AS THREE OF us drove down to Canberra for the 2021 March4Justice – three women who support equality, want an end to gendered violence and couldn’t remain silent against the Morrison government’s inaction – my mate said:
You should check out your local ‘Voices of’ group.
So when I got home after listening to Brittany Higgins and other women’s powerful speeches, after being stunned that Morrison didn’t come out to speak with the crowd but chose to remain inside parliament, saying ‘not far from here, such marches, even now, are being met with bullets’, I did just that. I took my friend’s advice and searched for Voices of Bradfield.
I’ve always exercised my right to vote but I’ve never been active in political campaigns. Until my early 40s I lived in Britain, where voting isn’t mandatory, and the UK House of Commons uses the ‘first past the post’ system. You only get to vote for one candidate – you put a cross next to your preferred candidate on the ballot paper for the general election and that’s it. It’s a terrible system and results in a parliamentary mix that doesn’t reflect voting patterns. Australia’s preferential voting is much better.
After demonstrating in Canberra in March 2021, I couldn’t bear to think of the Liberals remaining in power. I live in Bradfield, a federal seat that has been solidly blue since its creation in 1949 and has never shown a sign of drifting green or red in nearly 75 years.
By day I worked as a volunteer manager with the non-profit Primary Ethics, supporting volunteers delivering ethics lessons at 500 public schools across NSW. I’d started as an ethics volunteer myself in 2013 at my children’s primary school, using scripted lessons to help children think about their answers, the reasons for their answers and whether those reasons are any good – plus a set of rules to keep group discussion respectful.
In April 2021, The Guardian Australia reported Nationals MP Barnaby Joyce’s comments about government-ordered empathy training:
… because of the adversarial nature of parliament, empathy was not always a key consideration when your goal was to “take out” your opponent.
I was fuming. Take out your opponent?! Why does politics have to be adversarial with people shouting across the divide?
I thought back to a particular group of year six ethics students when we covered fatalism. One student argued passionately that your decisions could change your future, the other student argued equally passionately that your fate was fixed at birth.
There was plenty of passion. They held opposing views. But (and here’s the kicker) they listened to each other, and they built on ideas. They were eleven years old.
Thinking ‘if primary-aged students can debate ideas without taking out opponents, so can politicians’, off I went to meet Voices of Bradfield (VoB).
What did I find?
I found ordinary people like me at kitchen table conversations, get-togethers in local parks and online sessions with keynote speakers.
In early October 2021, I remember being galvanised watching Big Deal, the documentary about the influence of political lobbying in Australia, and listening to its director Craig Reucassel and Helen Haines, independent member for Indi, speak on a VoB panel.
That film was my tipping point. I signed up as a member that night and offered my superpower (volunteer management) to help VoB develop volunteer training and support.
In early January 2022, VoB found Nicolette Boele and proposed her to members as the community independent candidate. She was endorsed at an online vote during COVID-lockdown. I was really impressed with her personal character and professional career – I still am, in fact even more impressed the longer I see her in action. Nicolette is the most credentialed climate candidate in the country.
I moved across to Nicolette’s campaign team because Team Nic would run the volunteers. It quickly became obvious that the volunteer manager occupies a vastly different role inside a political campaign. A non-profit has its own in-house paid experts, but everyone was a volunteer on Team Nic – volunteers managing volunteers. I was a bit flummoxed to have people ask me about community events, as we learnt everything together.
In April and May, I worked full-time on the campaign and took leave of absence from Primary Ethics. It had become impossible to juggle paid work, campaign activities and family commitments without going insane.
Three weeks before the 2022 election, Team Nic had 400 volunteers. That number grew as around 140 people joined us to help on polling stations with our ‘volunteer for a day’ model. We had booth captains and two to four volunteers per shift throughout pre-polling and at all our priority polling stations on 21 May, 2022 – genuine volunteers, not paid people bussed in for the day who didn’t know which candidate they were handing out ‘how to vote’ cards for.
On election night we celebrated our efforts and achievements throughout the campaign. We’d done everything we could – worn shirts as human billboards, handed out flyers at train stations and shops, put up and waved corflutes, practised courageous conversations – and had lots of fun doing it. That night we went home happy and excited. Bradfield had never ever been left undeclared on the night of an election before.
The AEC count opened and off went our trained scrutineers to observe. They went every day, standing for hours, as long as AEC counting continued.
Eventually the count was called: 46% Boele, 54% Liberal.
Better is possible
Nicolette and Team Nic had made history while mainstream media wasn’t looking:
• One of the country’s safest seats was now marginal;
• The Bradfield result couldn’t be decided on first preferences alone (for the first time ever);
• The incumbent retained the seat of Bradfield but suffered the largest swing against a sitting Liberal in the country – 15% swing on first preferences and a swing of 12% on two candidate preferred.
The rise of community independent candidates in the 2022 federal election and the 2023 NSW state election is built on a groundswell of people, who rolled their sleeves up and got to work.
The phrase ‘Someone ought to do something’, was not by itself, a helpful one. People who used it never added the rider ‘and that someone is me’.Terry Pratchett (one of my favourite authors) in Hogfather.
I love Terry Pratchett’s books because he expresses big ideas in simple English. Whenever I read them, I find myself nodding enthusiastically in agreement. Just as I did with that quote.
Do you think someone ought to do something? Might that someone be you?
Better is possible.