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Kitchen Table Conversations: 21st Century Politics, Indi Style
20 / 09 / 2013
By Sarah Capper
When Jeff Kennett lost the “unlosable” Victorian election in 1999, the Victorian Women’s Trust’s Mary Crooks wasn’t overly surprised.
In the years leading up the state poll, in her new role as Executive Director of the VWT, Crooks designed and led the ‘Purple Sage Project’ – which involved a community ‘kitchen table’ dialogue process with some 6000 people across the state.
During this time, over 600 female and male group leaders (76% were women, all of whom had been taken through briefing sessions, many in country Victoria), met in their own groups of up to ten people. These individual groups met on average for three hours in their lounge rooms, church halls, book clubs, and yes, at their kitchen tables.
These group leaders then reported back their findings to the project team. From the 6000 participants, common themes emerged – people were disturbed by an erosion of democratic culture, they were concerned about unemployment and youth unemployment, and they sensed their communities being weakened. They were angry about the loss of Victoria’s public assets.
“There was a mood across electorates demonstrating how citizens felt incredibly disengaged from their representatives, as well as being despairing and angry about a range of policies and their impacts on people and communities. While polling and many commentators assumed the Kennett Government would be returned, the mood for change was completely underestimated – the Purple Sage Project gauged this mood and I knew Kennett was set to lose a swag of seats,” Mary reflects.
That he did, with Steve Bracks forming a minority Labor government, and with Labor then governing in their own right for the next decade in Victoria.
Fourteen years later, Mary Crooks is similarly unsurprised by Independent Cathy McGowan’s remarkable victory in Indi, seen by many as an “upset”, causing a swing of over 9% against the sitting Liberal Member Sophie Mirabella – despite consistent swings towards the Liberal Party across the country ushering in the new Abbott Government.
As part of a newly emerging community led group Voice 4 Indi, Cathy McGowan also tapped into the ‘mood’ of the electorate, and was part of the group’s initial dozen members who met in August 2012.
The Seat of Indi stretches across Victoria’s North-East corner, taking in the major towns of Wodonga, Wangaratta and Benalla. Its history is steeped in conservative politics, which makes the 2013 result all the more interesting.
The 2013 election story of Indi is not about a negative reaction to a ‘divisive’ local member, and it is not about a one-off ‘fluke’ result in favour of a conservative independent.
“Rather than this being seen as Sophie Mirabella losing Indi, it is actually about Cathy McGowan winning the Seat,” Mary Crooks explains.
For Crooks, Cathy McGowan’s successful bid for the Seat, through the community group Voice 4 Indi, represents “a carefully-constructed, structured campaign” which began last August, 2012.
Along with Cathy McGowan, farmer and rural consultant and VWT Board member Alana Johnson was one of the original members of Indi residents at the initial Voice 4 Indi committee meetings. Johnson explains that one of the motivating factors behind the group meeting was to address the disengagement around politics, particularly with young people living in what is conceived to be a safe seat who didn’t think their vote mattered. There was also a level of frustration at the level of debate in Canberra, in what many saw as being reduced to nasty political slanging matches.
“We felt that if we as interested community people didn’t demonstrate that we can do something about this, then we absolutely deserve the leadership we have,” Johnson says.
In working out how to create a method of engaging other members of the electorate, the group contacted the Victorian Women’s Trust Executive Director to travel up for the day and brief them.
As a long-term Board member of the Trust, Alana had been involved in the Purple Sage Project’s ‘Kitchen Table’ conversation process, and she was also involved in using the process around water, as part of the VWT’s six-year Watermark Australia project.
‘Our Water Mark’ combined the actions and stories of many citizens and scientists working together around water reform (culminating in a June 2007 publication, at the height of Australia’s drought). As with Purple Sage, Our Water Mark tapped into everyday Australians’ views on a critical issue – and thousands were engaged in the kitchen table conversation process.
So when the Voice 4 Indi group was ready to engage with people across the electorate, Mary Crooks, the architect of the model as used by the VWT for two major community-based projects, seemed an obvious choice to help the group nut down their values and vision.
Mary traveled (on a late train, but of course) up to Wangaratta on the day before Melbourne Cup in early November 2012. Apart from engaging in some intensive work clarifying the vision and values that would underpin the Voice 4 Indi’s efforts, Mary also helped the group shape the initial communications materials needed to engage with the community.
Leading up to this meeting, Crooks had penned the publication ‘A Switch in Time’ (published in September, 2012), which outlined the toxicity that had encompassed the federal political environment heightened during the Gillard minority government – a concern which was shared by the group in their initial meetings.
Mary Crooks knew immediately that Voice 4 Indi had something special from the initial November meeting – that the committee members of the group “got it”:
“They were smart and they were prepared to listen. And even I think those who were a bit reluctant at first were totally on board with the process by the day’s end,” Crooks recalls.
Or as Johnson explains, “A couple of the men from science backgrounds were quite taken by Mary and the force of her personality and speaking abilities. They saw that the kitchen table conversations were a sensible path to follow.”
When the group formed, there was some debate about immediately introducing an independent candidate, but as Johnson explains, “Mary demonstrated to the people who were really keen for change at the political level, that real change in the community was the first important step, reflected by a solid process of genuine community engagement.”
Following the meeting, Mary Crooks provided some follow up assistance in drafting the all important materials that would be given to every group leader in the electorate in order to host the kitchen table conversations, and in “explaining to people that whole notion that democracy is a conversation between equals about the future”.
Prior to Johnson leading one of the host briefings (Johnson ran the Benalla host briefing session, guiding hosts implementing the process), she traveled with Cathy McGowan to India last December as part of a women’s agricultural tour. She says that the bus ride in India helped them shape “what sort of conversation we wanted to have as part of the discussions, and what sort of information we were looking for.”
Also prior to the electorate conversations taking place, the group decided to approach the sitting Indi Member Sophie Mirabella – to explain the group’s purpose and project they would be undertaking.
They had initially been reluctant to publicise their initial meetings – partly because of a polite country tradition of not talking about politics, as a number of members had clients or customers across the political spectrum, and partly because there was some fear of retribution. But once the aims of the group had been better established, “we thought it was consistent with our values and notions of transparency that the Voice 4 Indi belonged to all the people.”
The subsequent meeting between McGowan and another representative from the group with Mirabella turned out to be an incredibly short – eleven minute – meeting. Johnson said Mirabella’s response was that she “already knew what the issues were” – and cited cost of living as the main concern – ironically an issue that did not actually emerge from the kitchen table conversations involving hundreds in her electorate.
By the end of April, the ‘Kitchen Table Conversations’ had occured across Indi, with over 400 people engaged in the process.
Using the Purple Sage model, each group host had a set of guiding questions to help the conversations, as well as a scribe. The same ground rules adopted in Purple Sage were re-employed so that participants all had a say.
“The Kitchen Table Conversations created a vehicle or a place that was not only welcoming and safe, because it didn’t matter what your party politics were, but you were there because your ideas were going to be valued,” Johnson says.
Johnson is also grateful for the “incredible amount of conceptual work that Mary Crooks provided in helping us take all the information that we gathered and in being able to distill it,” (which happened when Mary met with the group for a second time earlier this year, and on another late train, yes).
“When Mary came up a second time, we were grappling with collating everything. She did two key things – she assisted us to process faithfully all the output from all the groups, and secondly, she helped provide a template for reporting back to all the people involved.”
As the resulting Report notes, one of the key learnings to emerge from the conversations was around political representation.
“It became really apparent people wanted more from their representatives, they wanted a different type of relationship with their representative, and many wanted their representative to be a rural person who understood them,”Johnson says.
At this point, the group began talking with different people about their interest in running as a possible independent candidate, but as Johnson notes, “it became pretty obvious that Cathy McGowan would be outstanding for job”.
After weighing up the decision, McGowan agreed, and was announced as the endorsed candidate for Voice 4 Indi when the group launched the Report of their findings from the Kitchen Table Conversations. It was endorsed by the audience, or as Johnson puts it, “the 400 people at the Report’s launch were ecstatic when we announced Cathy as candidate, and it just rolled on from there.”
With a rock solid candidate now on board, the Voice 4 Indi group drew on the high quality community engagement process throughout the electorate to fashion and run a sophisticated election campaign. It involved hundreds of sharp, energetic and committed volunteers – women and men of all ages – carrying out the group’s ethos of respecting and enriching the broader political conversation.
The campaign rolled on, always gathering momentum. At one stage of the campaign, Crikey.com leaked an email from Mirabella’s camp which talked about being “severely outflanked and outgunned by a far more active and enthusiastic campaign team”.
Johnson attributes the “inspired young people” who came to help – some of whom are nieces and nephews of Cathy, and their friends – some of whom took time off from their jobs or university to help with the campaign. Amongst many other elements, they helped shape a savvy social media strategy.
Other volunteers of all ages also came to the fold, in inspiring ways:
“Some people just brought food to the campaign offices every day. Some people started screenprinting, others doing graphics. It was just this organic process of people coming together and providing their skills. The further the campaign went along, the more people appeared with the next layer of skills needed,” Johnson says.
And it appears they don’t mean to stop now that Cathy has been elected, with Mirabella conceding defeat yesterday.
Johnson believes it will be an “ongoing conversation” with Cathy about doing politics differently. She says McGowan is keen to act as a “conduit between people with good ideas, and people in decision making processes”.
“Cathy – and the group – really wants this to be an expression of a new relationship between a member of parliament and their constituents, and between parliamentary processes and the people. The whole aim of the group is to create what we think looks more like a 21st century democracy,”
Bring it. Welcome, Cathy McGowan MP, the new Independent Member and ‘Voice’ for Indi.
Mary Crooks reckons there is an important broader context to the Indi success story that goes to the heart of the relationship between elected representatives and the people they serve, and ultimately to the overall health of our democratic culture.
Purple Sage participants were alert to some of the risks way back in the late 1990s:
“There were three candidates in my electorate – Liberal, Labor and the Hope party. The Hope party candidate did not have a listed telephone number. The Labor person had a mobile telephone. He lived some distance from the electorate. He arranged to come and see me, but didn’t. I left the questions with the Liberal candidate and made several phone calls before the election. I then wrote to him after the election, but have not had any response. I have written to him again and I hope he might eventually reply.” (Purple Sage Group Leader, metropolitan Melbourne, 2000:41)
The final Purple Sage document (2000: 34), observed:
“While many ordinary women and men around the State were pushed to the margins, mounting evidence suggested the existence of an inner circle of unelected and unaccountable men wielding enormous power and influence over the directions of the State…Talkback radio replaced consultation. While there were concerned and committed journalists, by and large the media, at management level, were seduced and intimidated.
The corrosion of democratic culture occurred in the same manner that a slow drip of water corrodes. Week after week, month after month, antic after antic, the ethical bar, so critical to the overall health of a democracy, was lowered.”
Our national politics over the past few years has arguably reached a new low.
Maybe, just maybe, the Indi experience triggers some upward movement?
Editor Sarah Capper writes a monthly ‘Polly Ticks‘ column for Sheilas.
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Image Above by Wayne Jansson, Wangaratta photographer (taken on election night for ‘No Fibs‘ website), of Alana Johnson, Cathy McGowan and Mary Crooks. Used with permission.