennant-Wood’s Cathy McGowan’s first female indie MP predecessor Doris Blackburn.

And then it was over. It finally hit me that a post-truth climate change denier was Prime Minister. And that the people hadn’t really wanted to vote him in, because despite Labor’s self-destruction in office and the worst campaign I’d ever watched and the most viciously biased coverage I’d ever seen from the dominant Murdoch media there had been no landslide. Broken politics. Despair.

I tell Denis and Helen how shocked I was when Cathy announced details of her celebration party on Twitter and declared it open house. Danger, danger. And how I’d thought Cathy should lie low in Canberra for a while, because I’ve seen several female politicians lifted high by the media then dragged down. But that now I see that social media allows openness and transparency to be a defence, because people can engage with her journey and see the process and get the information direct. I mention that Cam Klose has begun sending me and others a weekly email detailing who Cathy has spoken to on what issues and suggest they be published on Cathy’s website, along with detailed reasons for each major voting decision. That way people deepen their understanding of and engagement with politics and issues, and Cathy earns respect for decisions from people who disagree with them.

This Voice for Indi lot are way ahead of me. I blink checking my Twitter feed; Helen has tweeted “Car conversation with @margokingston1 @dginnivan re political transparency, weekly updates @indigocathy @voiceforindi”. (Within days weekly briefings are on Cathy’s website, and Cathy announces her decision to oppose the repeal of the ETS and her reasons on her website and on Facebook before the vote.)

***

I meet another No Fibs citizen journo, accountant Michelle Primmer, for the first time on the steps of the Melbourne Town Hall. She’s just written a reflection on her experience that independent Melbourne website the Kings Tribune will publish for her first writing pay cheque, The making of a citizen journalist. We’d made Twitter contact while I was publishing tributes to Gillard from Tweeps after her overthrow – she’d tweeted me her blog post and I’d loved her writing – to say please do Corangamite, and she became another star reporter from the grassroots. She’ll join Helen and me and many others to live tweet the tribute to Julia at #creditjulia.

Introducing Julia, Tony Windsor says, “I notice Cathy McGowan’s here and well done Cathy, good on you”. She stands, the crowd erupts, she blows them a kiss. “The baton’s over with you. I’m sure you’ll do an extraordinary job with it because I know you’re terribly committed to your people and the broader country issues.”

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He concludes:

We’ve seen this greed factor creep into our politics, and short termism of a very high degree. That CAN be turned around by the voters, and it SHOULD be turned around because it is very damaging to the political and legal institutions that we have if we don’t attempt to address those and look to the greater good of the nation rather than our own pockets.

The world is run by those who turn up, and I would urge you all to keep turning up, not to walk away from the political system because of the mud and the slush of the last period of time, not to walk away from the  Murdoch’s and Alan Jones’ of this world, but to be there in their faces and to stand up for the nation you support and the people you put into the Parliament to actually support the views that you would like to encourage.

After the show, Cam tells me he’ll leave Cathy’s employ because he wants to live in Melbourne again. I urge him to change his mind and tell Cathy what a fresh, calm and open media person he is and what a shame that she’ll lose him. She emails me next day: “You are very much part of the v4i team – and I am interested in your input and suggestions – so please don’t hold back! If it’s not working let me know, and always when it is going well – would welcome your feedback and suggestions for being better.”

I reply: “I hadn’t thought of myself as being part of the team – feel honoured actually.”

There, I’ve admitted it. I have become a member in spirit of Voice for Indi, someone who believes in and will add her energy to its vision of respectful and inclusive grassroots participatory democracy. There are thousands of us across Australia thanks to the movement’s embrace of transparency and social media, and that of the candidate it chose to seek the endorsement of the people of Indi. They have told and will continue to tell their own story, for themselves and for those who will be inspired by it to create their own elsewhere. I feel privileged to have helped document Cathy McGowan’s campaign for Indi, and to have participated in Twitter proving itself a force for democratic engagement and positive change in federal politics.

Read More Indi Stories 

Future

 

 

Comments


  1. I blogged some days ago about you and your ilk, and this article is full explanation of my enthusiasm.


  2. Brilliant insights Margo, thanks for telling this story.

    “Social media allows openness and transparency to be a defence, because people can engage with her journey and see the process and get the information direct” … this really stands out for me. It stands to work for all independent politicians.

  3. hilderombout says:

    Thank you Margo and Cathy for such a great example of value based community engagement. I have felt quite moved and inspired reading your story, and i wish i could bring this voice about for my community. Not sure how to do this as i am a recent resident, but perhaps one way is to seek access to one of the independents in the last election. Thank you and your teams again.

  4. joy cooper says:

    Excellent, Margo. Now for Warringah & Sturt.


  5. It may not have been anyone but Sophie. But I do wonder if the campaign would have been as successful if the local member had been a nice person.

    I also wonder what would have happened if Sophie had taken to twitter.

    I do find this an inspiring result. I’d like to see much more analysis. Especially on how the transparency was made part of the culture and maintained.

    • vivienne29 says:

      Sophie nice!!! She is nasty and she was the problem. Sophie frankly never gave a stuff about her electorate. Tried to take credit for grassroots community efforts. Any electorate with such a bad local MP would be grateful for an Independent alternative such as Cathy McGowan. Libs and Nats would not vote Labor (or Green) even if their Lib MP was dracula. This time they had a choice.


      • Unless I’m misreading your comment you misread mine. My point was if the member had been someone nice (i.e. not Sophie) that the campaign may not have been successful. I think we are in agreement.


  6. Sort of off topic so feel free to delete. The button for sharing on facebook doesn’t work for me (I’ve tried it a few times over the weeks). The like button for facebook and other social media buttons do. I’m using a mac and the safari browser.

  7. Ruth L Innisfail says:

    Fantastic Margo.
    This was a long blog where I felt EVERY word counted.
    Particularly liked the fact that you paid credit ,in a meaningful way,to as many people as you could ,who were involved.
    This campaign re-ignites hope that ‘people power’ really does count for something.
    I wish ‘No Fibs ‘would look at oustingthe Abominable No Man who is sinking our country to unfathonable depths.

  8. Dion Kennedy says:

    What an enjoyable read Margo .
    . My husband called it the story of an ‘enthusiocracy’ founded on enthusiasm, of the people, by the people, for the people. A quick google found someone had already coined the term to describe a hobbyists lifestyle -but no matter, for me it fits the Indi story and what it means for all of us .

  9. Jenny O'Connor says:

    Wonderful article Margo -and still feel privileged to have been part of such an historic and remarkable campaign in Indi. May our paths continue to cross in the remarkable world of politics where it seems that difference can contribute to richness rather than division if we take up that challenge. AlthoughIso hope Abbott is a one-term PM :)

  10. Ben McGowan says:

    Wonderful stuff Margo! I couple of just really interesting ideas there. I think the tools we now have for online connectivity will continue to open up political and journalistic processes. Sending you encouraging vibes for the citizen journalism.


  11. Hello Margo

    I have an update for you… yes I was right about the power of the Internet in bypassing the mainstream media – I had seen this through my, and Australia’s, first online daily newspaper now archived as a historic document at the National Library of Australia. BUT there is a far more powerful and personal online trend that I believe will follow soon and expose so many of the “elite” and “protected” in years to come.

    This is why………….

    At the moment the only reason the average person in the street zips their lips is because of the self-serving legalities of defamation protecting the rich, politically connected and famous. And that power relies on two things: 1) the cost of defending a defamation action (financially destroying the average person) and 2) the need for the alleged defamer to be alive and face court. The trump card for the average person is publication of what he/she writes after death.

    If you leave the train wreck of what you reveal in the public interest on the Internet behind you after you die who the hell are they going to sue?

    When I die my ebook in PDF form will be automatically posted to a few selected reporters who can then decide what to do with it. The books will, of course, be publicly available to anyone linked to the Internet and, as they say, the many images in the book will each have their own unique and compelling story to tell. Like Wikileaks my free autobiographical book is ready to go, is continually updated and on my death its online publication in PDF form will be automatically triggered.

    In closing if any of your readers can “put a pen to paper” and have a story to tell about the abuse of power or other subjects dear to them but are fearful of the legal ramifications then look at the second para above and RIP.

    High Five… Edward Snowden!

    PS Margo….. the mainstream media is fast becoming irrelevant – ask Rupert.

    Cheers

    Scott Balson

  12. Simon Warriner says:

    Margo,

    I have been following you off and on over the years and have always admired your integrity. I found this while flicking through the links on Lindsay Tuffin’s Tasmanian Times, which is my preferred source of Tasmanian News. By the time I finished reading it I had tears running down my face.

    In 2011 I took the first tenative steps to creating an organisation I called Indipol, It was a response to the political toxic sludge that is Tasmanian politics. Regrettably because of (primarily) domestic stresses created by my partners being bullied in her employment in the Tasmanian Fire Service and a lack of commitment by enough other people it has got no further.

    The aim of the Indipol idea is to create an organisation that promotes and supports real independent candidates. It is apolitical, and holds the view that the role of an elected representative is to carry all views to parliament and articulate them.
    The role of parliament is then to, for any given issue, determine where the greatest common good lies and how best to get there. No left, no right, just the best outcome for the most people over the longest term.
    The links are to my articles related to the subject that Linz kindly posted.
    http://tasmaniantimes.com/index.php?/article/conflict-of-interest-the-cancer-within-our-public-life/
    http://tasmaniantimes.com/index.php?/article/a-way-forward-for-tasmanian-politics/

    The current political system is the inevitable conclusion of party politics. Conflicted interest is incompatible with sound governance in any organisation, and party politicians are marinated in conflicted interest from the instant they declare they are contesting a seat. What is passed off as government nowadays is the excrement of a system feed on that diet of conflicted interest. little wonder the smell is intolerable to anyone with functioning nostrils.

    I am interested in your views as an experienced an acute observer

    My very best regards

    Simon Warriner

  13. Ruth L Innisfail says:

    Well said Simon Warriner.
    Good luck with your project.

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