December 2021 – January 2022

The Nation Reviewed

Declaration of independents

By Bronwyn Adcock
The success of Indi MP Helen Haines points to more non-aligned voices in parliament

It’s mid afternoon on a humid, rain-punctuated day in early November when Dr Helen Haines swings her bright orange Mazda – affectionately known as the “Orange Rocket” – into the parking lot at Barnawartha Primary, a little school of 45 children in north-east Victoria. From the boot, Haines, the independent federal member for Indi, digs out a wad of handwritten letters she’s received from Barnawartha’s students, and another package.

The children are waiting inside, sitting cross-legged on the carpet. Once everyone’s in the room, the students take turns standing and questioning Haines. What’s your middle name? (Mary, after her grandmother.) Have you got any pets? (A sad story, involving her border collie meeting a brown snake.) What are taxes for?

Haines explains Australia’s three-tiered system of government, her role as an MP and their role as citizens. She points at the package that contains a soon-to-be unfurled brand-new Australian flag – a replacement for the school’s old tattered one, which the students had written to her about. “I’m here to deliver on my promise to you,” she says. “You saw a problem, you wrote to me and described the problem and why it mattered, and now I’m here.”

While the concept of ordinary citizens actively participating in democracy – and being listened to – has become, in the minds of many, almost novel, its reinvigoration here in the electorate of Indi has proved a successful political formula.

The upending of the status quo began in 2012, when a group of locals formed “Voices for Indi”, a community movement aimed at re-engaging people in the political process. At the 2013 federal election, following a grassroots campaign that combined strategies such as bush dances with savvy social media, an independent candidate, sixth-generation farmer Cathy McGowan, won with a 9 per cent swing – ending 82 years of conservative hold on the seat. McGowan won again in 2016.

Haines volunteered with Voices for Indi from its inception. With no background in politics – she’d been a nurse and midwife in rural and regional Victoria, before going on to study public health and epidemiology, gaining a doctorate – she liked that the movement was guided by a statement of values, explicitly directing its volunteers against such things as “trash talking” political opponents.

Still, when McGowan announced she wouldn’t be standing again in 2019, Haines was reluctant to put her name forward. She was enjoying her work as a rural health researcher, her three children had left home and her father passed away, so at 57, “I didn’t have any caring responsibilities, I finally felt free”. But, “no one else was putting their hand up. And good leadership is about stepping into the ring.”

Following a town hall–style meeting of 250 members – where candidates’ names were not revealed until the day, so there could be no lobbying or backroom deals – Haines was selected as the next independent candidate for Indi. At the 2019 election, she made history by becoming the first independent to succeed another in federal parliament.

Haines is standing again in 2022. The evening before the school visit, she was inside an empty Wangaratta shopfront, wearing an old loose shirt, tights and a pair of runners, wielding a paint roller alongside a dozen volunteers, all painting walls and washing windows. Team Orange, as the group is known, was setting up a community hub – a feature of previous election campaigns – where people can walk in off the street and where volunteers gather to learn campaigning skills or make election paraphernalia. In the centre of the room was a stack of handpainted orange cockatoos, each distinct, fashioned out of recycled corflute. The group has the “most crafty political merchandise you’ll find”, Haines’s press secretary remarked.

Today, Haines is on the road, meeting with constituents. Usually she hauls an orange-emblazoned caravan, but today it’s just the Orange Rocket whipping along country roads, past verdant fields lush after months of rain.

We make a brief detour to the village of Chiltern, where Haines wants to show me the place that “is crucial to who I am”. At age 26, she arrived here as the appointed matron of the Bush Nursing Hospital – the roses she planted outside the red-brick building are still in full bloom – and discovered that “if you’re matron … you were on call 24 hours a day”. If local women wanted to make jam you needed to accommodate them in the hospital kitchen, and “if somebody got sick, it was the back seat of my Subaru station wagon that transported them to hospital”.

Beyond running the hospital, it was at Chiltern that she learnt about community development. “I realised I didn’t know much,” she says. “The people who knew stuff were the local people. I became embedded in the community and found the answers were all around me. If you want to make anything happen, you’ve got to hook into what people know.”

It was during her mid-career studies that “the cogs started to shift” again. “I became a lot more aware of the impact of government policy and the whole social determinants of health,” she says. “It became clear to me that lifting people out of poverty, helping people to be included in society and pulling in people from the margins is really what improves your health.”

Arriving at her electorate office in Wodonga, Haines meets with a woman from veteran-support group ­Soldier On before setting off on foot for another meeting a few streets away at the Mungabareena ­Aboriginal ­Corporation. Haines still walks with the pace of a nurse on ward duty, and her conversations are peppered with phrases like “what can I do for you?” and “tell me what’s going on”.

Being a member of parliament “is not dissimilar to working in an emergency department”, she says. “You triage everyone … People walk in the door and they might have a screaming heart attack or a rumbling gut. You have to listen, hear their history and their story. Then you work out the bits you can do something about, or where to send them. Or where there is a problem in the system that is bigger.”

Haines’s term as an MP has been consumed by the perennial issues of regional communities, including poor telecommunications (she’s on the parliamentary NBN joint standing committee) and health (she is advocating for a new hospital in Albury-Wodonga). Securing funds for bushfire recovery has also dominated, after the Upper Murray and Alpine valleys were savaged in 2019–20. At the height of those fires, Health Minister Greg Hunt came to the fire-beleaguered town of Corryong, committing half a million dollars to fund mental health workers in the region. Still, Haines says, “I had to work really hard with Hunt’s office and the Corryong Health CEO to get that money in the bank. It took two years.” In all, Haines says, she’s secured $80 million for bushfire recovery in Indi.

The experience of Corryong – surrounded by fire, it lost telecommunications and power, both taking nearly two weeks to be fully restored – motivated another of her projects. She introduced a private members bill into parliament, the Australian Local Power Agency Bill, proposing an agency that would support community-owned renewable energy projects. Through the legislation, which is now in committee stage, local communities would be offered part ownership of new solar- and wind-power projects, giving them income as well as their own independent power source, via micro-grids.

When Haines first ran for parliament, some in her traditionally conservative country electorate warned her not to speak about climate change, saying “you’ll never get elected”. She ignored that advice and, two years on, rarely hears that sentiment anymore. “There is a really strong sense that the renewable energy boom is inevitable, it is happening, and it is the opportunity of a lifetime.”

Later in the afternoon, we don high-vis and take a tour of the Wodonga Wastewater Treatment Plant, where plans are under way for the processing system to be upgraded to capture biogas for conversion into renewable energy that, along with a new solar farm, will be used to power the plant. “This is fabulous,” says Haines, striding along the edges of the pits of swirling waste. “No one is forcing them to do this. They see this as the future and as an opportunity to run a better service.”

On the national stage, Haines is well known for her pursuit of a federal anti-corruption watchdog. While the prime minister hasn’t allowed her Australian Federal Integrity Commission Bill to be debated in the House of Representatives, she is lobbying government backbenchers to try to obtain a majority so it can be introduced. Senator Rex Patrick, also an independent, has successfully tabled it for debate in the Senate.

According to Haines, the maelstrom of two-party dominated politics in Canberra has not proved impenetrable. “I talk to backbenchers who can’t believe how many meetings I’ve had with ministers,” she says. As well as 67 such meetings, she’s had “good access” to the prime minister. She has also learnt that questions in the House can prove productive “if your approach is not gotcha moments, but to get information from a minister”.

In late October, Haines was in Canberra for a sitting fortnight when Wodonga fell into the grip of its first major COVID-19 outbreak. Testing clinics were overwhelmed, closing by 9am while people still queued, and the cancer ward of the hospital had to be closed. Haines rose in parliament to explain to the nation what was going on back home, and that evening she went to see the health minister, who prioritised the delivery of rapid antigen testing to the region. “People in the community contacted me and said, ‘Thank you, I thought no one was listening.’”

There have been roadblocks, though. The government has refused to allow the members of the crossbench to have their votes counted if they are sitting remotely (due to lockdown restrictions), even though it’s allowed in the Senate. Haines calls this an “affront to our democracy”.

In electorates across the country, around 40 groups have formed in anticipation of the next election – many loosely modelled on Indi. The Coalition government is clearly concerned: Liberal senator Andrew Bragg has asked the Australian Electoral Commission to investigate the funding of these groups. He has also warned voters that “if people want to see particular initiatives, whether they be policy initiatives or local initiatives pursued, then they need to have a member in their area that is a member of the government”.

“That is an outrageous comment,” says Haines, stung, it seems, by the implicit accusation that she as an independent can’t effectively serve her community.

“What I know is if you dare to be brave and you dare to step into the circle and you’ve got a whole lot of people there helping you along … you can change things for the better. I wouldn’t be doing it if I didn’t think I could.”

At Barnawartha Primary, when Haines asks students who’d like to be like her and go into politics, half a dozen hands shoot into the air.

Bronwyn Adcock

Bronwyn Adcock is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in The Griffith Review and The Saturday Paper and on the ABC. She is the author of Currowan.

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