October 2013

The Nation Reviewed

The battle for the seat of Indi

By Cate Kennedy
Cathy McGowan had the edge in her electorate thanks to her following basic rural etiquette: show up, and be nice

A week after the 7 September election, and with several thousand postal and absentee votes still being counted in Wangaratta, Cathy McGowan is on a bus heading south. Her victory in the seat of Indi is still four tense days away, and she’s out with her team to thank some of her 600-odd campaign volunteers. First stop is Murrindindi, one of the Victorian shires badly hit by the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires. McGowan, who has stated resolutely that she’s not aligned with any political party and has maintained a local focus, to the point where she knocked back an offer from retiring independent Tony Windsor to join her campaign, secured 33% of the primary vote – a surprise to outside observers. She rode what is being belatedly recognised as the perfect storm of timing, capacity, social-media savvy, dissatisfaction with the high-profile incumbent, Sophie Mirabella, and grassroots engagement. She’s presently laughing with the driver, Denis Ginnivan, about how much on-the-run campaign strategising has taken place in this very vehicle, dubbed the IndiVan. “It’s really a mobile meeting room,” she says, “and, anyway, road trips are good for conversation – it must be the sense of forward momentum.”

McGowan, a sheep farmer and agricultural consultant from Yackandandah who grew up locally in a family of 13 children, embodies a particular set of deep-rooted tenets about what it takes to gain trust in a rural electorate: show up, and be nice. On arriving at Yea, she enters the packed MannaFest Cafe to a burst of applause. “How are your energy levels?” someone calls. “Fantastic!” she responds. “I don’t think I’ve ever felt better in my life!” 

Less than a year ago, McGowan was on another bus, travelling through India with representatives of Australian Women in Agriculture, an organisation of which she is past president. As that bus trundled through Rajasthan, the women on board talked at length about an idea they called Voice for Indi, a committee of local residents with a policy platform based on a series of “kitchen table” conversations. The resulting report, they envisaged, could be presented to all candidates in the upcoming election, to revitalise civic engagement. When the idea was put to Mirabella last December, according to McGowan’s camp, it was met with an arch response. By the time the Voice for Indi report, based on discussions with 425 people across 39 postcodes, was launched six months later, a “fairly reluctant” McGowan had been persuaded to run as a candidate. 

“Voice for Indi doesn’t exist, really, except in our imaginations,” she says now. “There are no paid positions, no office ... no central master plan. We have to go with what’s served us for the last three months, which are good ideas and great values.” These values, as described in the report, at first appear rather woolly – they are all about honest, respectful and diverse community representation. But the underlying push is about being heard in Canberra: Voice for Indi’s aim quickly developed into making Indi a marginal seat, so that the electorate might not be so readily ignored.

At the cafe in Yea, McGowan, who supports same-sex marriage and accepts the science of climate change, reiterates the importance of broad community engagement. She does so again to supporters in Mansfield, after someone asks how she’s going to deal with the inevitable backlash from conservatives in the wake of the result.

“I come back to the values and principles statement that we all signed,” she says. “Negativity about the current member – we’re not going there, so call it when you see it. If we can win the unwinnable election by being our best selves, then we can keep being that.”

Best selves? Values and visions? It’s rhetoric that has been so comprehensively co-opted by politics that it’s almost impossible to hear it free of cynicism, and it makes you wonder if the result of McGowan’s efforts can be reproduced elsewhere, as many intrigued groups are currently hoping. But her long history in community support and rural development – she also has an economics degree – has convinced her that listening is the only way to lead, and she’s equally sure that voters are looking for candidates who show integrity and respect. Her approach might sound corny, she says, “but practising it, I could see the power of it”.

Rowan O’Hagan, another Voice for Indi committee member, has a 2013 calendar commemorating the Indian bus trip. It features memorable photos taken by participants above captions that read, “Only in India ...

“I noticed that this month’s caption was ‘Only in India do you have to change lanes to pass an elephant,’” O’Hagan says. “We should change that to say, ‘Only in Indi ...’ Sometimes you have to do something risky and audacious in order to see a clear path ahead, especially when the obstacle ahead of you, like challenging a safe seat, seems pretty insurmountable. But here in Indi I think we’ve changed lanes. I think we’ve passed that elephant.”

As one of several co-ordinators of the 103 voting booths across Indi, O’Hagan helped to distribute materials for volunteers on election day. At Mansfield, one volunteer mentions how her team opened their box to find inside – along with instructions, balloons, how-to-vote cards and a copy of the values statement – a message: “Smile, and have a good time.” There were lollies in there, too; boxes elsewhere contained cupcakes and fruit. Taped to the top of each box, she recalls, was a sign: “When this is over, come to the party.”

Cate Kennedy
Cate Kennedy is the author of Dark Roots and The World Beneath. She writes poetry, short stories and novels, and has written for the New Yorker.

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