From Small Things Grow

The Indi Way: How a Rural Community Sparked a Social and Political Movement, by Voices for Indi (Scribe, 2023).

A decaying party system. Declining partisanship. Democratic deficit. The erosion of trust.

These have been among the dominant tropes of Australian politics this century. They receive their empirical support in surveys, polls, democratic ‘audits’ and, definitively, at election time. But there is a bloodlessness, an abstraction, to this way of narrating the story of the nation’s political evolution. It is as if change simply happens to people, rather than being made by them. As the demographic features of the country shift, and as identities are transformed by neoliberalism and globalisation, new patterns seem simply to emerge, by some alchemy discernible to the analyst but of which citizens are barely cognisant.

The Indi Way is useful not least in challenging this way of thinking about recent politics. Produced by members of the Voices (originally Voice) For Indi (V4I) group formed in 2012, the book is frankly celebratory. Through the perspectives of key participants, it tells the story of how the communities of a sprawling Victorian regional electorate—the size of Belgium, we are told—dissatisfied with their representation and level of support from government, and the general health of democracy, initiated a movement that would transform Australian politics.

It will serve—and has clearly been designed to serve—as a handbook for communities interested in pursuing a similar path elsewhere. Many have already done so: The Indi Way reports that by the time of the 2022 federal election, at least forty-five ‘Voices’ organisations had emerged throughout Australia, and about twenty-three community independent candidates stood for parliament.

There was nothing unusual about independents putting up their hands in this way. What marked the 2022 election as different is that so many of them won. The teal revolution, as it has come to be called in reference to the colour adopted by some (although not all) of those candidates, was as large a story as the change of government. Perhaps larger: its implications for the nation’s politics—if it does indeed represent a trend, as it seems, and not an aberration—are potentially huge.

Cathy McGowan’s election to the then Liberal-held seat of Indi in 2013 is often treated as the beginning of that revolution, and readers of The Indi Way will find nothing in its pages to disabuse them of that impression. The book captures something of the idealism and excitement of that time—Guy Rundle, impressed by the sea of orange adopted as the independent’s official colour, likened the campaign hub to ‘an acid-trip CWA meeting’.

Somewhat like the 2022 successes of community independents, that initial breakthrough owed something to local serendipity. Indi had in Sophie Mirabella a member of parliament who attracted an unusual level of hostility, not only locally but in Canberra. Tony Windsor, the New England independent, singled her out in 2013 as a fellow parliamentarian he would not miss on retirement from politics. He added, helpfully, that Indi voters were fortunate in having such a fine alternative in McGowan, an endorsement that proved a boon to a candidate still struggling to raise her profile against the widely-known Mirabella.

The Indi Way singles out a couple of Mirabella’s actions as Indi’s local member that rankled. She was among the few parliamentarians who stayed away from Kevin Rudd’s Apology to the Stolen Generations in 2008 (Peter Dutton was another). Then, in March 2011, while opposition leader Tony Abbott addressed an irate crowd outside Parliament House, there was Mirabella with him. The problem was that there were also protestors displaying signs carrying deeply offensive slogans about Julia Gillard, in an image that would become emblematic of the era’s rampant misogyny.

In general, Mirabella had come to be seen as embodying too many of the features of politics that Voices people disliked: its winner-take-all aggression; its preoccupation with issues remote from ordinary people’s lives; its habit of imagining that the ethics and behaviour of a University Liberal Club would translate well to a regional setting inhabited by grown-ups with families, homes, jobs and aspirations for themselves and their communities.

It is difficult to know how truly significant these matters were in the mobilisation against Mirabella, just as it remains debatable how important anti-Morrison sentiment was to the teal revolution in 2022. But the view Mirabella shared with McGowan and a colleague after she granted them an 11-minute meeting in Wangaratta in December 2012—that ‘the people aren’t interested in politics’—has lived on in the folklore of this movement. It summarised a complacency that assumes clever professionals can depend on the indifference of most people to most of their behaviour, and so do what they like. The best kind of citizen, as Scott Morrison indicated, is a quiet Australian, one too busy with their family and their sport and with planning their next renovation or holiday to worry about anything happening in their country. Or one not worried enough to do anything about it.

The movement described in The Indi Way in some ways worked with the grain of many Australians’ belief that talking politics is impolite, even as the sum total of its activities radically challenged it. The Kitchen Table Conversations that formed the basis of the movement evoked domesticity and the private sphere, even if they did not necessarily take place in homes. They treated politics as a matter of what people wanted for—or even just liked about—their community. But what is striking from this account, even when authors are trying to evoke their own initial guilelessness or amateurishness as part of the political ‘rags to riches’ aspect of the story, is that these were people who had many advantages in mounting an effective political movement. There are no hillbillies here.

In the first place, there was a core of highly educated professionals and business people who had the education, resources and networks necessary to succeed. The names of a few families recur in the story: McGowan, Haines, Ginnivan. Young Indi ‘expatriates’ living in Melbourne played a crucial role in bringing both brains, in the form of modern campaign techniques, and feet to the party. While the book makes much of the University Liberal Club types that Mirabella’s campaign would need to bring in from Melbourne, the connections with the big city were no less significant for the Voices people. International inspiration was also present. The Obama campaigns have extended a long reach across the globe to the valleys and plains of northern Victoria. Copies of Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals were apparently well-thumbed. The local and regional meet the national and transnational, and the mighty bush, as Henry Lawson called it, was well and truly tethered to the world.

And as would also be so conspicuously true of successful community independent campaigns of the 2019 and 2022 federal elections, women were critical. Regional and rural communities have been highly successful in promoting their leadership, which has increasingly proved disruptive to the patterns of patriarchy that have dominated rural party politics for generations. These women are often real farmers, in contrast to the red-faced former accountants, journalists and others in the National Party who do such sterling work for the mining industry.

Most Australians would not have heard of Cathy McGowan before 2013, but it is notable that she was there at Kevin Rudd’s 2020 summit back in 2008—already clearly a leader in agriculture of enough importance to be identified as a participant in that forum. Indi’s claim to fame in the history of independent representation is that after two terms, McGowan was able to retire and another independent to win the seat. That was Dr Helen Haines, a midwife and academic. The process of choosing a candidate is wonderfully called ‘discernment’, not preselection—and there were two other candidates, both women, also in view alongside Haines.

The Voices movement eventually went national: in this account, Indi led and other places have followed, relying on the sharing of expertise and the simple reality of a community that succeeded in forming a movement and sending independents into parliament on the back of it (although a formal separation between V4I and the campaigns has been maintained). There is obviously something missing here: Simon Holmes à Court is mentioned in passing, but the role of the group he founded, Climate 200, clearly mattered in exporting the Voices revolution to metropolitan electorates that most thought beyond the reach of community independents.

The claim being made here is for a new and more vigorous form of grassroots democracy, for civil discourse and for accountable representation as alternatives to the excessively combative and self-absorbed major political parties. Voices and the community independent movement have never descended to parish pump politics because, although concerned with service provision, they elevated means to a roughly equal status with ends from the outset and kept them there. Haines, for instance, championed an anti-corruption commission in the Morrison era. Big national (and global) issues such as climate change and gender equity gained attention alongside the need for better mobile coverage and rail transport.

That all made the revolution more easily exportable, but also redirected it away from its regional orientation. The community independent movement has made its greatest inroads not in other country communities, but in affluent—usually ‘safely’ Liberal—metropolitan electorates. Community independents have been supported by people who do not need to worry over mobile phone black spots and poor hospital facilities, although they do worry over climate change and crooked, sexist and out-of-touch politicians.

That might all be a measure of a convergence of values, lifestyles and perspectives between our largest cities and our regions. The nation’s regions are undoubtedly diverse, and they suffer from continuing disadvantage, but many contain sophisticated and cosmopolitan communities that bear only passing resemblance to the world of ‘weatherboard and iron’ evoked by former National Party leader Barnaby Joyce.

That provides the political disruptors of our times with an opportunity that they seem increasingly likely to grasp. Their polite revolution is almost certainly unfinished.

A Positive Politics: Community independents and the new wave of political engagement

Lesley Howard, Denis Ginnivan, Sept 2022

Politicians and parties targeting the community independents will do so at their peril, for they will also be attacking the communities that have chosen and supported them into parliament.

About the author

Frank Bongiorno

Frank Bongiorno teaches history at the Australian National University. His latest book, Dreamers and Schemers: A Political History of Australia, will be published by Black Inc./La Trobe University Press on 1 November 2022.

More articles by Frank Bongiorno

Categorised: Arena Quarterly #16


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