Many people these days can find politics frustrating, not representative of their values, and just plain inaccessible.. I certainly have had times where I wonder if there is even any point to my vote… But today I want to tell you a story a bit closer to home for me, about what a victory it can be when people mobilise for a common voice, I want to tell you about Voices 4 Indi.
The Division of Indi is a federal electorate within the Australian state of Victoria which covers a huge rural area of over 27,000 square kilometres stretching between various Alpine highlands, and multigenerational farmland. Historically, this is a politically conservative area, and has been a safe seat for the Liberal party (for non-Australians, the Australian Liberal party is anything but Liberal, they tend to be conservative and right-wing, contrary to many other countries understanding of “Liberal” politics) since 1977, and it had never been held by an independent MP.
In 2001, Sophie Mirabella was voted in as MP for the seat of Indi, under the Liberal Party. Over her career there were many controversies about Mirabella’s professional conduct toward colleagues and also her political decisions. According to the Sydney Morning Herald “After 12 years, many voters, including those in conservative parts of the electorate who traditionally voted for the Nationals, were fed up with Mirabella’s style as an MP: she wasn’t in Indi enough; she dismissed people; she was too combative; too aggressive.”
I must say as a constituent of this time this is exactly my memory, many times the people of Indi expressed their wishes to Sophie as our representative only to have their ideas and opinions aggressively shut down completely.
Many people living within Indi see climate change, marriage equality, health, support for asylum seekers, access to transport, and education as important issues, and Mirabella not only ignored any pleas to focus on these issues, but campaigned against these causes in parliament. Add to this the embarrassment felt when our elected representative kept getting kicked out of parliament for being overly confrontational and of course many people felt disillusioned by her representation. She even insulted the first and only female Prime Minister of Australia, Julie Gillard, for not having children… how embarrassing!
Coming up to the 2013 election, for many people like myself, this felt like an impossible situation; The Liberal party reportedly had more than 23 million dollars to spend on their campaigns nationwide, plus Indi was a safe seat, no point bothering to fight it, right?
In 2012 in response to a proposal that constituents of Indi wanted more democratic representation, Mirabella stated “the people of Indiaren’t interested in politics”, which is actually quite comical considering what was to follow.
And so, a group of people who had grown up in the area who were in their 20s inspired change.
A group which was to become Voices 4 Indi started meeting at the local Library. Their first goal was to establish what the values and needs of the areas actually were using “kitchen table conversations”, and over the space of around 2 months surveyed over 400 people from across the district on these needs. This was then compiled into a report, and the Voices 4 indi team had to then decide what to do with this information. What they felt was that the best step forward for Indi was to have an independent candidate who had large support in the community to be running in the next election who better understood these needs and did not have to pander to party needs, someone who lived in the area, and who had grown up in the there. While many people expressed support for Cathy McGowan, then chair of Voices 4 Indi, to express interest in becoming the independent candidate, she resisted for months. To run against a liberal candidate, especially Sophie Mirabella, at this time would be a huge risk to anyone’s personal and professional reputation, and I would say for their soul and energy levels too! But after resisting for a while, she finally put her name down to Voices 4 Indi against other nominated candidates. There was a process to select the candidate Voices for Indi would recommend, and Cathy was the ideal candidate!
Cathy McGowan is a born and bred Indi local, an outstanding citizen in her own rights, educated in Applied Science in Agricultural and Rural Development, she had been made an officer for the Order of Australia for her work in championing remote, rural, and regional women’s issues. She also had worked as a political staffer in the 70s and 80s… basically, she was overqualified for the job!
The race began and to say Cathy McGowan was an underdog was an understatement! But using social media, community outreach, mammoth efforts from volunteers, and a little glimmer of hope, the campaign saw McGowan voted into office on the 18th of September 2013. Cathy McGowan served two terms before retiring. In her two terms in office, she achieved more than people would expect of an independent, securing $20 million in funding for the Wangaratta hospital, bringing in a code of conduct in parliament, finding for the North East rail, and more mobile phone towers for the area.
Following McGowans retirement, Local woman Helen Haines received endorsement from both Mcgowan and Voices for Indi to run as the independent candidate. She was successful, making history as the first electorate to have 2 different independent candidates back to back. Another overachiever, Helen Haines has an extensive history in nursing and midwifery, especially in rural areas. I actually went to primary school with her 3 kids, so perhaps I am biased but I think Helen is really inspiring! After completing a masters degree in epidemiology and public health, Haines spent time in Stockholm successfully pursuing a doctoral degree in medical science, then topped it off with a postdoctoral fellowship at the Karolinska Institute. She now resides on a farm within the indi area, and is a fantastic example of a great independent MP.
The story of Voices 4 Indi is a fantastic showcase of the success that can be had using participatory democracy, and shows that all people can have a voice. I remember each of the elections seeing McGowan, and then later Haines, and each time feeling so inspired and relieved that the actions of everyday people could in fact make a difference politically. It has also inspired change elsewhere, for example, there is now also a group called Voices of Warringah, which endorsed independent candidate Zali Steggall who won the seat of Warringah in the 2019 election!
Now, you may be thinking, “Hey em, what about Sophie Mirabella! This isn’t a good news story for her!” Don’t you worry, she works for Multi billionaire mining heiress Gina Rhinehart now, so, as it stands, it’s a happily ever after for now… Thanks so much for being here with me for this episode of good news, good night.