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You may have heard of the Victorian electorate called Indi.
It covers a major part of Victoria’s north-east. The Hume Highway and the Sydney-Melbourne railway run through the electorate’s demographic centre and at various points intersect the major population centres of Benalla, Wangaratta and Wodonga, just south of Albury and the New South Wales border.
Indi is one of the original electorates daring back to Federation in 1901. A rural electorate, it was
a safe rural or Liberal seat for much of its history, but in the election of 2013, something changed. An independent, a local called Cathy McGowan, took the formerly safe seat from the sitting Liberal member, Sophie Mirabella, the only incumbent Liberal MP to lose his or her seat in the 2013 election. The seat ought to be safe for the National Party. That it is not is cause for speculation.
That electorate and ours, Franklin, are not dissimilar. Indi has 113,000 electors, Franklin 77,000; Indi’s demographic is ‘rural’, Franklin’s ‘outer metropolitan’; Indi was
a safe Liberal seat, Franklin is safe Labor. Each has two or three urban centres. Both were part of Federation. Indi’s name derives from an Aboriginal word meaning ‘river’, whereas Franklin was named after the ill-fated Arctic explorer and former governor of Tasmania.
Russell Morgan polled Indi for the 2016 federal election. The main concerns of electors were: day-to-day living costs, 38%; improving health services and hospitals, 24%; (significantly) open and honest government, 17.5%; improving education; the needs of families, 12%. The concerns of Franklin electors were not dissimilar, but the concerns of voters are volatile and often shaped by local issues.
Australia has not proved immune to the politics of democratic malaise. Australia’s leading institutions, including government, business, NGOs and media, are among the least trusted in the world at a time when Australia has experienced 27 years of economic growth. The level of democratic satisfaction has decreased steadily across each of the last four governments from 86% in 2007 (John Howard), to 72% in 2010 (Kevin Rudd), 72% in 2013 (Tony Abbott) and 41% in July 2018 (Malcolm Turnbull).
Without trust, we have diminished capacity to meet complex, long-term challenges. Weakening political trust erodes authority and civic engagement, reduces support for evidence-based public policies and promotes risk aversion in government. This also creates the space for the rise of authoritarian-populist forces or other forms of independent representation. Hence the rise of populists such as Pauline Hanson and Donald Trump.
And there appears to be a consequent preference for independents such as Cathy McGowan and Andrew Wilkie.
Cathy McGowan, standing as an independent, won Indi in 2013, held it, again against Mirabella, in 2016, and, as she had promised, stepped down in 2018 in favour of another independent candidate, Dr Helen Haines. Watching the rejoicing on election night, McGowan reflected on what had happened. Indi was a large, sprawling and isolated community in north-eastern Victoria, not poor, but not wealthy either. The rail service on which it relied was in disrepair, it had poor telecommunications, and in general, suffered the neglect which is the lot of all safe seats. Franklin electors might care to reflect on this.
McGowan ran on a ‘kitchen-table’ grassroots program.
“When voices for Indi was formed, we wanted to foster a sustainable community movement that could show that genuine democracy could work,” said McGowan. And it
did. Three times they fought the Liberal Party for the seat. And won.
McGowan’s book tells us how.
She says, “Communities can do things” and shows us how. It should also be acknowledged that even before she contemplated entering politics, McGowan already had an enviable reputation and standing in the community. Her campaigns built on goodwill and on underlying motivation. Almost 2,000 volunteers stepped up, went out and talked to their neighbours. It was done with professionalism, optimism and humility, and sheer hard work.
If you want to know how, get McGowan’s book. In time it may become as effective as Karl Marx’s Das Kapital. It should be read by every community group as
a campaign manual for those dissatisfied with the party system and who want to change things.
Ask for it for your next birthday: or put a hold on it at your local library.
Who knows? You might end up turning Franklin into an independent seat, a swinging electorate and holding the balance of power.
You might even be compared with Brian Harradine. You’d be wooed by everybody from the prime minister down. Think of what you might bargain for for your community.
John Fleming II
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