Independents day looms large as Indi finds its voice in #VicVotes seats of #Benambra and #OVvotes: @jansant reports

Wayne Jansson

Wayne Jansson

Chief reporter & photographer at No Fibs
Wayne Jansson is an Australian citizen journalist and photographer. He covered the seat of Indi during the 2013 federal election which saw Independent Cathy McGowan unseat Liberal Sophie Mirabella. His interests are politics and social justice.
Wayne Jansson

@jansant

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Wayne Jansson

In 2013 after Cathy McGowan won the Federal seat of Indi, the group that shot her into the National spotlight, Voice 4 Indi changed it’s name to Voices 4 Indi.

It was only a small change but one the Coalition party’s should’ve paid more attention to because fast forward to 2018, the region is bristling with independents running in the Victorian state election.

In two of those electorates, Benambra and Ovens Valley there’s three candidates with genuine shots to take the seats from the Coalition.

In Ovens Valley where Tammy Lee Atkins is running against The Nationals, Tim McCurdy it would be fair to say she’s now the favourite.

Independent candidate for Ovens Valley, Tammy Lee Atkins is interviewed by a young school student. Photo: Wayne Jansson

In Benambra there’s two independents giving it a red hot go, a seasoned campaigner and former Indigo Mayor, Jenny O’Connor and a young candidate with strong involvement in Voices 4 Indi, Jacqui Hawkins.

Tim McCurdy holds Ovens Valley for The National Party but is facing fraud charges with police alleging he falsified documents relating to the sale of two dairy farms. The matter will be back in court early next year and if he holds the seat, raises the possibility of a by-election just weeks after the state election.

Local senior Liberal, Helen Senior wrote to members urging them to vote for McCurdy as the fastest way to have a shot of winning the seat:

I really urge you to Vote 1, Tim McCurdy our coalition partner,” Mrs Senior writes.

If he is defeated, it will be 4 years before the Liberal Party get the chance to run a candidate and we will be no better off — most likely worse.

It is possible that things may turn out in the new year of a by-election in Ovens Valley. We will be able to run a (Liberal) candidate earnestly, and win.

In a seat that Federally fell to a community based independent, the Liberal Party are campaigning for Party before people. It’s hard to describe the level of stupidity it takes for a senior local Liberal to suggest that strategy in an email to members, in a region historically rife with factional infighting and wars between Coalition partners.

For Atkins, the one and only question mark in my mind is her ability to take enough progressive votes from the Greens and Labor to ensure she’s in the final round of preference allocations – if she can, she’ll be hard to hold out.

Atkins has a substantial slab of McGowan’s campaign grunt behind her, a notable inclusion in Atkins team is McGowan’s campaign manager, Phil Haines.

A lot was rightly written about the McGowan young guns of Indi in 2013, I came away from that election with, Haines firmly planted in my mind as a brilliant campaign strategist and the driving force behind the whole show.

While he’s not her campaign manager, Sue Gold is, his experience and cool head will be a great advantage to her campaign.

The battle cry in both Ovens Valley and Benambra is overwhelmingly make the seat marginal, which is not dissimilar to McGowan’s 2013.

Atkins told No Fibs:

Since 2013, we’ve been talking about doing politics differently. People have discovered the power of their vote, the power of voting differently, the whole concept of if you keep doing the same thing you’re going to get the same result.

North East Victoria has long been a stronghold of the conservative party’s and the feeling is this has resulted in decades of neglect.

In an extraordinary intervention in the Benambra campaign, local doctors and sporting codes made public calls for people to vote strategically to make the seat marginal.

This intervention is likely to have an impact in Ovens Valley also, The Border Mail is the main regional newspaper and large parts of the electorate get their TV from Albury/Wodonga.

Atkins:

The possibility of change here is very much alive, you can feel it on the street, it’s the conversations our volunteers are having.

In a sure sign the Nationals are gripped by panic in Ovens Valley, today they placed a last minute attack ad in the Wangaratta Chronicle.

So here’s what I think about that ad: unlikely to push away progressive votes (which is where it was aimed) voting to oust The Nationals, people see through attack ads, but it could push more traditional conservative voters towards Atkins as a better conservative to vote for, rather than one facing court for fraud.

On paper, Ovens Valley is a long shot: in 2014 on 2 party preferred the seat went Nationals 66.57% to Labor 33.43%. But these are not normal times in rural politics and especially so in Victoria’s North East.

Benambra is a seat I’ve been increasingly thinking is a strong chance to fall. It’s held by Liberal, Bill Tilley who won the seat on a 2 party preferred basis of 59.67% to Labor 40.33%.

With two strong local independents the conventional wisdom says they’ll just split each others votes and come in behind Labor’s Mark Tait. However, they are two starkly different candidates.

Jenny O’Connor, a former Indigo Mayor was also a high profile Greens candidate in both the 2013 and 2016 Federal election.

Independent candidate for Benambra, Jenny O’Connor looking over campaign plans with Ben McGowan. Photo: Wayne Jansson

In 2015 when he stood down as Indigo Shire Mayor, National Party member Bernard Gaffney nominated O’Connor, at the time still a member of the Greens, to be his replacement.

It would be a mistake to write O’Connor off because of her past association with the Greens. Many of the issues she’s campaigned the strongest on over the years have now become mainstream rural issues, and there is no better example of that than climate change.

O’Connor:

Interestingly being the Mayor takes the politics out of it, people see you perform citizenship ceremonies, ANZAC Day, Australia Day, things that really matter to communities, often conservative communities. If you do that well, and people have told me they really like how I perform those duties, it changes their view.

Climate change is now a mainstream issue in rural communities, farmers are dealing with it, the fire threat to our communities is real, droughts are happening. Bill Tilley yesterday said climate change is a real threat, however, he then went on to say people in Benambra only care about trains and cost of living, but to hear a conservative politician like Bill admit climate change is a real threat is huge.

O’Connor expects to do well in the Indigo Shire where she’s built up a high profile as both a Councillor and Mayor, and importantly has the ability to cut through political divides.

There’s another factor that could come into play: she’s gone in to bat for small communities in Spring St over important local issues like water and dairy farmers; issues that once would’ve been the domain of The Nationals under the banner of the old Country Party.

The relatively short campaign O’Connor has run, mixed with the incredibly high rate of pre-poll voting could play against her chances, effectively leaving her only a 2 to 3 week campaign.

Independent candidate for Benambra, Jacqui Hawkins. Photo: Wayne Jansson

Jacqui Hawkins on the other hand has been out campaigning for months, and has worked hard to energise the youth vote.

We’ve been out campaigning and what’s come back is health is a huge priority for our region, they want to see more support services here, they want to see more funding for local hospitals.

At 27 years of age, the youngest of the candidates has packed a lot into a short period of time. Involved in the Voice 4 Indi campaign that saw McGowan take office in 2013, Hawkins has also worked as a staffer in Canberra for McGowan.

What a good age to run at, plenty of energy, plenty of time for this community. People have been quite receptive, they want to see change and they want to see youth come in because at the end of the day, decisions we make today affect our tomorrow and that’s my appeal.

Consistent with McGowan’s push to bring young people into the political process, she endorsed Hawkins campaign. However, I suspect she’s also ecstatic there’s not one but two independents with genuine shots to not only make the seat of Benambra marginal, but potentially win it.

Hawkins takes great pride in inspiring young people to get involved in politics:

I encourage any young person who wants to step into politics to do it. It has been the greatest thing I’ve ever done.

This has been an amazing journey, I’ve leaned a lot from our community and about our community, but to see young people in politics has invited a whole new cohort into this conversation that probably weren’t engaged before.

Labor candidate for Benambra, Mark Tait. Photo: Wayne Jansson

While a long shot, Labor wouldn’t be without some hope of springing an upset in Benambra. The Labor policies announced during the election of free dental care for children in public schools and a childcare package providing part-time kindergarten for 3 year olds are likely to play well in Benambra.

The Labor candidate Mark Tait told No Fibs:

The way we’re polling, and the independents, I think the seat could fall and if it doesn’t it’ll certainly become marginal.

All of that stuff (dental/kindergarten) has really taken off. We’re dealing with the working poor around here, we were surprised by the statistics of how many people in our electorate are living below the poverty line.

Tait also nominated TAFE as a priority for the electorate:

We wanna keep our people here, train them here instead of sending them to Melbourne or wherever.

Each of the three independents in Benambra and Ovens Valley have campaign workers and volunteers whose engagement in local politics either began or found focus via the 2013 Voice 4 Indi campaign, that catapulted McGowan into the seat of Indi and the national spotlight.

As I wrote that last sentence, my mind went back to the reaction of Sophie Mirabella and the broader Liberal Party when they lost Indi: rather than an honest appraisal of what went wrong in that election, they came up with conspiracy theories to convince themselves it wasn’t their fault.

And even in the years that followed with the renamed Voices 4 Indi working openly to engage people across the region, state and country the Coalition party’s still didn’t see the rising threat in the state seats of Benambra and Ovens Valley, the epicentre of the ‘Voices’ movement.

Win or lose tomorrow, the North East Victorian community wins. The Coalition are on notice, no seat at any level of government is safe.

The real question for the Coalition Party’s heading into the next New South Wales and Federal elections: how far has the ‘Voices’ movement spread across rural Australia?


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