James Tonson

James Tonson

James has spent nearly 20 years working in the community sector in Melbourne and Coffs Harbour, including in the youth, education and environment sectors. He trained as a facilitator and is most proud of his work to help organisations establish collaborative decision-making processes. While living in Coffs Harbour James helped to start Voices4Cowper. He’s now moved to Cootamundra to be closer to his family but he’s staying involved with V4C to help continue what he started. He enjoys cycling, volleyball, ultimate frisbee and misses running on Jetty Beach.
James Tonson

Latest posts by James Tonson (see all)

James Tonson

IT ALL STARTED with a question posed at an accidental post-election café conversation in the NSW mid-north coast electorate of Cowper: “Well that didn’t go well, what should we do now?”

Remember the one when independent Rob Oakeshott’s hopeful return to federal politics didn’t turn out as expected? It felt like the country was stuck in a rut but a few of us continued to search for signs of hope. 

“Well there were two bright spots on election night,” I said, “and they both had roots in the same process, something called Kitchen Table Conversations. Maybe we should try that here?”

“That’s what I wanted to do before Rob came along,” said Gillian Anderson, who’d started the discussion.

Being passionate about politics and hospitality, Gillian invited my partner and I around for a drink, immediately! Over a couple of hours of conversation we found a surprisingly well-aligned sense of what we each thought we should do and how to go about it. We made a plan to convene a meeting of people from across the electorate who might be interested in forming a Voices 4 Cowper group to run a local series of Kitchen Table Conversations (KTCs). 

As my partner and I headed home, it all felt a bit surreal. Gillian and I had only met that afternoon and I had only lived in the electorate (and the state) for a month. Starting a new local association had not been on my agenda. It felt like one of those plans you make in the moment that don’t come to fruition.

Grassroots injection

I did share Gillian’s passion for democracy though, and I had a connection with Mary Crooks, who developed the KTC process in Victoria in the 1990s and helped Voices4Indi get started in the 2010s. It wasn’t hard to establish a steering group of people interested to give KTCs a go. Mary agreed to come up and run a full-day workshop with us about the KTC process and the principles underpinning its success in a range of contexts. 

Our committee spent some months clarifying our vision and driving purpose. Our biggest concerns were about the increasing polarisation of politics resulting in increased disengagement, apathy and mistrust. It wasn’t about changing our MP, the National Party’s Pat Conaghan, who had only just been elected to parliament. We had no idea what he’d be like and were prepared to work with him if he engaged with us.

In any case, we felt democracy needed an injection from the grassroots, and that KTCs would enable community to engage and listen to each other. We did not know where this would lead, or even if people would join in, but wherever we mentioned it people wanted to know more.

By early 2020 we had a clear purpose, an incorporated association, and an agreed set of KTC discussion questions. We were just on the verge of launching our KTC process when COVID-19 hit and we all went into lockdown. We put the whole project on pause, but we kept in touch monthly, watching how people were responding to the pandemic and learning video conferencing as we went.

We piloted the first KTCs in August 2020, including some online. By July 2021, we had run 49 KTCs with 260 people from across Cowper. It wasn’t always easy to get people to come, but the ones who did really enjoyed it. We got comments like:

“It feels great to be heard.”

“I’ve never felt represented before.”

“I didn’t realise how disengaged I’d become.”

With feedback like this we knew we were doing something right. It wouldn’t matter if nothing else came out of the KTCs. Just getting people to sit together, talk, listen and reflect was powerful in its own right.

Call for candidates

After running KTCs there was only one other thing we had committed to: publishing a report of what people said. This proved to be a mammoth task and would not have happened without a team effort to analyse the notes from the KTCs; sift, sort and condense a summary into something readable; and lay it out in a format we hoped would attract attention, all done by dedicated volunteers. 

Publicly launching the report felt like reaching the finish line. A fulfilment of our responsibility to the people who came to KTCs. Most of us were ready to stop and have a rest but we knew this was the moment to ask again, “what should we do now?” 

We had made no plans for anything beyond the launch, so it was going to take a strong community response at the launch and some new hands up, to fire us up for further efforts. But would many people even come?

We would have been happy with 50 people, so when over 150 people registered we found ourselves scratching around for facilitators to lead the important small group conversations about what next?

The community response was clear and emphatic. Find an independent candidate to contest Cowper at the next election. Several people also stepped forward to help, including four or five who offered to join the committee, thank goodness! The wider community also affirmed this move by exceeding our donations target in two short weeks. 

So on December 7, 2021 we issued a call for candidates to stand on the basis of the priorities in the KTC report: climate, integrity and inequality. We also want someone who’ll continue to engage the local community in the democratic process, including in Canberra, following the example of Cathy McGowan and others. 

Candidate submissions close on Sunday January 16, 2022. A public vote to choose a candidate will held on or before Sunday January 30. The winning candidate will then run their own independent campaign. Voices4Cowper will only offer ongoing endorsement provided the campaign commitments are adhered to. 

Something different

We have come to each stage of this process with an open mind and no predetermined expectations. Our hope is that we are helping to create a more vibrant and positive politics. 

At each stage we have felt affirmed as new people have stepped up and urged us on, whether they be committee members; mentors; KTC hosts, facilitators, scribes and participants; launch participants and facilitators; or donors. We don’t know if we will find a fitting candidate or, if we do, how that might affect the election outcome in Cowper. 

But we know that there is a growing number of people in Cowper, and beyond, who want something different from politics and are joining the movement to bring it about.