Lesley Howard

Lesley Howard

Citizen Journalist at No Fibs
After shouting at the television for many years Lesley decided participation was the best antidote to cynicism. She has a keen interest in supporting sound environmental social practice, communities and democracy in action. Lesley has a Masters of Science, Applied Statistics.
Lesley Howard
Lesley graduated from the University of Melbourne with dual majors in Statistics and History and Philosophy of Science. The combination of the two fields formed a strong background in objective research, critical appraisal and the analysis of relationships, and in assessment and reporting. With this skill base she has variously consulted for an Australian timber company analysing the unloading of logs in Chinese ports, reported on the role of SMEs in Defence, critically analysed scientific papers, designed and advised on surveys and sampling for various private and government groups, and reviewed and advised on research proposals as a member of the Royal Melbourne Hospital’s MHREC. Lesley has a keen interest in supporting sound environmental social practice, communities and democracy in action. She is currently completing a Masters of Science, Applied Statistics.

In part 3 of #NewPowerVoice for Indi searched for a community candidate, I signed up to Twitter to follow events and Sophie Mirabella lost her seat and her expectations by 439 votes.

“It is people on the ground that are the most powerful force imaginable. Without a groundswell of motivated volunteers, without an engaged and enraged community, change is nearly impossible. And so, as democracy should be, the decisions will be made by the community.”

Rebekha Sharkie, Member for Mayo

IT HAD BEEN a wild ride and against the odds Voice for Indi and the Orange campaign had achieved more than they had expected and without self-compromise. While it was the dismantling of a Liberal stronghold the media headlined, what was truly remarkable was the Orange campaign team’s ability to weave together the diversity of volunteers solely on the basis of trust and shared values.

It has taken two subsequent election outcomes for the media’s narrative to move from Indi being an anomaly of personalities, to one of respect and at times awe at what has been achieved in this regional electorate. What hasn’t change however is a narrative that repeatedly tries to fit the phenomenon that is V4i into the conventional framework of the party political, refusing to recognise that the political landscape in Indi has changed.

The power of balance

Post the 2013 election V4i reconvened to review its core agenda and reflect on its purpose, if indeed it still had one. Once again V4i turned to the community for direction, holding a forum in Benalla in November 2013.

The feedback reaffirmed V4I’s reason for being, its observance of the values of trust and respect for others’ views and the building of political discourse based on civility rather than hostility. There was overwhelming community support for keeping the momentum going.

“There was a sense of hope for the future and awareness that change is possible. We learned that by working together with courage, respect and with achievable goals, ordinary people could make a difference.”

Voice for Indi ‘Reflections”

True to the consultative and transparent style underpinning V4i the input from those that attended was faithfully recorded and presented in a report.

With the advent of an MP ready to engage with the community and advocate on behalf of the electorate, V4i’s purpose shifted back to one side of the democracy ladder – building community engagement. The other side of the ladder, respectful and consultative political representation, was the domain of the newly elected Member for Indi, a position the previous member had vacated.

V4i had simply restored the natural balance of the democratic process and Indi had a voice in parliament. Now both V4i and the Indi MP would contribute to the rungs on the participatory democracy ladder.

It was, however, important for both the community group and the politician that they were seen and understood to be discrete entities which operated in independent albeit often complementary spaces.

V4i affirmed that its purpose was separate and distinct from any one politician but recognised that to many V4i and the colour orange was seen as synonymous with Cathy McGowan. To this end Voice for Indi rebranded, changing its name to Voices for Indi and adopting teal as its signature colour.

Finding my way

I didn’t know any of the V4i back story at the time of the election. I was just delighted at the departure of a person who had so distressed me, and at the slap to a system that valued the party over the people. I also felt a great sense of relief, for while V4i may have measured success by the level of community engagement and in making Indi marginal I did not.

Seeing a community winning on values rather than vitriol felt like a validation of a way of life that Sophie had shown little regard for, or so it felt to me. With their win, perhaps I could find a new way to deal with the angst and anger I harboured in bucket loads. I really wanted to understand how this value-based platform that had achieved such an unexpected outcome worked, and how hundreds of people had maintained their commitment and communicated it to the wider Indi electorate.

I wasn’t alone in that regard. After the election V4i received numerous inquiries from a diversity of community, advocacy and activist groups, from NGO’s and unions and from party and non-party aligned would-be candidates, all whom wished to learn about the process that had engaged an electorate.

Oxley Shire Hall, decorated in V4i’s new colours, ready for IndiShares – June, 2014. (Photo: Wayne Jansson)

In response V4i held the #IndiShares forum at the Oxley Shire Hall in June, 2014. Oxley, 15 minutes south east of Wangaratta, is a picturesque village at the northern end of the King Valley wine region. It is perched beside the King River and boasts fine food, wine and shockingly poor mobile and internet reception.

I had driven three hours from Melbourne to get to Oxley and felt nervous that I would be seen as an outsider, a voyeur, unusual. I shouldn’t have worried. Some attendees had travelled from as far as Queensland and Tasmania, some from across NSW and Victoria, while others had come from just down the road. Alongside aspiring candidates, community and environment groups there were journalists, observers and the curious. I guess I was firmly in the curious basket although post-election I had dabbled in citizen journalism, writing some pieces for No Fibs.

All share, no responsibility

The forum took the form of kitchen table conversations, hosted by either a V4i or a campaign member. Participants were able to attend five conversations throughout the day, discussing such things as social media, support tracking, branding, volunteers and engaging young people. Members of V4i were there to share their experiences of building participatory democracy and Cathy McGowan and volunteers from her campaign team talked about how they had conducted an innovative and effective values-based campaign.

Founding V4i member Alana Johnson hosting a kitchen table conversation. (Photo Jan Osmotherly)

In between sessions there was tea, coffee and cake and at lunchtime a spread in the style of the Country Women’s Association. The enthusiasm of strangers engaging was palpable and people chattered and made connections in these moments. T-shirt clad volunteers wove in and out stopping to answer questions, facilitate introductions and resolve wavering internet connectivity issues.

Wandering between people and sessions was like scrolling through a larger than life Twitter feed in which the personalities and followers of #IndiVotes morphed into real people in an Alice in Wonderland kind of way.

For the first time in the physical world, amongst others I met Margo Kingston and Wayne Jansson, along with people who became friends and people who would later become friends.

Voices for Indi members sharing why they got involved. (Photo: supplied)

The forum ended with a plenary session where the V4i members were questioned about why they had joined V4i and their experiences of it. Cathy McGowan also addressed the forum but was just one of the many volunteers sharing their experiences and insights.

However, if participants came hoping to touch celebrity, be embraced or find a magic formula to rid themselves of an unwanted politician or political system they were almost brutally dissuaded.

V4i and Cathy McGowan were there to share but not take on ownership or responsibility for other people or their communities.

“You need to find your own way. It has to suit your community, your situation or it won’t work. It’s easy to think there’s some secret ingredient but there’s not.”

Cathy McGowan

In part 5 of #NewPower Voices for Indi talks democracy and ethics, shares more insights and looks at keeping the seat Orange, and the Liberal Party seems to not to have learnt from past mistakes. I learn a lot along the way but still struggle with understanding how V4i actually do what they do. Featured photo: Founding V4i member Ben McGowan talks to participants with Guardian Australia’s Gabrielle Chan observing. (Photo – Wayne Jansson)

In case you missed them – part 1 can be read here, part 2 here and part 3 here.