“The Liberal Party seems not to have learned its lesson in Indi. On Saturday we caught a glimpse of their strategy to try and win back the seat at the next election. And surprise, surprise – it’s a negative one. The credibility of the campaign has now been put on trial by the Murdoch media.”Cam Klose – ‘Indi expat’
Accountability and politics
AFTER THE SUCCESS of IndiShares and on the back of the feedback from the Benalla forum, in mid October 2014 Voices for Indi facilitated a community discussion about ethics and accountability in politics – IndiTalks Democracy. As with IndiShares the IndiTalks forum was open to all and people from all political persuasions were welcomed. This time I went not just to listen and observe but to report on it for No Fibs.
Late in September, as V4i was preparing for the two-day forum, The Australian began a week-long blitz of articles alleging electoral fraud in the 2013 election, reporting how:
“…a number of voters, who called themselves “Indi expats” and teamed up to oust the Liberal Party’s Sophie Mirabella, helped ensure Ms McGowan’s win by switching to Indi to enrol shortly before the rolls closed. The allegations involve 27 electors enrolled in the Division of Indi at the time of the 7 September 2013 election.”
The 27 “Indi expats” were young men and women, many of whom had been active in the campaign, and all of whom had grown up in Indi. Some were nephews and nieces of Cathy’s and some were children of V4i members, one was a founding member of V4i. All were children of a close knit community that had proudly stood up to improve the political discourse in their electorate.
“Some evidence has come to the Liberal Party’s attention which suggests the possibility of individuals in the lead-up to the 2013 election deliberately re-enrolling at incorrect addresses — including addresses at which they had previously resided — in an electorate where evidence from social media shows they did not reside… In some cases, these fraudulent re-enrolments may have been part of a co-ordinated effort.”
I did read some of the articles at the time but I had no idea of the close personal connections these young people had with many of the people who would be attending or facilitating the forum.
Facts of the matter
On the day, the sun was shining and V4i members were weaving between arriving attendees resolving queries and calmly attending to last minute details. Former Independent MP Tony Windsor, executive director of the St James Ethics Centre Dr Simon Longstaff and Cathy McGowan the then Member for Indi, amongst others, where there to contributed to the discussions.
The morning session opened with Simon Longstaff delivering the facts.
No politician or political party owns the parliament. The parliament is a public institution and it is ours. A political party is simply a private organisation. The persons of the government are the ultimate authority and they are there, by consent of the people, to exercise that authority not to wield power. Power resides with the people.
We were reminded that when we cast our vote for our preferred candidate we are giving our consent to be represented by them and that the making and keeping of promises by the candidate is paramount in the process of informing us, the voting public. If election promises are not kept the process is a sham and we have not been properly informed – in fact, we have been misinformed.
Joining Simon Longstaff on stage Tony Windsor told us the party machine does not champion the constituents. Career rewards were given to politicians because they were good party members not because they were good parliamentarians. Competition is now the major driver of the political process and the prime objective is to obtain power. Marginal seats, which Indi had now become, were the focus of the party machines because they can make or break a party’s power. Safe seats are invisible.
“The major political players have lost their philosophical drive. What we have now are management teams vying to control the country… and some people would prefer to see an electorate go backwards for political advantage.”Tony Windsor
Answers and questions
The attendees were asked what was their motivation for coming. Overwhelmingly the message was that they were disillusioned, disappointed and disenchanted with the current political system. They were disgusted at the culture of mudslinging, the lack of respect and the spin.
Simon Longstaff went on to say that:
“Ethics is not about mindlessly conforming to a set of rules…it is about thinking about what you are doing.”
On finding common ground, Tony Windsor asked us to challenge ourselves:
“Do I really disagree, or do I traditionally disagree?”
Cathy McGowan spoke about the importance of an engaged community and was very specific about the extent and limitations of her role as an MP:
“The only authority I have, is to go to Canberra and vote. The power is ours to make the community the one we want it to be.”
And then went on to ask us:
“What will you do to achieve what you have talked about here?”
Looks of surprise crossed many faces at Cathy’s words – her question was confronting, pushing some out of their comfort zone, but it also intrigued. Many including me had not considered that personal action was a democratic responsibility.
Participation is an antidote
All three speakers informed us by their own experiences but more importantly challenged us to examine our self-awareness and belief systems, to move from wanting someone else to do something to proactively taking responsibility for the changes we wanted to see in a way that worked for us.
As each speaker delivered their insights, listened and answered questions, it was clear that it wasn’t so much what they said as the conversations that were being had that were paramount.
True to the Voices for Indi philosophy, IndiTalks promoted discussion through participatory conversation, respectful listening and finding common ground as a way forward. As people were listened to and really listened to others they became engaged, found points in common and felt they had some ownership of the outcomes.
Simple but powerful, and the key take out for me was participation is an antidote to cynicism. I left that day uplifted and found the event very easy to write about, but I felt I was still missing a part of the V4i puzzle.
Returning to the heart
Voices for Indi’s genesis came from the same sense of disillusion and disenchantment with the electoral process described by the people who attended IndiTalks. And like the attendees, Voices for Indi was not a collective of people who magically agreed on all points.
I had read about the KTCs and listened to V4i talk about the value and empowerment of everybody having a say but I still could not get my head around how everyone contributing their two cents worth translated into consensus no matter how respectfully the conversations were carried out. How did V4i manage it?
And here we must return to the heart and soul of V4i to understand how the members take on board all points of view, resolve points of difference and keep moving forward.
First and foremost, they trust each other. In doing so they create a space where they can disagree and be disagreed with safely. They actively listen to each other and outcomes aren’t rushed. People aren’t put under pressure to make decisions when they haven’t had time to fully express themselves or haven’t had time to digest what they have heard from others.
The process is non-adversarial and non hierarchical, sometimes passionate, often creative but can at times be rather time consuming. Sometimes an unresolved issue is just left to sit on the table, parked until the next meeting. When brought back it is reviewed within the framework of does it fit with the values, are they being their best selves, are they really doing things differently?
How did it land?
Throughout 2015 Voices for Indi continued with its community engagement practices and in 2016 Indi began to prepare for the up-coming federal election. Sophie Mirabella had been preselected as the Liberal candidate and the electorate was told that it had missed out on ten million dollars of hospital funding by voting independent in the 2013 election.
Following the allegations reported in The Australian, the Australia Electoral Commission (AEC) began an investigation into the 27 “Indi expats”. The AEC referred the matter to the Australian Federal Police (AFP) who in May, 2015 charged two women with providing false and misleading information.
The 18-month investigation ended with the Commonwealth prosecutors withdrawing the charges against the two young Indi women – determining they had in fact acted within the law when they voted in Indi – and the Commonwealth was ordered to pay some of their court costs.
“The original complainant, whoever it was that initiated it, was quite scurrilous and unfortunately we’ll never discover it as a matter of privilege.”Defence lawyer Rob Stary
On Saturday, 2 July 2016 Indi returned their independent MP Cathy McGowan with an increased majority.