VARIOUS EXPLANATIONS FOR Cathy McGowan’s election as the first independent member for Indi in 2013 have been put forward and most have centred around the personality and pursuits of Sophie Mirabella, the previous Liberal incumbent.
Many ‘after the fact’ commentators viewed what happened in Indi as a quirk, an exception, a moment in time; that the genesis of the community group Voice for Indi and the success of Cathy McGowan’s community campaign resided in the singular nature of the incumbent.
It certainly cannot be denied that Sophie Mirabella was a unique and motivating factor, but to ascribe the outcome in 2013 solely as a rejection of her personally without understanding what it was that people actually voted for was to set the stage to repeat past mistakes. Which was exactly what happened in 2016 when a largely voyeuristic media framed ‘The Battle for Indi’ rematch as a battle of personalities rather than a contest between two starkly different ways of doing politics.
The 2019 election saw this same contest play out under the full glare of the media, but with a whole swag of new candidates in the mix there were no personality politics for the coverage to hide behind. All eyes were on Indi and on May 18 the media were ready to record Dr Helen Haines become the first independent parliamentarian to succeed another in the same electorate since Federation in 1901. While historically significant, this election outcome was perhaps more remarkable in its validation of a values-based way of doing politics. It took the Mirabella factor out of the equation.
Not a political party
As I was starting to get my thoughts together around writing an outsider’s take on the whole Voices for Indi (V4i) phenomenon I was fortunate to be included in a casual, organised but private discussion about the 2019 Indi election. Around the table were people who had been deeply involved in the Haines campaign. Most had participated in the previous McGowan campaigns, some had not. Some were members of V4i, some were founding members. Some like me came from beyond Indi and had watched the two previous elections with interest. Two told stories of how they came to be on the team which seemed to typify the way all the Orange campaigns have been conducted. Expecting the formal protocol of an application and interview process they had both sent resumes and letters of presentation. Follow up phone calls produced the response, “Sure, come along, all you have to do is turn up”. No formality, no interview process, inclusive.
Voices for Indi is specific that it is not a political party. In fact, the members get rather frustrated with the repetition of such a suggestion. What the traditional party pundits could not and still cannot get their heads around was what was V4i if it wasn’t a political party?
And that is the essence of what I decided to write about. To understand what it is, is to understand what it does, how it does it and how it measures success.
Sitting, listening and asking questions I got a real sense of how these people operated, and why they were successful and constant in their approach, but I was still struggling with what was V4i and what was the Orange campaign team.
As people stood up to leave I thanked all present for including me in their conversations and repeated my promise that everything discussed was done so in confidence and would only be written about with their permission. My host turned to me and said “I know Lesley, we trust you. You wouldn’t be here if we didn’t.” I felt like I had been paid an enormous compliment.
I took a lot away from that discussion but the big picture didn’t fall into place until weeks later and not until I had reviewed past conversations, reflected upon the V4i events I had attended, reread the plethora of articles written about both V4i and the Orange campaigns, some researched, some rubbish, and then pieced together a timeline of pivotal moments and actions. I saw glimpses of it along the way and with each new insight I would have to repeat the review process but through the developing lens. Then it all came together with the ladder.
But let me take you back to the beginning
The first I heard about a challenge to the then incumbent MP for Indi, Sophie Mirabella, was in an aside comment from my husband. The year was 2013 and Australia was headed to the polls and an Abbott led coalition government. My husband had been speaking with a friend who lived just outside Wangaratta and the word was an independent was standing and was getting some traction.
Although Melbourne based, as a family we had a nearly 20-year relationship with Wangaratta and a history intimately entwined with Sophie. I had stood with my father as he supported Sophie through her preselection and her ultimate election in 2001. Then, with increasing distance, I watched the choices she made both public and personal as she built her career, until our deteriorating relationship finally lead to letters and lawyers.
Along with most of Australia I was disillusioned with the political process but believed Sophie’s position was unassailable. After winning preselection in 2001 she had remarked to my father that she was set for life. Indi was a Liberal stronghold and coming into the 2013 election she held the seat with a 9.9 percent margin.
A week or so after our first conversation, my husband passed on that the grassroots campaign was running on a platform of doing politics differently with the aim of inspiring and promoting positive political debate across the electorate. The candidate and the campaign team had all signed up to a set of values: there would be no dirt file and no mud-slinging, they would be their ‘best selves’.
Good luck with that, it sounded admirable, wholesome and reminiscent of the storybooks I had read as a child but it seemed completely out of step with the political style of the day. Its only in retrospect I realise the particulars my husband related to me were as much about a community group called Voice for Indi as it was about a political campaign.
That first meeting
The genesis of V4i began on 16 June, 2012 when a small group of people came together to talk about what might be done to change the political environment in Indi and to rebuild the relationship between the community and the democratic process. It was an interesting group of people, most of whom only knew one or two others, but found in each other an instant bond in their shared concerns. Few had experience with political organisations but several had a background in governance and community engagement, many were women and importantly some were alumni of the Australian Rural Leadership Foundation. This in particular brought to the table people experienced in the process of critical self-reflection and with the ability to build trust and effect positive change through conversations and connections.
Like many across Australia, the members of the group were concerned about the toxicity that had encompassed the federal political environment and which had escalated during the Gillard minority government and the Abbott opposition.
They were disillusioned with the political status quo and disgusted at the culture of mud-slinging, the lack of respect and the spin. But most particularly they felt that their current member had vacated her position as Indi’s MP in favour of her Liberal party career aspirations.
The consensus was that Indi did not have a voice in parliament and the electorate was disengaged and disenfranchised.
By the end of the first meeting the group had established that there was enough of a want to do something but they didn’t know quite what or how to go about it. They asked themselves not just how could they contribute to a solution but did they have permission and did they need permission to get involved.
In spite of their doubts overwhelmingly the feeling was that if they didn’t do something then they deserved the political representation they currently had. With this realisation came an implied responsibility to act, and so the group became a Voice for Indi.