Voice for Indi: a community organising case study

The ugly political landscape established by the 2013 Federal Election almost hid two sites of beauty. Voice4Indi (V4I) saw the independent Cathy McGowan unseat Sophie Mirabella, and Greens’ campaigning in Melbourne saw lower-house MP Adam Bandt returned with an increased margin. This first campaign, V4I, is an excellent contemporary lesson in both the power of grassroots organising and the mechanics of executing it well. While the demise of the carbon price evidences the climate movement’s recent weakness in this area, ENGOs are showing a renewed commitment to authentic community organising. In this context, lessons from Voice4Indi can inform efforts to strengthen community support for genuine efforts to reduce our carbon pollution.

V4I DIY

In addition to what I’ve learnt from the media, my understanding of V4I comes from a number of conversations with Ben McGowan, one of the handful of young people who drove the campaign, as well as encounters with Cathy McGowan and other V4I campaigners at events in Canberra and Melbourne, respectively. In every instance, the success of V4I has been linked to the organising principles around which the entire campaign was structured.

V4I’s success can’t be understood without appreciating how elegantly it fostered ownership of the campaign and inspired decentralised leadership. V4I asked its supporters to sign a values statement committing, among other things, to behave respectfully towards the incumbent. But within these generous limits, supporters were free to campaign as they saw fit. Says Ben McGowan, “if they had an idea, they could do it.” While this may have diluted the strategic impact of the efforts in winning votes, it massively increased the volume, such that the overall effect was far greater. Voters from all over Indi, moved by V4I and Cathy McGowan, showed their ingenuity (and sometimes their political naiveté) in their efforts: in addition to the typical campaign grist, there were sheep in shirts, roving choirs, and cash mobs of local florists. “It wasn’t a schmick political operation,” reflects Ben McGowan, describing some of the actions as “tacky” or “tasteless”, “people just felt they had the authority to do whatever they wanted, having signed [the values statement].”

Organising trainer Marshall Ganz describes leadership as accepting responsibility to enable others to achieve shared purpose in the face of uncertainty. V4I demonstrates this, as its approach developed hordes of leaders who went on to empower and motivate others towards the shared purpose of making Indi a marginal electorate. The campaign is a lesson in how trust in volunteers (and defined parameters for engagement) can catalyse campaigning on a scale and level of diversity otherwise inconceivable.

“We worked on a train the trainer principle and volunteers worked together to pass the training onto volunteers in the farthest reaches of the electorate. In this way we were able to spread excitement, but also capacity, right across the electorate.” – Susan Benedyka, V4I Campaign Organiser

Voice for Indi: An anti-campaign against campaigns

The success of V4I wasn’t just due to its means, but also to its message. V4I didn’t succeed simply because it ran a much better campaign in support of a much better candidate. It succeeded because it ran a different sort of campaign in support of a different sort of candidate. In effect, V4I was an anti-campaign which traded as much on its rejection of party politics and the political machine as it did on its positive vision for a more accountable, responsive candidate.

After the striking negativity of the 43rd parliament, the 2013 Federal Election revealed a marked disdain for the Coalition and the ALP, with swings against Labor mostly increasing the “other” vote. Voters weren’t just fed up with Labor – they were fed up with politics as usual.

a graph showing the swings at the 2013 federal australian election
“Other” parties were the main beneficiary of the 2013 swing against Labor and the Greens. (Screenshot from http://www.abc.net.au/news/federal-election-2013/results/)

V4I was the beneficiary of this sentiment. It offered a campaign unlike other campaigns which, as detailed above, offered refreshing flexibility in how supporters could take part. Too, it put a significant emphasis on process over policy: a vote for Cathy was not a vote for a particular policy position, rather, it was a vote for a candidate who promised a new way of relating to her constituents. Ben McGowan described Cathy McGowan’s remarkable victory as “a statement on the political process”, arguing that voters were frustrated with “power stored in places they can’t access”. Thus the genius of V4I was that it wasn’t the brainchild of an ingenious political hack, it wasn’t, to put it mildly, “a smooth political play”. Instead, in reaction to an unaccountable and distant incumbent it was an authentic, almost Quixotic community, “a place without professionalism”.

The organising methods described above could not have worked without this campaign identity, and vice-versa. In fact, the beauty of this campaign identity and narrative is that actions that may have been unstrategic in themselves ended up being strategic in terms of the story of the campaign: while sheep in t-shirts may have presented only a weak argument for voting for Cathy McGowan, the fact of the action contributed to the mythology of a campaign that belonged to every hitherto disaffected voter. Thus the campaign identity wasn’t only broad enough to include the sometimes gormless efforts of its supporters, it in fact benefited from them.

Voice for Indiosyncracy

This post aims to highlight a couple of lessons from V4I’s success. However, the most striking lesson is that the success of V4I was highly idiosyncratic. While the principles behind the victory are worth noting, one should be wary of attempting to roll out a similar campaign holus-bolus. The result in 2013 was, ultimately, a very marginal result, the outcome of a unique confluence of particular factors: Mirabella as the incumbent, McGowan as the challenger, Indi as the electorate, 2013 as the year. No other campaign would have the good fortune of such a widely-reviled incumbent, nor such an ideal candidate (hearing Cathy speak in Canberra, I realised how much of the campaign’s good design must have been due to her rich professional experience of community organising). Too, future elections will likely be kinder to the political party duopoly, and non-rural electorates may be less responsive to the style of community organising that carried V4I to victory.

Yet let us take note. The continuous trashing of farmland for coal and coal seam gas exploration has revealed the inability or unwillingness of the Nationals to advocate for farmers against the big mining companies, which has prompted at least some people to consider running as independents in affected seats. This issue in particular has the potential to unite certain communities behind a hypothetical independent who eschews the major parties and presents as a reassuringly conservative candidate nonetheless willing to stand up for farmers against the vested interests. Lacking a price on carbon, with mining companies seeking to take farmers’ land from them, let us hope that V4I inspires a diverse range of citizens to not just ask for, but create, a more representative, more accountable parliament.

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