How gotcha moments fed a fully-baked conspiracy

14 / 02 / 2014

Recently, an article appeared on the website ‘News Weekly’ entitled How feminists defeated Liberal frontbencher Sophie Mirabella’, written by Patrick J. Byrne, which the tagline identifies at the end of the article as being the “national vice-president of the National Civic Council”.

The article centres on the electoral contest in Indi at the last federal poll – where Independent Cathy McGowan defeated the Liberal incumbent Sophie Mirabella – and as the headline implies, makes some big assumptions as to how this feat was pulled off. Drawn into the article is the Victorian Women’s Trust, and indeed ‘Sheilas’ which is produced by the VWT.

During the 2013 poll, and in its aftermath, ‘Sheilas’ covered the campaign in the North-East Victorian seat, and made no secret of work done in the lead-up to the poll between the VWT and Cathy McGowan – in particular, through Mary Crooks AO, the Executive Director of the Victorian Women’s Trust, and her work with Voice for Indi – in briefing this local community group (prior to Cathy nominating as candidate) on how to conduct ‘Kitchen Table Conversations’ with over 400 voters across the electorate (in ascertaining what were the issues that mattered and what was important to them from their elected representatives).

Patrick J. Byrne makes a number of serious factual errors and outlandish allegations in his News Weekly piece. The Victorian Women’s Trust believes such unfounded statements and insinuations must be refuted in the clearest terms – and as such, we publish this reply piece from the Executive Director Mary Crooks AO. The VWT will also, as a matter of course, follow up with Mr Byrne and News Weekly with a view to them making necessary corrections for the public record.

By Mary Crooks

Something rankled with our sleuth when front bencher Sophie Mirabella lost the safe seat of Indi at last federal election. He began his quest – looking for leads and clues that would answer (for no one had yet done so) the perplexing question as to how the Liberal incumbent could possibly lose a seat with a margin of 9 per cent.

Our man was up to the task. After all he was Patrick J. Byrne, national vice-president of a very important organisation – the National Civic Council. Not for him the time-wasting poring over of texts and the chasing up of opinions with key sources in detailed interviews. No, our man mainly homed in mainly on the websites of Voice 4 Indi and the Victorian Women’s Trust. And what he stumbled on was pure gold. He couldn’t believe his luck!

He got off to a flying start. He found a reference to the Trust in the National Library. He quickly established that the Trust had helped the V 4 Indi group. Gotcha! It seemed the Indi campaign drew from the kitchen table model of conversations that the Trust carried out sixteen years ago in what was called the Purple Sage Project. Gotcha!  Mary Crooks, Executive Director of the Trust, Cathy McGowan and Alana Johnson all knew one another. Gotcha! Cathy was listed on the Trust’s website called Here She Is! Oh sweet Jesus, Alana Johnston herself was actually on the board of the Trust. Gotcha!

The adrenalin kicked in. Our man Patrick (might I call him Pat, I wonder?) was now nervous with excitement. His furrowed brow glistened with beads of sweat as he artfully joined all the dots. Why hadn’t anyone else been able to pull off what he was now achieving? He pushed on, his confidence growing by the minute, with each google search and click of the mouse. He surmised that The Purple Sage project aimed to defeat the Kennett government in 1999 – and guess what, sixteen years after the fact, he was able to claim that it did just that. Gotcha! How ignorant of the political/media commentariat in the late 1990s not to have seen this for themselves!

The conspiracy that he was now single-handedly and fearlessly discerning was sharpening in focus. The Trust was a ‘hard-line feminist’ organisation for the feminist sisterhood with a close alignment with ‘the feminist left’ of the ALP. Gotcha! It started with a grant from the Cain Government. Gotcha! It hosted a recent event with Julia Gillard, Rob Hulls and Tony Windsor. Gotcha! The Trust’s e-publication, Sheilas, ran a snapshot of candidates and focused on Indi. Gotcha again! OMG it was getting better and better with every discovery. The Trust had made a grant of $125 000 to Women’s Health Goulburn North East who separately had organised a meeting of the candidates in Benalla. Gotcha!

There were many such gotcha moments that others in the media and politics just couldn’t (or refused to) see! Cathy came from a big catholic family and had clearly garnered support from friends who all held positions in the Indi community. Di Shepheard led Friends of the Arts at the Catholic College in Wodonga. Gotcha! Tony Lane had been a board chair at Galen Catholic College in Wangaratta for six years. Gotcha!

Our man could scarcely contain himself with the enormity of the complex truth before his very eyes. No doubt about it, this was an unparalleled electoral conspiracy – never before had there been a campaign of such a scale that would cynically set out to hoodwink voters.

Our man knew he had to publish – and publish fast, lest this hardline, damaging feminist contagion spread its insidious values and ideas across other parts of a hapless community.

He scribed furiously, his surging pulse rate underscoring the critical importance of his revelations. He knew dynamite when he saw it – even if the mainstream media remained blissfully unaware of this awful feminist conspiracy to dupe the voters of Indi.

The trouble with our man’s analysis – after all of the furious joining of dots and the breathless detective work – is that he got it all plain wrong. He let his gotcha moments stand in the way of an accurate and reasoned analysis.

The Purple Sage Project was not a campaign. It did not aim to defeat the Kennett Government. There was not any strategy, in any shape or form, as our man claimed, which ‘attacked marginal coalition seats’. True, it was a process that enabled thousands of Victorian men and women to give unprecedented voice to their concerns about their state, their society and their democracy (mostly we love our democracy Pat). Much as I would relish the idea that I defeated Kennett, the sad/glorious fact (depending on your druthers) is that the Kennett Government defeated itself by arrogantly riding rough-shod over the State’s public assets, its public schools, hospitals, public transport and other services and treated people’s legitimate concerns with disdain, especially those in regional and rural parts of the State.

Our man consistently got it wrong on the history side. Never, it seems, let the facts get in the way of a good story! The Trust did indeed start with a foundation grant from the Cain Government, but only on the advice and recommendation of many people who wanted to mark the State’s sesqui-centennial year and celebrate the role of women in building Victorian society (yep, Pat, women have been there all this time – with all their lack of recognition – doing great and pivotal work for their society and communities).

The Victorian Women’s Benevolent Trust did make a grant $125 000 to the Goulburn Women’s Health group but only in order to try and keep the BSafe program alive – a program acknowledged on our website (Pat missed or ignored this vital point) that provides some safety to women and children who are experiencing violence at home from their partners and fathers of their children.

And the Trust certainly did provide practical and pro bono assistance to the Voice 4 Indi group on how to use our ‘kitchen table’ model of civic engagement across their electorate – a model that we pioneered in the late 90s and used again for our six year project Watermark Australia. It’s a great little model – a simple, elegant and effective way of giving ordinary people a voice in their democracy. Not a lot wrong with that!

The Trust has a decades-long tradition and strong track record of independent thinking and making sure its advocacy for women and girls rises above party politics. Our man should have extended his sleuthing to reading the Victorian parliamentary Hansard and media opinion pieces because he would have found that the Trust has contested vigorously the policies and legislation coming from both the ALP and Liberal/National coalition that are inimical to the well-being of women and girls.

The VWT ‘Annual Lecture’ (sic) our man breathlessly remarked upon was actually a once-off public event called Credit Where Credit is Due that paid tribute to the achievements of the former minority government under the leadership of the country’s first female Prime Minister, Julia Gillard (yep,  former Independent Tony Windsor was there, as was Rob Hulls, both choosing shamelessly to cavort with the VWT and other ‘feminist types’, to use Pat’s very own term of endearment).

On the democracy front, our man let his anti-feminism get in the way of showing respect for voters, respect for the dynamics of contemporary democratic politics and respect for a candidate of the quality of Cathy McGowan. His frenzied thesis implied that voters in Indi were unable to exercise their own judgement; that they were not able to appreciate the integrity and decades-long experience and talent of their Independent candidate; that they were not capable of making a reasonable assessment of the incumbent and that they, sheep-like, would allow a disparate crew of people from outside the electorate to pull the wool of their eyes.

Our self-appointed sleuth failed to ask, let alone answer, the most critical question. Why did so many people decide to vote Sophie Mirabella out? Why did so many people – young and old – become increasingly positive, excited by the opportunity for a new-found and constructive engagement, and clearly determined to make their vote count?

It is no accident that large numbers of people across the electorate expressed their gratitude directly to the men and women from Voice 4 Indi for the process rolled out by the group because people were actually being listened to and, even more significantly, they were being accorded the respect they deserved.

Maybe, just maybe, they were, and still are, feeling like many other Australian men and women around this country – tired of elected representatives of the ALP, the Liberal and the National parties taking them for granted; frustrated by the mediocrity of intellect and policy vision that seems to pervade both major parties; despairing of political spin, dishonesty, bullishness and bluster; fed up with much of the mainstream media and its lowering of the standard of quality journalism; disappointed by people like the current Prime Minister who attacks rural cannery workers for their award conditions but sees nothing wrong in claiming expenses for attending the wedding of Ms Mirabella; dejected by the meanness of spirit that characterises much of our policy debate such as asylum seeker policy, the treatment of sole parents and the recent refusal of the Abbott Government to invest in the lives of people in the Shepparton region; and tired of old and patronising ideologies, like that of the National Civic Council, that seems to work to people’s worst fears and prejudices.


Life is filled with ironies isn’t? Despite fearsome sleuthing and capacity to ‘mine’ with ease our respective websites for all sorts of readily available information, it is impossible to establish any such comparable information about Patrick J. Byrne’s own organisation, the National Civic Council or for that matter, News Weekly – not a jot about organisational governance, staffing, financial records, names of supporters and donors. With its proud boast that News Weekly has been published continuously since 1941, maybe the NCC could start to do what thousands of not-for-profit organisations around the country already do –  provide some basic public accountability, willingly and transparently.

Mary Crooks AO

Executive Director

Victorian Women’s Trust