For progressives the recent Australian election was a relative disaster. It was not as bad as it was predicted to be, and this may explain Kevin Rudd’s rather jubilant concession speech on election night, but nevertheless Labor lost over 20 MPs from the House of Representatives and the Green vote declined. Tony Abbott has a solid majority and as long as he can negotiate the complexities thrown up by the Senate result then he will have control of Government.
There is potentially one very good result however. In the rural seat of Indi, a large sprawling seat comprising of mountains, valleys and small towns, there is the making of a boilover. Liberal front bencher Sophie Mirabella is currently behind on the count and may have lost her seat to previously unknown Cathy McGowan. The seat is historically a conservative stronghold and to lose the seat in an election where there was a conservative surge is almost unheard of.
Although not finally determined and although there is a possibility of a recount McGowan has expressed to admitting to an outbreak of hope. She is not claiming victory yet. The count encountered some drama when a bundle of 1,003 McGowan votes not taken into account in the initial vote were discovered. She is currently ahead by less than a thousand. Last election Mirabella won by over 16,000 votes after the counting of preferences.
It appears that Mirabella was not well liked and from what I have read justifiably not. According to the Herald Mirabella had done the following:
She likened Julia Gillard to Colonel Muammar Gadaffi in 2011, saying both were “delusional”, and poked fun at Gillard’s childlessness.
She also called for Muslim girls to be banned from wearing headscarves at school. The retiring independent MP, Tony Windsor, known for his generosity of spirit, recently called Mirabella the “nastiest” person in politics, and the person he would miss least.
The likely winner, Cathy McGowan, has good liberal credentials. She is comfortable with same-sex marriage, urges compassion for refugees and wants the creaking train service fixed. She is however in favour of free trade and calls small business “the heart and soul of Australia”.
The campaign will obviously attract attention. Virginia Trioli in the Western Review has provided some background.
The “Voice for Indi” independent campaign is a fascinating paradox, and may well become the playbook for any independent political candidate around the country. It was a true grassroots campaign founded on an unsentimental business model. “V for I”, as it’s known, didn’t even start life as a political quest: “We didn’t know what it was at first: a community organisation? A lobby group?,” says Susan Benedyka, founding member and managing director of the Regional Development Company.
Fed up with what they saw as Mirabella’s poor representation of their electorate, a group of 12 local figures formed an incorporated association in July last year, wrote up a set of core values and started asking the community about the issues that mattered to them. Locals told them trains, broadband, mental health, jobs for their kids were the key issues. Kitchen conversations were held in towns across the electorate. The group then took their concerns to Mirabella, who held the seat by a margin of 9 per cent.
“She gave us 11 minutes, and told us ‘No, I know my electorate, and the issues are the cost of living and stopping the boats’,” says Benedyka.
This may have been the moment that radicalised the group. They knew they had to take the seat off her. Leading community figures were approached to run, formal interviews were held and McGowan got the job. Volunteers came out of the woodwork. They had to sign and uphold the statement of core values (respect, evidence-based work only) No one was to be disrespectful or insulting of Mirabella: she was only ever referred to as the sitting member or the incumbent. As the campaign continued, some volunteers abandoned the Greens to come on board, and by voting day, volunteers numbered 600.
With only enough money for one mail drop, the campaign used community contacts, face-to-face meetings and social media – run by the younger members of the team – to reach a large and disparate community. Social media was described as “crucial” in the campaign. The team drew upon the theories of Marshall Ganz, the Harvard alumnus and pioneer of grassroots political organising, to persuade voters of a need for change.
Her use of a nationbuilder website and enhanced use of social media will attract some attention. In my view NZ Labour could improve its handling of social media and the Cathy McGowan experience can provide some learning on the subject as well as providing a textbook example of how to handle a campaign in a conservative area.