How a movement that began in earnest a decade ago, built on grassroots representation, could affect at least eight seats at the next election. By Margo Kingston.

Inside the independent campaigns that may decide the election

The movement started, really, in 2012. A group of friends steeped in community building, second-wave feminism and rural leadership decided that Sophie Mirabella was not representing her safe regional seat of Indi and worked out over time what to do about it. She had told them, “The people of Indi aren’t interested in politics.”

On the morning after her historic win, Cathy McGowan’s campaign team wandered into a debrief brunch on a deck by the river of the cattle property of her campaign manager, Phil Haines. His wife, Helen, was putting up photo boards of volunteers’ election day pictures. Ever modest, McGowan told the people present there were no national implications from her victory.

“This is not about the rest of Australia,” she told me that morning. “This is about us, and us doing our job of community really well. So we’re doing it for ourselves with the hope that other people can watch and learn and can go and do it in their communities for themselves and can learn and be energised from it. It’s not about doing things to people, it’s about the community doing our learning together. Every community must do their own learning. Models can’t apply – you’ve got to do the work, you’ve got to do the engagement, you’ve got to do the invitation.”

But two points in the 2012 vision statement of Voices for Indi were eerily prescient: Indi became a case study for “grassroots” community engagement; and Indi was recognised for its innovation in connecting its citizens.

After the election, Voices for Indi held workshops explaining their process and values. Warringah resident Louise Hislop attended one in early 2018, after a friend saw Voices for Indi co-founders Phil Haines and Denis Ginnivan give a talk on local democracy in 2017. In October the following year, Hislop launched Voices for Warringah with a Guardian Australia article by Gabrielle Chan, introduced to her by Ginnivan, headlined “Tony Abbott faces campaign using tactics that defeated Mirabella in Indi”. It was one of the most read posts of the month and Hislop was inundated with new members. Fourteen days later, Wentworth was won by independent Kerryn Phelps in a byelection. Hislop became co-campaign manager for Zali Steggall and her electorate officer for two years. She now lives in Mackellar.

At the same time, other Australians concerned about climate inaction and dishonest politics stepped up for campaigns in safe Coalition seats. My citizen journalism website No Fibs decided to cover #IndependentsDay campaigns, including Rebekha Sharkie’s in the South Australian seat of Mayo. Simon Holmes à Court, who I’d never spoken to before, donated to my crowdsourcing effort to pay something to my volunteers. He told me later he’d founded the philanthropic fund Climate 200 after Josh Frydenberg expelled him in 2018 from his local fundraising group, Kooyong 200, for writing an article critiquing his attempt to prolong the life of a coal power station. Climate 200 donated to several candidates.

Steggall’s win and Phelps’ close loss in the 2019 federal election – she kept more than 16 per cent of her 19 per cent election swing, making Wentworth marginal – turbocharged the movement. Voices for Wentworth emerged, then Voices for Mackellar and Voices for North Sydney. Steggall volunteers were enthusiastic mentors. In Melbourne, Voices for Kooyong and Voices for Goldstein were born. As with their Sydney counterparts, they are in the top 10 wealthiest seats.

“Voices for” groups popped up in safe regional seats, too, inspired by Helen Haines’s historic win replacing McGowan in Indi. McGowan was persuaded to come out of retirement to front “Community Independents”, a group of Indi women who arranged a virtual gathering of mostly female “Voices for” members in February last year. They have since hosted regular forums to discuss how to run community campaigns.

Meanwhile Ginnivan, a social worker, resigned from Voices for Indi to tour Australia on Zoom and in person as a mentor to new groups, particularly in the regions.

After initially preferring to focus on a few winnable seats, McGowan also began speaking with multiple “Voices for” groups about how to organise and what they needed to look for in a candidate. So far, she has launched the “Voices for” campaign of Penny Ackery against Energy Minister Angus Taylor in the safe New South Wales regional seat of Hume. She has also endorsed Zoe Daniel.

In August Holmes à Court made the bombshell announcement that Climate 200 would raise millions from the rich and small donors who’d like to back community independents dedicated to serious climate change action, a federal integrity commission and gender equity. Huge mainstream media interest made it easier to find successful non-politicians to take the plunge into the bearpit.   

Holmes à Court’s strategy was not to participate in candidate selection and to require matching local funding for donations to prove local support. His group also requires detailed funding proposals for specific purposes to ensure well-run local campaigns. Holmes à Court established an advisory council with former Liberal Party leader John Hewson, who is also a columnist for this newspaper; Labor elder Barry Jones; former independents Rob Oakeshott, Tony Windsor and Kerryn Phelps; and Liberal Party defector Julia Banks. McGowan chose not to join the council.

Holmes à Court’s ubiquitous media presence – Good Weekend magazine described him as “the face of the movement” – has triggered claims from the Coalition that the movement is really a top-down party dominated by inner-city elites. The assertion is intended to harm candidates, especially in regional areas. No Fibs realised that risk during the 2019 campaign, when we crowdfunded an #IndependentsDay video of candidates on location. Haines was the only no – she believed she had to stay totally local to win, and she was right. Then Albury mayor Kevin Mack said later that his video appearance reversed his momentum in Farrer, the NSW seat bordering Indi, when Liberal MP Sussan Ley relentlessly accused him of being in bed with city greenies.

In Sydney, a Steggall-inspired “Voices for” variation model emerged. Voices of Wentworth is a non-partisan group, collecting community views through kitchen table conversations (KTCs)carried out in people’s homes, presenting a report to the MP and hosting policy forums on the big issues for voters. In parallel, an independents group sought a suitable candidate who could unite enough Liberal, Labor and Green voters to truly represent the voices of most voters. The adjoining North Shore seats of Mackellar and North Sydney followed its lead, enthusiastically mentored by Warringah volunteers.

The four wealthy blue-ribbon seats either side of Sydney Harbour employ Anthony Reed’s firm Populares to service some campaign needs, including digital marketing. Reed earned his stripes as campaign manager for Phelps at the 2018 Wentworth byelection, then co-managed Steggall’s election campaign with Hislop. He is also on Holmes à Court’s advisory council.

Voices for Kooyong and Voices for Goldstein followed the Indi model by selecting candidates then handing over to the candidate’s campaign, with many but not all members going across.

Zoe Daniel, the former ABC journalist who is running as an independent in Goldstein, told The Saturday Paper she had chosen not to employ Reed, preferring a local campaign team. Angela Pippos, another former ABC journalist and a friend since university, became her paid media manager and confidante after urging her to stand. The campaign pays five other staff, and the rest are volunteers. Daniel boasts 2000 locals “actively engaged” in the campaign and a kitty of more than $250,000.

Daniel says her connection with Holmes à Court is “fairly loose”. Climate 200 has given $100,000 to her campaign, matching local donations. “We have the convo on what we need, what will work and what we need to pay for.”

Daniel’s campaign is unsurprisingly the most prepared and media savvy. Recognising the dearth of Goldstein community media, she decided “to do our own media”. She has started a video report for social media and a podcast where she has interviewed businesswoman Sam Mostyn on gender equity and McGowan on politics. Sky News has approached her with an offer to host a debate with the sitting MP.

Like some other candidates, Daniel uses the issues emerging from KTCs as a launching pad for developing policy through community discussion. She is planning a campaign ideas summit and has established a youth wing, as have some other candidates.

While many of the high-profile independent candidates at this election were not involved in the movement before being approached to stand – Allegra Spender in Wentworth, Kylea Tink in North Sydney, Monique Ryan in Kooyong and Daniel in Goldstein – in more challenging seats, founders of “Voices for” groups are running.

Dr Sophie Scamps, a local GP and Liberal voter incensed by inaction on climate change, co-founded Voices for Mackellar before joining Mackellar Rising to find a candidate. She was eventually persuaded to stand. Leonie Scarlett, co-founder and president of Voices for Mackellar, resigned from the group to become Scamps’ volunteer co-ordinator. Louise Hislop, a childhood friend of Scarlett’s, has joined the campaign as an adviser.

In Malcolm Fraser’s old seat of Wannon, held by Trade minister Dan Tehan, Voices for Wannon advertised for candidates after Tehan cancelled a meeting with the group and bagged them in the local press. They chose Alex Dyson, 33, a radio host and comedian who also stood in 2019. Voices for Wannon co-founder Shelly Murrell will be his co-campaign manager, with a view to widening his appeal among Liberal voters. Wannon is thinking long term.

The same is true in Groom, the second-safest Coalition seat in Australia and the only one with a “Voices for” candidate. Groom exemplifies the crisis in the Liberal Party’s identity that has spurred the movement. As warned by former attorney-general George Brandis, a leading Queensland moderate, the merger of the Liberal and National parties in Queensland has crushed the liberal wing of the party, causing heartburn among small-l liberal members.

Despite the endorsement of Scott Morrison for either of two female nominees before a November 2020 byelection, stacked local branches selected Garth Hamilton instead, a friend and fellow traveller of Matt Canavan. A move to switch the seat from Liberal to National is on the table.

The result: a minor exodus of LNP members in the professional and business class of Toowoomba, a hub for healthcare and private schools in the region, and the nation’s second-largest inland city after Canberra. Several have joined the campaign of social worker Suzie Holt, who with her anaesthetist husband and two teenage daughters formed Voices for Groom and held their first KTC by throwing a party at their grand old Toowoomba mansion.

They invited people of all political colours, from Extinction Rebellion to business conservatives. Guests agreed to party rules: listen to each other and agree on core principles that they want their federal MP to abide by. After more consultation, the principles were representation, integrity, enterprise and science.

Holt’s campaign slogan is #GrowingGroomTogether, and she invites community discussion on a shared vision for Groom and a plan to achieve it. She boasts decent local funding, top-drawer pro bono legal advice, a donation in kind to design her campaign merchandise, a free shopfront for her campaign office and expertise from local universities to help formulate policy for her region, which encompasses the Darling Downs food bowl and coal and gas mining. Her campaign team boasts former Liberal Party member Peter McIlveen. John White, a former chairman of the Groom LNP, has suspended his membership to join. Holt accepts donations only from Queenslanders and is building an all-local campaign exploring community campaigning on the job.

As former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull points out, Morrison’s bet is that progressive liberals will hold their noses and vote conservative. Turnbull, who has reserved his right to resign from the Liberal Party and endorse Wentworth’s Allegra Spender, also notes that independents are taking on a huge, new challenge: it is one thing to beat widely reviled, unrepresentative MPs such as Mirabella and Abbott, and quite another to take out an ineffective moderate backbencher in Wentworth, North Sydney or Mackellar, a libertarian in Goldstein, or the treasurer in Kooyong.

Mistakes will be made, candidates will trip, but in at least eight once-safe Liberal seats – and perhaps the National Party seats of Cowper, Nicholls and Mallee – traditionally dead election campaigns will come to life, hopefully with a bit of community discussion on policy and the meaning of representative democracy. In a mainstream political and media environment where politics is reduced to slogans and wedges, that’s got to be a good thing.

This piece was modified on January 20, 2022, to note that Cathy McGowan has also endorsed Zoe Daniel. Shelly Murrell was incorrectly referred to as a research scientist.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on January 15, 2022 as "Inside the campaigns that may decide the election".

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Margo Kingston is a former political journalist and editor of the citizen journalism website No Fibs.

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