SOPHIE MIRABELLA FAILED to read the sign posts and summarily dismissed V4i’s invitation to be involved in the kitchen table conversations. Had she reflected upon that meeting in late December, 2012 she may have come to the realisation that her electorate was indeed interested in politics. After all, constituents of hers were standing in front of her telling her just that. Had Sophie been interested in engaging with her community she would have heard that people wanted an MP who truly represented the electorate, who respected them and was worthy of their respect in return. Had she listened she could have been that person, but she didn’t.
With trademark attention to process and transparency Voice for Indi formed a candidate identification sub-committee, specifically excluding any members who may have an interest in putting their hands up to run, and early in May publicly advertised for independent candidates who would be aligned with the values and issues identified in the kitchen table conversations.
The people’s choice
In the wider community some people were fearful of the consequences of showing their support and potential candidates had to be prepared for the fallout in the very real likelihood of losing the election.
The decision to apply was not made lightly.
Applications closed on May 15 and prospective candidates were interviewed in a competitive process that saw Cathy McGowan selected. A founding member of V4i, Cathy McGowan stepped away for the community organisation and into the role of an independent candidate.
On May 19 V4i invited all participants in the kitchen table conversations to attend the launch in Wangaratta of the KTC report and at the presentation Cathy McGowan’s candidacy was announced.
“I’m a strong candidate and I can give people a choice. For me that’s really important, that the people of Indi have a choice — that’s what they’ve been asking for.”Cathy McGowan May, 2013
The management of an election campaign went well beyond the V4i remit and V4i as an entity went into hiatus leaving the individual members free to contributed as part of the growing ‘Orange community’.
Already embedded in the process and momentum of the KTCs, Cathy and the volunteers took the combined experience, values and philosophy of V4i into the campaign and committed to “respecting and enriching the broader political conversation.”
The 2013 campaign was done on the fly. There was no plan, no money and no one had any experience to draw upon. As a result, the campaign was independent of traditional party-political top down governance and every skill and idea that was brought to the table by anyone who wanted to be involved was woven into the fabric of a campaign held together by the strong threads of community and the V4i values.
This component of the campaign was invaluable not just for its success at the time but because it grounded the Orange community in a value based, non hierarchical, inclusive and community driven process which has been its modus operandi ever since.
A medium more social than mainstream
At the time I knew nothing of the community momentum that lead to the 2013 campaign. Media reports lacked detail, were unresearched and any mention made of kitchen table conversations bordered on the condescending. While still of the opinion that a value-based grassroots campaign was no match for the might of party-machine politics I admit to being intrigued.
What resonated with me at the time was the parallel with my own motivations for action – feeling taken for granted and stifled, wanting change and to be heard. And the sheer exuberance of the Orange approach to a political space that hitherto had been quite toxic could not help but make you smile.
I began to regularly search for coverage and comment but as Australia progressed towards election day it was clear that mainstream media was not overly interested in Indi. My husband had previously mentioned that the Orange campaign team were using social media platforms to get their message out, in particular Twitter. And so, I signed up to Twitter and Twitter was telling a bigger story.
A social media novice I watched from a distance slowly becoming familiar with regular Indi commentators without knowing who they were, finally stumbling across the #IndiVotes hashtag and Margo Kingston’s No Fibs reports.
The difference in the personal and political styles of Sophie Mirabella and Cathy McGowan was immediately apparent. The negative and often divisive messaging of the top down Liberal party campaign was in sharp contrast to the positive and inclusive style of the community up campaign.
From the outset the McGowan campaign refused to engage in negative personal politics. Not naming the sitting incumbent was an important part of this. It took the personality out of the politics and freed people to connect on issues of policy and representation. ‘Be your best self’ was more than a trite slogan. It became the benchmark by which volunteers checked their own behaviour and held one another to the standards they had called for in the KTCs. The ‘best selves’ of the many kept the individual on track when tempted to waver and throw mud at Mirabella.
The passion of the campaign tempered at times the naivety of it. As Twitter and No Fibs reported the course of the campaign it became apparent that Cathy McGowan evolved with the circumstances, growing into her role. The fact that she was not practised in politics was appealing. She had nothing to lose and success was measured by the level of community engagement.
The power and the passion of 439 votes
On election day over 650 orange clad volunteers manned the 89 booths across Indi. When the polls closed the volunteers gathered in Wangaratta to listen to the booth counts as they came in. People felt empowered, proud, and energised and those feelings transcended age, gender and political persuasions. Courtesy, cooperation and respect for other’s points of view were the hallmarks of the campaign.
V4i and Cathy McGowan had sent a clear message to the people of Indi and in particular to the younger constituents that there was another way of doing politics. And Indi had agreed.
“My personal journey has been a faith commitment – can we really live the values? It sounded corny when we started out, but people liked it and we walked the talk.”Cathy McGowan September, 2013
Democracy was something the community now did, not just something they marked on a ballot paper. The electorate of Indi’s voice was heard in the 2013 election. It was not always listened to respectfully, but it was heard.
Sophie Mirabella lost her seat and her expectations by 439 votes. As I watched Sophie’s concession speech I thought about how her disregard for the views of those around her was the fundamental flaw in her political and social charter.
The other thing I thought about were the 439 votes and the prospect that my family’s story had contributed to 439 people choosing a candidate who supported a different way of doing politics.