COMMENT: Fascinated by the ‘David and Goliath’ contests of past and current independents and with a background in statistics, I have whiled away these long lockdown months looking for the stories in their votes and preference flows. An especially topical venture given the recent proliferation of ‘Voices For’ groups we are seeing across the #Auspol electorates.

But let me take you back to where my interest in this all began.

Finding voice

The year was 2013 and Australia was headed to the polls and an Abbott-led coalition government. An independent was standing in the regional Victorian electorate of Indi and the word was she was getting some traction. While Melbourne-based I had a nearly 20-year relationship with Indi and a history intimately entwined with the sitting member Sophie Mirabella, and so I took an interest.

At the time I knew nothing of the community momentum that led to the independent campaign. Media reports lacked detail, were poorly researched and often condescending. While of the opinion the value-based grassroots movement was no match for the might of party-machine politics, the sheer exuberance of Cathy McGowan’s campaign made me smile.

As Australia progressed towards election day, it was clear that mainstream media was not interested in Indi. The grassroots campaign team was using social media platforms to get their message out, in particular Twitter; and so I signed up. A social media novice, I watched from a distance, slowly becoming familiar with regular Indi commentators, finally stumbling across the #IndiVotes hashtag and Margo Kingston’s NoFibs reports written by local citizen journalists.

These reports told stories about people of all ages and backgrounds re-engaging with and taking responsibility for a political process they had become disenfranchised with. On election night, the figures coming out of the Australian Electoral Commission tally room were still calibrated around a Liberal/Labor two-party-preferred count. The ABC reported a massive swing against Sophie Mirabella but projected she would retain the seat. But it was apparent to both the Mirabella and the McGowan camps the count was a lot closer, and Margo Kingston reported the wonderment and excitement as a McGowan win became a realistic possibility.

Passive to active

Post-election, I dabbled in citizen journalism writing some pieces for NoFibs on issues current at the time and through the writing process learnt more about the broader issues of topics such as the government’s attempts in 2014 to delist part of Tasmania’s World Heritage listed wilderness, Operation Sovereign Borders, public interest immunity and operational sensitivity and Australia’s duty of care to refugees. I became active rather than passive in my understanding of current affairs.

It was around this time that I read Margo Kingston’s on the ground Twitter reporting of a community opposing Whitehaven Coal’s planned Maules Creek Mine in the Leard State Forest in NSW. I followed the events as they unfolded over the next few weeks. People were coming together at Leard as they had in the Pilliga and the Hunter Valley; dissatisfied, dismayed and feeling they were not being heard or represented.

We had seen the collective power of a disaffected community and the rise in the influence of social media as an alternative to traditional mainstream media in Indi in 2013. Now in 2014, we were seeing the slow coalition of both mediums and diverse communities standing together to be heard, and I added my voice to the those of the Leard blockade.

I didn’t know any of the Voices for Indi (V4i) backstory at the time of the election, but I was interested in how their value-based platform had achieved such an unexpected outcome and how over 700 people had maintained the commitment and communicated it to the wider Indi electorate. I wasn’t alone in that regard. In response to numerous inquiries, V4i held the Indi Shares forum at the Oxley Hall in June, 2014 and people came from near and far to listen and learn. For the first time in the physical world I met NoFibs‘ Margo Kingston and Wayne Jansson.

After the success of Indi Shares, V4i organised Indi Talks Democracy, a community discussion about ethics and accountability in politics for both the citizen and the politician. This time I went not just to listen and observe but to report on it for NoFibs. And my interest in community engagement and participatory democracy has grown from there.

Communities engaging

Keeping an eye to what was happening in Indi I reflected upon the election rematch in 2016 that saw Cathy McGowan returned with an increased majority and the end of Sophie Mirabella’s political career and, pondering what it took to get elected as an independent, I reviewed Ruth McGowan’s book Get Elected.

The 2019 ‘Climate Election’ saw many a reluctant hero throw their hat into the ring and the #IndependentsDay hashtag was born. Candidates and campaigners shared their stories of ‘that moment’ that tipped them into taking action, the inspiration of Cathy McGowan’s last speech to parliament and everyone including me was talking preferences.

As we approach this next election many communities are choosing to participate in their own democracy. Some are looking simply to engage their electorate in the process of democracy, others are actively seeking an independent community candidate to represent them in Canberra. And me, I am looking forward to reporting on how these communities are writing their own stories as they move towards this coming election.