I spent the afternoon in Wodonga on election day speaking to those brave and poor souls handing out how to vote cards. There was a general excitement in the air, and camaraderie between all, though it didn’t extend to the young liberals, who lived up to their stereotype.
It turns out the excitement was well placed, as Independent Cathy McGowan is set to take the seat of Indi from Liberal Sophie Mirabella in a tight race. This seat has been an interesting case in what has otherwise has been a bland election. It shows the power of grassroots organizing and as a result the media has sat up and taken notice.
Indi is a traditionally conservative seat and Mirabella held it by the substantial margin of nine and a half percent. But on election night McGowan told her jubilant supporters that ‘We used to called it a safe seat but we have changed that. We’ve made the seat the swinging seat of Indi.’
McGowan, a former teacher and now farmer and businesswoman has run a grassroots campaign with a close eye to the local issues which include rail connections, high speed internet, mobile phone blackspots, mental health and the tourism industry.
She puts her accomplishment to, what she describes as, the ‘kitchen table’ approach. That is developing community engagement and working the issues of the electorate through close meetings. In addition she has developed a strong swag of volunteers that number into the hundreds along with the support of high profile people including former PM Malcolm Fraser.
McGowan also puts down some of her success to the bitter way in which voters viewed the two major parties and their perceived infighting, inability for reform and lack of connection to the local community. Her electoral popularity is a tick in the box for true local representation and the power of a truly representative politician.
And although the Liberals negatively campaigned on it, her being an independent did not appear to taint her name. In fact, she herself told me it was an advantage in this region. Indeed, her hard work in this area should be a standard for other representative politicians. McGowan said that the electorate had felt taken for granted.
Both Liberal and Labor are now all but entirely composed of life-long professional politicians, schooled in the micro-factions, and those who have never been in the situation of those they ‘represent’. McGowan was able to capitalise on the collective discontent of Indi, and Australia.
The outgoing liberal representative Sophie Mirabella suffered an almost ten percent swing against her. Mirabella’s unapologetic conservatism, hard-nosed politics and combative persona have made her well-known in Australian politics.
It was that which McGowan did, that Mirabella did not. Mirabella, who was unable to be reached for an interview was perceived as being out of touch with the local people in this geographically vast electorate and was thought by some to have ‘gone missing.’
Mirabella who has recently said that she does not want to be reconsidered for a possible front bench position, said people who voted for McGowan had ‘wool over their eyes’ and accused her of running a ‘well-organised Labor, union, Greens, GetUp! campaign’.
McGowan on the other hand made herself available, and approachable.
Although McGowan recognizes the constraints that are involved in being an independent, she also sees her role as being a representative of the area. Unlike independents under the previous government she told me on Friday that she does not have to go into king maker mode; she can simple represent her constituents.
She wants to be an effective local negotiator and bring issues to the table. Because 87 % of all bills are passed in a bipartisan manner, McGowan’s influence could be bigger than first thought.
Her campaign style, commitment to local issues and affable manner are a breath of fresh air in the stale and hostile Australian political environment. Whether or not she can bring something to the national and local table as a result remains to be seen. But regardless the manner in which she has potentially dethroned a liberal frontbencher with her ‘kitchen table’ approach could prove to be a positive model Australia wide.