The “Voices Of” movement is gathering steam as more than 30 independent groups seek to field candidates at the next Federal election, capitalising on rising disaffection with political corruption and failure on climate change. Kim Wingerei on the new force for political disruption.
The recent announcement of Kylea Tink as a candidate for North Sydney marks the first of many new independent candidates looking to join Helen Haines, Zali Steggall and Andrew Wilkie in a growing group of independent politicians 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% of eligible voters (based on the latest count by the Australian Electorate 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 from the Indi electorate in Victoria, 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 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% of the primary vote against Sophie Mirabella’s 44.7% and Labor’s 11.6%; preferences got her over the line, and she won again in 2016.
And when Helen Haines won Indi in 2019, it was the first time that an independent representative had been replaced by another independent.
McGowan and Haines both attribute the election successes to the grass-roots organisation that started it – Voices of Indi. A similar model was used by Zali 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 incumbents were not always serving their needs or representing their views, but beholden to a party program instead.
And this disaffection with the major parties, with their failure to deliver on the likes of a Federal anti-corruption commission and action on climate change has also led to the rise of The New Liberals, a party focussed on traditional “small-l” liberal values, climate and a corruption commission. TNL has just announced the candidacy of economist Steve Keen to espouse MMT as a route out of the economic crisis.
Focus on positives
For the independents, says Cathy McGowan, 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. The opposite approach to what we see all too often 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, such as pork barrelling, designed to entice votes.
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 all 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.
Kylea 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 their 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 in 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 Zali Steggall has fundamentally changed the debate in Parliament about climate action, and how Helen Haines’ private members bill is now the benchmark for the pending legislation on an integrity commission. Long term independent Andrew 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 has to call an election by May next year. Over the last 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.
A group of truly independent representatives holding the balance of power in both houses of Parliament may be the best hope we have to restore trust in our faltering democracy.
Kim Wingerei is a businessman turned writer and commentator. He is passionate about free speech, human rights, democracy and the politics of change. Originally from Norway, Kim has lived in Australia for 30 years. Author of ‘Why Democracy is Broken – A Blueprint for Change’.