The voices of independents being heard and aiming high

Sep 28, 2021
Australian parliament house of reps
Courtesy Parliamentary Education Office (DPS Auspic)

There is a strong feeling of change in many electorates around Australia. The “Voices Of” movement is gathering steam as more than 30 such groups are looking to field candidates at the next federal election.

The recent announcement of Kylea Tink as an independent candidate for North Sydney makes her the first of many hoping to join Helen Haines, Zali Steggall and Andrew Wilkie in a growing group of independent representatives in the lower house of Parliament.

From Christian Porter’s seat of Pearce in the west, to Cowper in the east, the independents’ movement is gathering steam. There are already 35 independent support groups established, and more are popping up almost every week.

The groups cover almost 25 per cent of eligible voters (based on the latest count by the Australian Electoral Commission). Twenty-eight of them are Liberal or National seats, only two are Labor seats.

Perhaps surprisingly, many of the seats are safe seats. “This is no coincidence,” says former independent representative for the Victorian electorate of Indi, Cathy McGowan. “Because of the way our preference system works, independent candidates have a better chance of winning safe seats than seats closely contested by LNP and Labor.”

Before McGowan’s won the Indi seat in the 2013 election, the seat had been held by a conservative party at every election since 1931. McGowan won her seat with only 31 per cent of the primary vote against Sophie Mirabella’s 44.7 per cent and Labor’s 11.6 per cent; preferences got her over the line, and she won again in 2016.

And when Haines won Indi in 2019, it was the first time that an independent representative was replaced by another.

McGowan and Haines both attribute their election success to the grass-roots organisation that supported them — Voices of Indi. A similar model was used by Steggall in winning Warringah in 2019, unseating Tony Abbott.

The common denominators of the success in both of those electorates was to highlight to voters that the incumbent were not always serving their needs or representing their views, but beholden to a party program. The focus was on positive change and on issues, avoiding the messages of fear, uncertainty and doubt, which so often is the mainstay of the major political parties.

“Go hard on issues, soft on people,” McGowan likes to say. It’s the opposite approach to what we often see in the hallowed halls of Parliament House.

According to McGowan, independent candidates in safe seats will often also get more of a hearing from disillusioned voters, because safe seats tend to be overlooked for government largesse designed to entice.

Inspired by the successes at Indi and Warringah, the next election is likely to see dozens of candidates backed by the Voices Of model.

The Voices Of groups are independent of each other. They are very careful to avoid being seen as a party and there are no formal structures connecting the various groups.

In almost all cases — as it happened in Indi — they are initially formed by concerned voters looking for a suitable candidate, rather than a candidate looking for an organisation. It is all volunteer driven with a stated emphasis on transparency and inclusion.

Tink’s selection in North Sydney was a result of many months of community engagement, consultation and an open interview process. The idea is to select candidates on the basis of their ability to engage with, and listen to, the constituents that they will represent in Parliament. The candidate’s stance on policy issues is of less importance in this process.

A bit further north, in Paul Fletcher’s electorate of Bradfield, another group has just launched its candidate search after months of preparation by a group of volunteers. Spokesperson for the group, Dr Kate Ahmad, said, “the electorate wants honest, transparent and accountable government. The people of Bradfield don’t feel that their concerns are being taken seriously by the existing political parties.”

“We are looking for a determined and community minded person to represent our concerns around the ‘Four Cs’ — action on the climate crisis, evident failings in the Covid response, the need for an ongoing corruption inquiry in the form of a federal integrity commission and real compassion across a range of social justice issues.”

Voices of Bradfield

These seem to be common positions echoed by other groups, in particular the need for strong climate action and the establishment of a strong and independent corruption commission (federal ICAC).

Two other Sydney electorates who have recently formed groups are Bennelong, to challenge former tennis legend John Alexander, and a Voices of Berowra group forming to take on Julian Leeser.

This Wikipedia page keeps track of all the groups as they appear.

According to McGowan, the common ground between the Voices Of groups is the commitment to address each issue on merit. “Having a seat at the table” makes all the difference, she says, offering many examples of how independents help to improve legislation as it goes through the various stages of the Parliamentary process.

She points to how Steggall has fundamentally changed the debate in Parliament about climate action, and how Haines’ private member’s bill is now the benchmark for the pending legislation on an integrity commission. Long term independent Wilkie has been an important driver for holding the casino industry to account throughout his period in Parliament.

To help support the many Voices Of initiatives, McGowan and other experienced campaigners have set up The Community Independents Project earlier this year. Its purpose is to share experience and knowledge between the Voices Of and similar groups.

McGowan prefers to refer to it as a “movement” and sees her role as mentors to the many disparate groups that are forming around the country. At the Bradfield launch event, she highlighted what she sees as the most important characteristics of an effective independent Parliamentarian.

“An effective independent representative needs to want to be of service, want to win and be able to make decisions based on values.”

Cathy McGowan

Scott Morrison will have to call an election by May next year. Over the past decade, the Australian people’s trust in their elected representatives has plummeted to new depths. The apathy of the electorate is more palpable than ever, exacerbated by the overly politicised responses to the pandemic.

A group of truly independent representatives holding the balance of power in both houses of Parliament may well be the best hope we have to start restoring the trust in our faltering democracy.

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