It was in 2017, when Tony Abbott decided not to represent the electorate of Warringah in the same sex marriage plebiscite that pushed me over the edge. Whilst I hadn’t been a fan of Mr Abbott I told myself that my opinion of him was in the minority in this electorate. He had been the sitting member for over 20 years after all. However, that single act ignited a fire within me. I had to do something to end his reign as the self-appointed Emperor of Warringah as he consistently failed at doing his job – representing his electorate in the federal parliament.
This is how Vote Tony Out was born. The name of the campaign sounds divisive and that was on purpose. Tony is a divisive character. As we move forward to the next election what I am seeing is a long list of career politicians that aren’t representing their electorates. They are saying one thing to their electorate and then voting along party lines.
Climate change, integrity, economic management and housing affordability are key issues that aren’t being addressed. In fact, they are being avoided by these career politicians as they have no desire to rock the boat as it might put their career in jeopardy.
In recent weeks we have seen a light bulb moment as many electorates have community groups forming, many on the back of the “Voices of” movement. They have caught the eye of the Coalition and it has them worried. These groups are starting to look like a threat.
Creating the community campaign – Vote Tony Out – gave me a fascinating insight into a different way of doing politics. Being a party politician these days for many is more about power than about service to the community. It is now a career path in itself – as opposed to days gone by where politicians actually had real world experience that helped them in their role. Many of those currently in politics – particularly men, see it as a sure fire way to attain wealth, prestige, notoriety and power.
Traditionally Independents mostly fail because they run a campaign from a standing start. Their name as one of the names on the ballot paper. They work hard trying to get their name out there, usually spending little money to run their campaign. They usually lose but hey, they had a go. Good for them. On the other hand, the parties are campaign machines, they know how to do it as they have done it many times before, they have money and some party disciples who help do the work. They work to divide the electorate as it works in their favour.
Currently most constituents don’t look at elections through the prism of their local representative. The erosion of local interest is created by US style presidential campaigning by the parties, where we are being told we are voting for a PM. Our local voice in Parliament is irrelevant to that campaign. It also has led to the election of local members who genuinely have very few of the electorate’s values but work to uphold the values of the party.
Build the movement first
In Warringah we changed the paradigm as we created a community movement first. We ignored the need for a candidate, and we built a solid platform of people from all political persuasions who had had enough. We all wanted more from our representative but talk of a candidate was constantly talked down during this phase. “Build the tribe” was the early mantra of the movement. And in my view, that’s what makes this an interesting paradigm, and one that has the ability to succeed.
People joining the movement are united by the belief that the status quo is no longer acceptable. This is what brings them together initially – not a candidate. The parties don’t know how to attack this strategy as they always attack the candidate. That’s their modus operandi. So the longer you can build the movement without a candidate the better.
If the movement is big enough then the parties have an increasingly difficult uphill battle. They have to re-convince voters that the status quo is actually okay. This is almost impossible as the heart of the movement is the agreement of one simple principle: the status quo is not okay.
The movement should aim to directly influence around seven per cent of the electorate or 7000 people given the size of each electorate which is approximately 100,000 people. A group of 200 starters would be no more than 4 degrees of separation from everyone in that electorate. So peer to peer communication is the most effective weapon.
I am currently mentoring the group Mackellar Rising in the electorate north of Warringah, on Sydney’s northern beaches. The Liberal Party in Pittwater reportedly has less than 400 members. Mackellar Rising already has about 1500 people and is growing by the day as friends bring others into the group. On a national level, both parties reportedly have around 15,000 members each nationally. You can see how 40 to 50 community movements with 7000 people can be a powerful force at the next election nationally.
Let me be clear: the building of the tribe of support for a community-backed Independent is the foundation of the campaign.
Whereas the vast majority of Independents have failed, Zali Steggall, Cathy McGowan and Helen Haines were all successful as they rode atop a huge wave of community support which had been built prior to the selection of them as the candidate. The movement endorses the candidate prior to the campaign launch. The candidate instantly has mass appeal. The degrees of separation of everyone in the electorate to the candidate is now less than 2. There is a real community connection.
Generally, these are the movement’s core beliefs:
1. Party politics is broken in many ways: lack of democracy, lack of transparency, the corrupt influence of donors, lobbyists and vested interests. Party politics is about staying in power – there is no vision or bold reform; it’s solely about the status quo
2. Only Independents have the freedom to truly represent their electorates
3. Only Independents in a cross bench and, especially, in minority government situations can create dialogue in parliament
4. Only Independents can bring true democracy back to parliament.
These are the movement’s core values:
5. Focus on the greater good for Society, Environment and Economy at the same time
6. Long term focus not driven by the election cycle
These are the foundations of the movement. It would be easy to show in each electorate why the current party member breaches all of these beliefs and values. If I think of all the so-called “moderate Liberals”, I can cite breaches for all points within seconds as an example.
In politics you need to play to win – Independents go for the primary vote
What we experienced in Warringah and we are working towards in Mackeller is to successfully launch the Independent campaign as a two horse race. Labor and Greens voters in Mackellar will know that they will probably never in their lifetime see their party representing that electorate but they can back the next best thing which is their centrist community representative.
By building the “community created” movement and then candidate, an Independent winning becomes possible and within reach. That’s what we did in Warringah.
Who doesn’t like to back a winner?
With this ideology there is a subtleness required to get those who didn’t vote for the incumbent last time to understand there is no second place prize but their vote is important to changing the status quo. The candidate can then work on diluting the incumbent’s vote through centrist policies that the community embraces due to the shared values of that community.
The goal is changing so Independents don’t rely on preferences to try and get in but go for the primary vote win. In Warringah we won 23 of the 37 booths on election day in 2019.
This type of approach – movement building first – will bring out knockout candidates from within the community. Great people won’t step forward unless they know they have a real shot. The positioning of the candidate from the day they launch, fully endorsed by the community movement sets the scene.
In Zali’s case this was true. Three hours before this event, I sent 600 people who lived within five kilometres of that park, from the database I had built up, a text message to announce that Vote Tony Out was endorsing Zali and invited them to the launch. At her launch we had 400 people in the park and the media were blown away at her support. It instantly became a two horse race.
The major parties will again try to make the next election about who will be Prime Minister but my view is that the real power will be held by the cross bench whose numbers will swell at the next election – primarily due to what Warringah was able to show is possible in a “blue ribbon” Liberal seat.
In many ways our parliament’s adversarial system is dividing our country. The major parties waste our time playing politics. They don’t focus on reform or actually advancing our interests (arguably they’re only focused on theirs).
I want an Australia that has a minority government which has the power and some control in the hands of Independents, who are genuinely representing their electorates, not vested interests.
We deserve it. It will mean we get fair and balanced debates on every piece of legislation. It might just lead to a better form of government where we have a governing style that works on finding the common ground to improve the lives, society and prosperity of all Australians.
Which ultimately means we, as a country, will start to have an inclusive rather than a divisive mindset.
Mark Kelly was founder of the Vote Tony Out movement that created a community driven campaign to oust the former PM from Warringah, which led to Zali Steggall becoming the independent candidate. Mark started 30 months prior to the 2019 federal election and by election day had around 6 per cent of the electorate wearing his T-Shirts. Today Mark is using his activist skills to mentor groups around Australia in grassroots tribe building,