THE GROUP CONTINUED to meet for months at the Wangaratta library to brainstorm how they could reinvigorate the electorate and their political representation. Mirabella’s reputation was such that the members felt intimidated to publicly express their political misgivings and for a long time these meetings were held discretely and unannounced to the wider community. Given the often-interrelated nature of political, business and social relationships in regional and rural areas there was a genuine fear of repercussions in people’s professional and personal lives. However, it was this shared feeling they were taking a risk that accelerated some of the bonds within the collective.
In August a new member to the group introduced them to the Six Thinking Hats, a planned ‘parallel thinking’ process designed by Edward de Bono. De Bono argues that, even with the best will in the world, within any group there is a natural tendency for ‘spaghetti thinking’ if the collective thinking process is unstructured.
When asked to consider an issue some people will respond emotionally (Red hat), others objectively dealing in facts and information (White hat), while others look for new ideas and solutions (Green hat). Then there are those that think about what may work (Yellow hat) and others about what may not work (Black hat). Using the Six Thinking Hats participants manage and plan (Blue hat) the ‘parallel thinking’ process, collectively committing to a particular type of thinking at any one time and moving together between the various thinking styles.
In this way a group efficiently explores a topic; all contributing knowledge, facts, feelings, criticisms and possibilities, in an environment where putting forward a viewpoint is not done at the expense of anyone else’s.
Values and vision
Although many of the members were already steeped in the importance of process and in establishing core visions and values this approach allowed them to separate their visions for the future from their fears of the consequences, the values they would like to see enacted from the actions they could take.
Equally important was the philosophical grounding this gave V4i. In contrast to the adversarial style of political debate where the objective is to diminish and disprove those that disagree with you, the Six Thinking Hats process took the ego out of the discussion. It harnessed the strengths of each member whilst challenging them to step beyond their habitual way of thinking.
Through this collaborative thinking process the V4i values and vision emerged.
By the end of August subgroups had been established to explore various options for action. Although discussed, the idea of putting up a political candidate had very little support within the group in the first instance. Their purpose was not to overthrow the local member but to reengage the electorate and their elected representative in the democratic process. But as September progressed and the subgroups reported back V4i hit an impasse.
The participatory democracy ladder
Two distinct views about the V4i purpose were coalescing. One side wanted to reinvigorate their political representation and the other wanted to focus on engaging the community.
From the first meeting, the shared feeling that they were all taking a worthwhile risk had given the V4i members a safe space to disagree knowing that for the group to hold together they had to respect all views. It was not a tension, it was not about one side winning over the other. Both sides were passionate but it was about how to take all the views on board and make it work for them.
At the end of September, in a ‘massive click moment’ that I believe was informed by the Six Thinking Hats process but which certainly involved lots of doodles on reams of butcher’s paper and passionate discussion, a unique concept was visualised. And it was a ladder.
V4i’s ultimate vision of building a participatory democracy was conceptualised as one in which an engaged community and collaborative political representation ran side by side like two rails of a ladder standing in parallel. The actions undertaken to achieve these parallel goals were the rungs that connected the rails and the guiding values kept the ladder’s structural integrity.
The participatory democracy ladder was a defining aspect of the V4i approach and came out of the shared agreement that the members were all on the same path. It was non hierarchical, progressive, informative and inclusive.
As more actions were suggested all V4i members found a spot where they fitted on the ladder.
Governance and administration were widely discussed alongside the process of defining vision, values and purpose and on October 13, 2012 the pragmatic decision was made for V4i to become an incorporated association and in doing so 12 members were confirmed.
After months of brainstorming and exploring various possibilities the members decided they needed to go to their communities to gauge support for their ideas and get clear direction. If they were indeed going to do politics differently, rather than telling the people what they would do it was important that the people told them what they would like to see achieved.
Some members had been involved in the Victorian Women’s Trust (VWT) and were familiar with the Purple Sage Project and the Kitchen Table Conversation (KTC) model for community engagement that the VWT had used to great effect across Victoria in 1998.
The values inherent in the KTC process were consistent with V4i’s. V4i sought advice from Mary Crook, executive director and leader of the Purple Sage Project, meeting with her in October and again in November. V4i now had a vehicle to engage with the wider community and the members were settling and maturing as a group.
Oh Sophie, you aren’t listening
Consistent with the V4i vision to reinvigorate respectful dialogue with their political representative – but not without some trepidation – V4i approached Mirabella to discuss their concerns and to involve her in the process to identify the issues and values that were important to the people of Indi.
With a ‘pride that blinds’ Mirabella failed to recognise the extent of the democratic discontent in her electorate and particularly of the constituents standing in front of her. All up the meeting on December 19, 2012 lasted 11 minutes with Mirabella summarily dismissing the V4i delegates, telling them:
The people of Indi aren’t interested in politics.Sophie Mirabella, 2012
Those words were pivotal to the evolution of the Indi story and when uttered marked the genesis of the McGowan campaign.
In her self-assured hubris Mirabella had crystallised the essence of the problem – the separation of the politician from the electorate – and many V4i members felt strongly that if the incumbent would not listen to the electorate, Indi needed a more responsive representative to take its voice to Canberra.
Running a campaign could be accommodated on the ladder. It would be an action not a goal and success would be measured by the level of community participation and by making the electorate marginal. The KTCs would be a community engagement and development exercise and distribution of the resulting report to all election candidates would inform the political process, thereby enhancing the quality of representation.
By bridging the gap between community and politics V4i effectively became the actions rather than the actors.
Early in 2013, kitchen table conversations were run across the Indi electorate. All were invited to participate and the words of the 440 people who participated were faithfully documented and their views collated into a report.
Through the KTC process, amongst other things V4i heard people wanted an MP who truly represented the electorate, who respected the people of Indi and was worthy of their respect in return. Honesty, civility and integrity were seen as critical.
In just over nine months since that first meeting and six months out from the federal election momentum was building within V4i and the wider community.
Values had given V4i a framework of reference, the ladder a working structure and the KTCs a vehicle for action. Mirabella’s disregard provided them with the impetus to challenge her and the community had given them permission to do so. 12 voices had now grown to over 450 and the community support gave V4i the confidence to proceed.
Putting forward an independent candidate was now given serious consideration.
In case you missed it part 1 can be read here