SOME OF MY friends from Citizens of the Willing (COW) tip me off about a Warringah Liberal Party meeting set for September 26, 2018 called “Pulling the Plug on Paris, Power, Passion and Politics,” with guest speaker Craig Kelly.
On the night, what is possibly the first ever big political protest on the Lower North Shore takes place (see main image, Middle Harbour Yacht Club protest). I can’t believe the number of people turning up with banners. We are waiting for Tony Abbott, but he’s a no-show despite being billed as second speaker.
Abbott impersonator Jonas Holt does make an appearance, bewildering many who’d never seen him before.
We are all gobsmacked at the age of the people entering the meeting, those who pre-select the Liberal candidate for Warringah. It suddenly dawns on us that these people, who hold such power, are so out of touch with the average person in Warringah and that this situation has been going on for years, uncontested.
Think Twice Warringah
By early October, when Voices of Warringah is preparing to launch, hundreds of posters pop up all over Warringah with infamous Abbott quotes that get taken down as soon as they are put up. Think Twice Warringah was born. An Instagram page launches on October 1, followed by their first postering session.
Julie Giannesini, the Mosman woman who called me out of the blue when I was ready to give up, is keeping busy contacting all the various groups that just keep appearing. She manages to make contact with the person behind Think Twice Warringah, school teacher Daniel Moller, who wants to remain anonymous but is later outed in The Daily Telegraph.
On October 6, Guardian Australia publishes Abbott Faces Campaign Using Tactics that Defeated Mirabella.
It becomes one of the highest-read articles for the month. Social media goes wild. My phone starts to ring and emails pour in. People sign up. I’m in meetings, tweeting, posting on Facebook and emailing our growing database. We’re getting ready to train a group of volunteers on how to hold a Kitchen Table Conversation (KTC). I have a request to be interviewed on radio in the Indi region. I’m nervous and, as always, prepare, thinking at least no-one will know me if I stuff up. I don’t. My confidence increases. I’m ready for the next interview..
Alex Turnbull – son of the recently ousted former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull – retweets our first tweet in a show of support. It’s on!
On October 15, Julie invites all the local crews to her place overlooking The Spit. It’s a fitting place for the meeting. For the first time, people of the north and south connect properly, just as the Spit Bridge connects the two quite disparate communities on either side of Middle Harbour.
Rob Grant from our COW group leads the meeting and tells everyone we will soon have a great candidate, so don’t panic. Everyone needs to work towards the same end; not together, but being mindful of what each is doing towards the same purpose, which is to elect someone who truly represents Warringah. At that point, the Big Coalition of the Willing (Big COW) is formed. Our original COW is from that moment on known as Little COW.
It is time. This is bottom-up, community-driven and growing quicker than we could ever have imagined.
You will be punished
Twelve days after Voices of Warringah launches, the by-election in Wentworth is held. Many in Warringah supported a Liberal government with Malcolm Turnbull, a classic moderate Liberal who represented our values. Many non-Liberal voters also had faith he would progress the nation. Yet our own representative was a major player in the Coalition who had tied Malcolm’s hands, thwarting his desire to introduce the National Energy Guarantee and trying hard to stop parliament voting to legalise same-sex marriage.
Warringah had one of the highest ‘yes’ votes in the marriage equality postal survey – 75 per cent – yet Tony Abbott didn’t vote on the bill in parliament. He insisted we have the poll (he claims credit for it!) only to ignore us by abstaining. Our democracy was failing us.
The grumblings in the electorate were, with the ousting of Turnbull, turning into a roar.
On October 20, Dr Kerryn Phelps wins the Wentworth by-election with a 19pc swing. I tweet from the Voices of Warringah account.
The tweet goes off. I get a call from a public figure I’d never met who is so excited that he stays on the phone with me until well after midnight, walking me patiently through the process of setting up a proper donate button on the website.
People who want representation
Barely a day goes by when I’m not asked to do an interview. I can’t believe it’s now a normal part of my life to say to my family: “Hang on! Just doing a quick interview with (insert media organisation).” I talk to ABC Radio and the next morning I’m on the news every hour telling the people of Sydney that I think “Wentworth is quite reflective of Warringah.” Is this even my life?
Our Kitchen Table Conversations are up and running. People absolutely love being listened to. We ask questions like “What issues are important to you?”, “What qualities would you like to see in your local member?” and “Do you think your views are being represented?”
The conversations are all very respectful. We have rules that everyone agrees to and I try my best to keep the guests on track.
Eventually, a bit like the Tupperware model, people are putting up their hands to host their own KTC. We take photos and share them on social media to show that the people attending are typical Warringah people, not raving lefties or one of Tony’s favourite (falsely) derogatory terms:, “activists”. We are people who want to be represented in parliament.
Tribes are building
On October 28, Voices of Warringah begin our Kitchen Table Conversations in earnest. Mark ‘Kel’ Kelly changes his Let’s Not Re-elect Tony Abbott group to Vote Tony Out and his Instagram account starts with a bang when Layne Beachley, seven times world surfing champion and local darling, appears in the first post wearing a pink Vote Tony Out T-shirt.
She writes: “Our community, our environment and our nation deserves better!! It’s time to let go of the past, embrace the tides of change and focus on delivering a positive future! With complete disregard for climate change, (despite undeniable scientific evidence) we need a leader who is open to protecting and preserving our coastlines and natural resources. We want a leader who is willing to represent the majority of views and ideals instead of projecting their own strongly held beliefs. A leader that listens to the community, serves the community and connects with the community. It’s time to go Tony! We have had enough!“
Kel has people lined up for two to three posts a day, some famous, most not. He’s obviously planned well in advance and has his T-shirts printed and an online shop ready to go.
With a similar belief in the power of conversations as Voices of Warringah, but a completely different model, Kel delivers T-shirts all over the electorate and has a conversation with everyone he meets. He tells me that when he delivers in Mosman, quite often the recipient will usher him in quickly so that neighbours don’t notice. Kel responds that he’s already delivered one to that house across the road and a neighbour three houses down. It is a great way of connecting like-minded locals with other like-minded locals. The tribes are building.
Kel, COW, myself and others email our databases encouraging people to have conversations with their friends, family, neighbours and colleagues, convinced that when someone you know and trust speaks to you, you’re much more likely to take what they say on board. It grows exponentially.
Popping up like mushrooms
On November 7, I’m at a gorgeous Manly bookshop hosted by owner Julia Wilson. We start with wine and nibbles and I greet everyone at the door. COW is there is support and my events queen has planned the event down to a tee so I don’t have to worry about something going wrong. Kathy Ridge gives an Acknowledgement of Country with a story about the local people. My heart pounding, I give a speech about community, values, democracy and introduce the concept of Kitchen Table Conversations, imploring people to take part. Tim Dunlop speaks about his new book, The Future of Everything: Big audacious ideas for a better world. He inspires people. They are onboard. They can see a glimmer of hope.
Unbeknownst to me, other people in the community have also been ‘doing’.
The Stop Adani Warringah group has long worked tirelessly and I’d joined them on many occasions but always managed to avoid doorknocking. The thought of dragging someone off the couch on a Sunday afternoon to talk about a coal mine and see their stony face as they try to shut the door was about as appealing as lining up to be stung by a wasp. But I’d relented in August and turned up to doorknock for the first time in my life, surprised and buoyed by how many people were happy to chat and express their exasperation that their MP supports new coal mines.
By the end of the year, the Stop Adani Warringah crew is holding events and sharing photos from Mosman to Queenscliff with growing grassroots groups doorknocking to let voters know Abbott supports new coal mines and that they might like to consider voting for someone who actually represents Warringah.
Articles in the media highlight campaigns popping up like mushrooms. Truly grassroots.
Eventually, GetUp get onboard, although our COW group is worried GetUp would bring unwelcome negativity to Warringah, an easy target for Abbott and the Murdoch media. We agree we can’t control what GetUp does and it is a testament to the work of the community that by now GetUp considers ours an electorate worthy of their resources. They soon hold a big public event and doorknock much of the electorate.
Later in the campaign, they will cause some headaches for us by missing the mark in some of their stunts. Still, as the massive campaign grows, we can only control what we can control.