The “Voices of” movement is set to challenge the major parties at next federal election with a focus on clear, moderate and publicly popular goals. There’s a growing body of sentiment this could be a winner.
A fresh batch of grass roots-supported independents are expected to contest Australia’s next federal election, joining the likes of Zali Steggall, Helen Haines and others. Their aim is to balance the power grip held by the major parties.
Candidates are being sought in the Sydney seats of Mackellar, Wentworth and North Sydney as well as elsewhere in the country, with community groups on the ground actively trying to bring public participation back into Australian democracy.
In recent years several organisations have sprung up under different names, the most well known being the “voices of” groups that operate independently across a number of electorates.
Members say they are driven by frustration over a growing chasm between the public and government on key issues, primarily climate change, political integrity and Indigenous representation.
While the “voices” groups are not directly involved with fielding candidates or political campaigning, there is overlapping interest and cooperation with those that are.
“We’re really interested in the bottom-up democracy part of it,” says Voices of North Sydney spokesperson Rod Simpson, architect, urbanist and former environment commissioner for the Greater Sydney Commission.
“The people who end up looking for a candidate and then transforming that into the campaign are subject to the federal electoral laws. So it’s a different sort of organisation and activity,” Simpson tells The Fifth Estate.
The group, called the North Sydney Independents, is currently engaged in looking for a candidate in his area. Simpson says he may or may not become involved with that campaign, but describes himself as “certainly supportive”.
A similar group in the seat of Wentworth, called Wentworth Independents, is also searching for someone they can put forward at the next election.
According to group spokesperson, Blair Palese there is frustration with political parties across the board that “no party is accurately representing the issues in our electorate that people care about.”
Palese is also managing director of Climate & Capital Media and just one of many professionals adding her skills and credibility to the movement.
Another is climate and built environment expert Maria Atkinson who is assisting with the search for a candidate in her local electorate of Wentworth.
“Dave Sharma in Wentworth, which is the most socially progressive electorate in the country, is voting exactly the same way as Craig Kelly has voted. So that’s pretty shocking,” she says.
The power of the kitchen table
Despite downplaying their electoral ambitions, the “voices” groups clearly do play a crucial role in garnering support for change and galvanising local sentiment on key issues; as was seen in Warringah with the success of Zali Steggall, and before that in 2013 in the rural Victorian seat of Indi.
Indi is where the ad hoc movement originated, when disillusionment with the electorate’s then member, Sophie Mirrabella of the Liberal Party, prompted community members to begin hosting local political discussions, dubbed “Kitchen Table Conversations”.
The purpose of the meetings was to discuss issues that were important to the community and that they felt were not being represented in Parliament. The meetings went on to spawn a successful campaign group that helped independent candidate Kathy McGowan unseat Mirrabella at the 2013 federal election.
“That’s been pretty inspirational for a lot of people. So in North Sydney, we started the same sort of thing about a year and a half ago,” Simpson explained
Overcoming Australia’s political gridlock
Independent candidates are not new in Australian politics, with the country seeing the good, the bad and the ugly in recent years.
However, they may have an increasingly important role to play in helping the country progress from its current political woes.
Earlier this week, think tank The Grattan Institute released a report authored by former institute chief John Daley, stating one of the ways to overcome Australia’s policy “gridlock” was to elect more independent candidates.
“The most politically realistic path to institutional change is for independent members of parliament to champion institutional changes, particularly when they hold the balance of power,” the report says.
With reform blocked by vested interests, “the platforms of almost all independents and minor parties include promises to reform parliament and our system of government, appealing to a ‘keep the bastards honest’ sentiment.”
It concluded that lower house independents were increasingly likely to hold the balance of power in parliament.
What do we want? Somebody else!
One of the identifying factors of the “voices” breed of independent is a progressive approach to climate change and other social issues, while remaining fiscally conservative enough to appeal to a traditionally Liberal voter.
A major factor in driving the push for independent representation is the current government’s hesitancy to commit to carbon reduction targets, which polls have shown hold broad public support.
To many of the “voices” members this is a fundamental failing of representative democracy.
One of the issues, Simpson says, is the prevalence of career politicians who are beholden to their party’s position.
“Everyone who goes into federal politics thinks that they’re going to be prime minister one day,” he says.
The broad desire of the groups is to see more independent candidates who can make up a balance of power on the cross bench and represent priority issues for the community.
Having a select batch of the most pressing issues to target allows the candidates to campaign and function with a clear, moderate and publicly popular goal in mind.
For example, having gained her seat of Warringah on a largely climate driven campaign, Zali Steggall, has primarily pursued reform in that area, introducing legislation for a more unified approach and net zero target.
Similarly Helen Haines has targeted integrity as a key issue for her constituents in pushing for a federal integrity commission.
However, in Wentworth at least, many months of community meetings and round tables have uncovered a long list of issues on which government policy does not match community expectations, Voices of Wentworth spokesperson Delia Burrage explains.
Some of these tie into climate, like taking better advantage of economic opportunities in the renewables sector and directing Covid stimulus to these areas rather than gas infrastructure.
A federal ICAC is needed
Burrage says there is also overwhelming support for an effective federal ICAC that is able to investigate the decisions of politicians, not just public servants.
“Other recurring themes in relation to integrity include capping political donations, a Code of Conduct covering all federal politicians, with consequences for breach, and a requirement for truth in political advertising,” says Burrage.
“Many people are concerned that Australian businesses are held to a much higher standard of behaviour than our politicians, and that being able to vote them out every three years is not enough.”
What about the Greens?
For a long time those in Australia with a will to protect the planet who did not think the major parties were doing enough may have been compelled to back Greens candidates.
However, Palese says there is a desire for even greater flexibility from candidates and representation across a range of issues.
“Why an independent can potentially be more attractive, as was the case with Kerryn Phelps at the by-election, was this sense that we need someone who can represent all issues of the electorate and be accountable to the electorate and not to a party,” she says.
“It may be for instance that in any electorate they don’t agree with the whole of the Greens positioning. In this case (Wentworth) as a voter group tends to be conservative on the economic front so they wouldn’t necessarily vote for a Greens party platform.”
Any candidate, independent or not, does require a platform to campaign on and a group of talented and motivated people to support them which is where the likes of Simpson, Palese, Atkinson and others like them play a crucial role.
“That was the very successful, very professional model that Zali Steggall had around her and supported her to remove Tony Abbott,” says Atkinson.
Being able to articulate the motivations of the electorate, from their experiences at the Voices kitchen tables and engagement with the community, even before a candidate has been selected gives them a distinct advantage in terms of organisation and coherence.
With an emphasis on grass roots and a public desperate for change, the more established parties should be asking themselves serious questions as to what has led to such broad community dissatisfaction — and looking over their shoulder when the next election rolls around.