13 December 2013
It’s Monday December 2 and thirty degrees. The nation’s capital is sliding into a languorous warm late afternoon. I trundle into the Parliament House car park and try, with difficulty, to find a park, because northeast Victoria has come to town. Inside the House of Representatives Chamber, the public seating area opposite is a sea of orange t-shirts worn by enthusiastic Indi citizens, the ones who showed us a thing or two about ordinary people claiming back influence and control over Australian politics at the September federal election.
Down below, newly-elected Clive Palmer MP arrives and sits next to Cathy McGowan MP, the just-as-newly-elected Member for Indi. He’s scheduled to give his maiden speech directly after hers.
Speeches from the Members for Durack and Hotham are delivered. Politicians drift in and out. I spot Tanya Plibersek and Bill Shorten, and Andrew Wilkie, poking his head in.
After an introduction from the Speaker, Bronwyn Bishop, and the customary exhortation to treat her with the same courtesy afforded to the others giving their maiden speeches, McGowan arises to cheers.
In accordance with the Westminster system, maiden speeches are commonly a general statement of background, beliefs and determining influences on the politician in question.
McGowan wastes no time in alluding to a fundamental truism, a complete no-brainer, which nonetheless merits emphasis here: participatory democracy via grassroots engagement is a bloody lot of very hard work.
“I am honoured,” McGowan says, “to be the representative of the people of Indi and I am grateful to my family, 700-plus supporters and volunteers, almost 1000 donors and, of course, the voters who brought me to this House.”
It strikes me that you would need at least that amount of people busting their guts for you, every single day for months in the lead up to an election if you want to get elected as an Independent like McGowan.
“I recognise all of you for your courage, your belief and your conviction that we could do it,” McGowan says.
Then she shares with us something of her ancestry, background and context. Pleasingly, she pays tribute to the formidable Colonial women and their huge contribution to this country.
Like so many of us, McGowan has an Irish ancestor – Elizabeth Ann Brown – who arrived in Australia in the 1860s and attained freehold title to land in the Mitta Mitta Valley in 1890.
“Her legacy to me? Courage, persistence, dogged determination and deep roots into farming and the rural communities of northeast Victoria. She was a woman in agriculture before the term was even thought of,” McGowan says.
McGowan conducted her rural consultancy business in the Indigo Valley, not far from Wodonga, in the same area of northeast Victorian where her ancestors had settled, farmed, worked, raised families and struggled.
“In May 2012 a group of young people decided enough was enough and put out a call for action,” she says, “their questions were: what sense would we make of this and what would the adults do? As a result of this some of my friends came to the state of feeling big guilt. We asked ourselves what our legacy would be. If we could not be for our young people, what was the point?”
“This question resulted in the birth of a community group named Voice for Indi … an incorporated body committed to building an active 21st century democracy based on engagement, respect and ideas, for Indi and beyond.
“Voice for Indi conducted 53 kitchen table conversations with over 425 people from all parts of the electorate. We discussed what would make for a stronger relationship between people and our elected representatives.
“They talked about what it means to live in the community of Indi, what our issues are and what makes for a strong community. In summary, the answers were: community matters; politics matters; representation matters; infrastructure matters; and services matter.”
Later in the Parliament House courtyard, I drift about chatting to happy Indi people. I reflect on the momentum and the feeling of vindication about McGowan’s campaign, which I had excitedly watched with everyone else before the September election.
As a consequence of its endorsement of McGowan, the Voice for Indi movement has, in the eyes of many, become synonymous with her.
Yet its separate and distinct purpose, as opposed to simply being about any one politician, including Cathy McGowan, was something I left that day determined to explore.
Alana Johnson, President of Voice for Indi, has known McGowan for the past twenty years, and has worked with her on rural womens’ development and leadership in Australia, Ireland, Papua New Guinea and India. Together they have learned the value of community engagement in creating social movements.
I manage to speak with Alana after the day of Cathy’s maiden speech.
“The 250 people in orange t-shirts were symbolic of the new Member for Indi’s commitment to bring the people into Parliament. But we didn’t come as a fan club for Cathy. We came to demonstrate to the nation that the people of Indi are committed to participating in politics,” Johnson says.
“The Voice for Indi exists to build participatory democracy for now, for young people and into the future. It exists to bring people together to create the best future for Indi by pursuing issues and policies that benefit our electorate.
“Having Cathy elected fulfils our aim of rebuilding our relationship between the people and their elected representative.
“We are not there to have a position of agreement or disagreement with her about any issues. The nucleus of all sustained change is dialogue and conversation, where people listen to a diversity of views and new ideas and solutions are generated,” Johnson says.
“Of course Voice for Indi will continue with this level of conversation with the Member of Indi, but we know that the greatest change is going to occur when the 98,000 voters in the electorate are talking to one another like this.
“One of the aims of the Voice for Indi is to have a range of really strong candidates stand at the 2016 election so that people have real political choices.”
Dialogue and conversation, where people listen to a variety of views: that gave me pause for thought.
Then Johnson recalls something interesting she heard that day: even though Sophie Mirabella had been replaced with an Independent, “the Voice for Indi welcomes the news that the Liberal Party has announced that they will open an electoral office in Wangaratta, to engage with people more closely over this term of government”.
— Liberal Victoria (@LiberalVictoria) December 2, 2013
I ask Johnson who else in Australia is ‘all over’ Voice for Indi’s work and its empowerment of ordinary people?
Many are, she says: “There have been calls for Voice for Indi to be a political party, to stand candidates in the State election, and to advise other electorates on how they may create similar change.”
“Those involved in the Voice for Indi know, through their 12 months of hard work, that the campaign was but the end stage of a really genuine inclusive, well planned process for creating political conversation across the electorate. In the future we hope to share what we’ve learnt.”
“The Voice for Indi is mirroring a wider spirit in Australia and the world. Ordinary people are claiming back influence and control over politics, journalism, food production and marketing, their urban and natural environments.”