Cathy Goes to Canberra, 2020, Feature

Cathy McGowan Lessons in Activism

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ORT_Logo Breadtag Sagas ©: Author Tony,  5 November 2022

Lessons in Activism by Cathy McGowan

Notes for Activists from Cathy McGowan, Cathy Goes To Canberra, 2020

Cathy Goes To Canberra is a gem of a book and I’d encourage you to buy it and read it. But, for those who want to put doing politics differently into action, hopefully this summary will also prove a useful tool into the lessons Cathy and Indi have to teach us.


1 General

My purpose is to bring Cathy McGowan’s ideas to a wider audience and to highlight the profound lessons she has learned in a long and active career into community-based action.

I want to provide an adjunct or another resource to those already available. I‘d encourage you to visit Cathy McGowan’s website which has an array of other resources and also the Community Independents Project site, which also provides plenty of resources of its own.

At a recent webinar conference of the latter, one woman said: I no longer call it volunteering. What I do every day I call my democracy work!

2 Lessons in Activism

The following is my summary of Cathy’s book. It is probably biased and imperfect and perhaps Cathy would want to change some of it. The saving grace of blog articles is that they are infinitely malleable. I’m happy to accept advice from anyone.

Because of this, I am not as meticulous as my ex-supervisor Professor SA Barnett would want me to be, but I do still feel his presence looking over my shoulder and I try harder.

Despite, the success of the Voices campaigns inspired by Indi and the success of Independents at the last Federal Election we do need to try harder. Independents are still a long way from ensuring that Australia’s governments do politics differently.

3 My Own Interest

My involvement (a minor one) over the past eighteen months was with an organisation called proACT and its endorsed ACT candidate David Pocock for the Senate in Australia.

As with Cathy McGowan in Indi, his key opponent was unpopular, but the window for success was tiny and its achievement amazing — with a lot of hard work by many people in between.

4 Cathy Goes To Canberra

In what follows, I’ve sometimes tried to maintain Cathy’s voice, sometimes quoted her directly (presented in Italics in larger quotations) and often paraphrased what I think she means. (Sometimes I’ve left the text in the first person. I hope this isn’t confusing but provides flavour and immediacy.) The shortcomings are all mine.

The first five chapters are the background and development of voices for Indi. Chapters six and seven are on the candidate and the campaign. Chapters 8 to 10 are about winning, and the huge learning curve in starting and operating in parliament.

Most of the remainder is much about the processes of parliament, developing strategies and the history of what happened over Cathy’s two terms. The final chapter is advice and a call to action for other potential independents.

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Cathy McGowan Cathy Goes To Canberra Summary

Chapter 1 Making History

The Basics

112,000 eligible voters in Indi. Target ~ 30,000 in the middle: estimated 25% might consider an alternative.

A community group Voice for Indi (later Voices) formed in 2012, inspired by the idea of converting a safe Liberal seat into a marginal seat.

On 18 May 2019, Helen Haines succeeded two-term Cathy (on a 5% buffer). Liberals & Nationals put in enormous resources to win Indi back. Helen won by 2,816 votes. Three wins in a row!

Close to 1800 volunteers in 2019, a big number in a disparate electorate, where only 101,000 people or 90% voted. The Liberals previously had a continuous 74-yr hold on the electorate.

Voices for Indi had the people: in each election the number of campaign volunteers has increased.

Across all electorates membership and actual numbers in major political parties is thin. All are run top-down.

Chapter 2 Coming Home (Early life)


Cathy born in 1953 had 12 siblings. Her father was 1 of 6 children and her mother 1 of 10. She was raised in a large Irish Catholic, dairy farming family, with numerous relatives. Her father was involved in the DLP in 1950s and in the national Catholic rural movement.

Cathy learned prejudice on the school bus: anti-Catholic and dairy farmer.

Her father believed in building community through action and participation. It led him to become active in the Liberal Party, in the Victorian Farmers Federation and as a councillor for the shire of Chiltern. He also established a farm management business.

Cathy had the skills of growing up in a big family: leadership, conflict resolution, alliances, efficiency, effectiveness and problem-solving.

She received an Arts degree from Monash University, through the Victorian Education Department. Her first teaching job was at Nhill high school. Her interests were boys & motorcycles. In 1980, single 26, Arts degree and Dip. Ed, she had a farm but no house.

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Chapter 3 Women in Agriculture (My career)

Developing Experience

Cathy enjoyed teaching, but in 1980 became a research assistant to MP Ewan Cameron, Liberal for Indi. She split her time between the Wangaratta office and Old Parliament House in Canberra. Cameron was a wonderful example of a gentle, calm and respectful politician.

She resigned in 1983 wanting to farm and become self-employed to run her own consultancy.

The necessities for a community based politician: personal networks are everything, you can’t fake it or have ulterior motives, it takes years to establish. You must have genuine motivation. Integrity is one key but: never be afraid to talk to people, or ask how something works, to learn, it is how relationships are forged.

Commonwealth Departments were next door to the electorate office, I forged links. Alana Johnson (convener of Voices) was a social worker. They shared an interest in agriculture and community development.

If you want to create change, you must be willing to get involved in community organisations — ‘she’s a joiner’.

In 1993, 15 women met to establish Australian Women in Agriculture. What happened was that like-minded women established Australian Women in Agriculture — Cathy’s first role was as Secretary

Other groups as a volunteer were Board member of Murray River Performing Group, Flying Fruit Fly Circus and childcare group (where the carers travelled to the community).

In 1986 Cathy was rural affairs advisor to the Victorian Department of Agriculture, she reported to a cabinet committee (John Cain, Evan Walker… Joan Kirner), positive experience, more learning on how government works.

Left with the change to Jeff Kennett in the early 1990s, went back to independent life and farming. Wanted to go into consultancy, her mother pushed her into farming. Built house. 1991 moved in, aged late 30s.

Meshed farming with consulting and community work (feminist inspiration was Marilyn Waring, NZ Parliament). Feminist economics, building skills, running workshops, linking with many national women’s organisations (her mother died aged 65).

Her sister Ruth went to Hawkesbury Agricultural College [very dynamic organisation at the time] and encouraged Cathy to do so. Cathy went back to study rural community development. Take home: ‘your experience is real’. She became a member of staff for Australian Women in Agriculture and later taught at Latrobe University and Wodonga TAFE.

Cathy was on the executive of Australian Women in Agriculture. And, signed up to the Australian Rural Leadership Program, 18 months, included trips to Asia and the USA. Aged in her 40s and 50s, built up consultancy work in Australia and overseas.

Her father was proud when she became President of Australian Women in Agriculture.

[Cathy is diffident about her career skills but must be one of the most qualified people ever to enter parliament, especially from a grass roots perspective.]

Chapter 4 Phone Call

The Beginning of the Voices Movement

On 12 May 2012, young people in Melbourne thought Indi could be made marginal. They wanted Cathy as candidate. Their concerns: the trains didn’t operate a decent service, there was no mobile coverage, no internet, few jobs and no one cared about climate change.

Cathy attended Kevin Rudd’s 2008 ‘2020 Summit’ (with young people). She thought it worked better than the media thought.

It hit me that my circle was all of the same vintage. She expanded her consultancy and took on younger women as partners.

Butcher’s paper!

At the most recent election (2010) Sophie’s primary vote had been 52.5% after preferences, a margin of 9.9%.

Over 11 years since Sophie began, the Liberal primary vote had fallen consistently. It was possible to make the seat marginal, if we could get the preference flow in our favour.

‘Indi expats’ started meeting once a fortnight in Melbourne.

Colleagues in Indi were all graduates of Alpine Valleys Community Leadership program, Australian Women in Agriculture, (Victorian Department of Agriculture) etc.

Two months after the terrace house meeting in Melbourne, 12 of us met at the library in Wangaratta and committed to a meeting every two weeks.

By September, Voices for Indi was born and I had accepted the role as convener (our motivation was a sense that Indi had been taken for granted).

Being in a competitive marginal seat makes a big difference [It shouldn’t! This is what is wrong with our democracy, Julia Banks story (2022 email) about her fellow Liberals and their attitude to the electorate is pertinent.]

Bendigo (a marginal seat), for example, has 24 train trips a day from Melbourne; Albury-Wodonga has 4. Lack of mobile phone coverage, poor if any internet, lack of public transport, cost of fuel and energy, isolation, access to services is difficult and expensive, were all irritations. Also, Indi is poor in post-school education and training. There is rural decline in many communities. [This is what is wrong with our current democracy. Resources are political, not based on need.]

If an area isn’t growing or more educated, etc., then the ability to innovate and change lags too!

There was a sense of community patience running out (but these were only pre-conditions).

At this point V4I (Voices for Indi) put to work what we’d learned about community and leadership.

It is easy to be overwhelmed by all the problems of the world [called ‘kitchen sinking’ by psychologists] — need to act within one’s sphere of control (cliche but real: think global, act local)

(Stephen Covey the 7 habits of highly effective people — and leadership programs.)

The Approach

In the second half of 2012. Indi expats in Melbourne and V4I locally, focused on how to create change and the importance of a community-focused strategy. Cathy learned the power of community engagement in women in agriculture (WIA) and in the Office of Rural Affairs in reinventing small rural towns

If we were to effect change, we needed to speak up, organise, have solutions to problems, engage with power structures and institutions, learn the rules of the game and use them. Develop strategies at every level (e.g. Landcare and blackberry eradication as examples).

To maximise community engagement and participation, there needed to be clarity about the task, timeframe and resources. (It is easy to be busy but not effective).

A top-down or Do-as-I-say model may look more efficient, but it is better to be patient and encourage participation. (Courage is also important.)

When Cathy was chosen as the candidate, she sought advice from Tim Fisher (ex-Nationals leader). He said be upfront with Sophie Mirabella the incumbent. Meet with her and give her a 1-page letter describing what you are doing. Being open with her fitted with our values of being transparent, open and honest (it was initially the last thing any of us wanted to do).

Basic things needed: website, word-of-mouth (WOM), brief media. There was a transparent selection process for candidate.

Had a 1-min polite meeting with Sophie, promised to send her results of the community consultation report (which we did).

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Chapter 5 Someone has to do it

A less than willing or reluctant candidate is better than a self-selected major party one.

Voices for Indi


Julia Gillard was on the way out. Tony Abbott was not respectful. He was hard/brutish in politics. Cathy was a political agnostic, politics with a small ‘p’. The National Party didn’t seem to represent rural and regional Australia, and was overwhelmingly male.

Sophie Mirabella the member for Indi was thought a positive in 2001, by 2012 a disappointment. We wanted to give the Libs a fright, make the seat marginal.

The Approach 2

Some people in the team were used to campaigning as a top-down model; others in the group were grass roots or bottom-up. We needed to accommodate both.

By the beginning of November 2012, we came together, agreed on a philosophical approach and drafted a strategic plan, with a vision, desired outcomes, budgets, actions and teams.

We’d had a solid look at who we were and what we wanted to achieve.


Our values are worth repeating. (They under-pinned everything we did later):

1 Voices for Indi is committed to encourage a diversity of voices, opinions and participation in the electoral process.

2 V4I is committed to ensuring that our electorate voice is heard and represented at the national level.

3 V4I is committed to encouraging respectful and mature representation of our democratic voices.

4 V4I is committed to undertake activities, which will create an invitation to participate in our democracy.

5 V4I is committed to developing and using simple elegant processes when engaging with the electorate.

6 And, Voices for Indi is committed to being honest and respectful, to being well informed and to referring to reputable sources when making statements.’

These values still guide me and my approach to politics and I continually strive for elegant processes.

The Process

We refined the ways in which we could organise ourselves. On a 10-day trip to India with Alana and two others, we conducted informal brainstorming. We workshopped how to run a community engagement program around politics in NE Victoria.

We designed kitchen table conversations. (Model built on community engagement work done by the Victorian Women’s Trust, as part of the Purple Sage and Watermark projects.)

We still needed to find a candidate.

On January 30, Julia Gillard unwittingly did us an enormous favour by announcing that the election would be held in September. A gift. We could announce our candidate in May.

In February, we had initial meetings in community venues, neighbourhood houses and halls in Wodonga, Wangaratta, Benalla and Mansfield. We put the word around to people we knew, personal phone calls and group emails…

As the team leader of this process, I explained how it would work, often called the snowball model.

After a briefing session, the hosts would run their own kitchen table conversation. Follow-up with a personal phone call, debrief, ask the hosts to get the material back to us by April. We had more than 50 hosts, word-of-mouth, multiplier effect.

Unlike a traditional campaign, we were not doing a survey or running a focus group. Instead we were testing our idea of a community-based campaign.

Also looking for ways to mobilise people for a future campaign.

As far as I was concerned we were reframing political activity by redefining and updating community participation. I believed then and still do that the electoral system was designed for our way of working but the conventional parties had basically lost that understanding.

Politicians from major parties were amazed at our victory.  I was more disappointed that they didn’t truly understand what we had done.

Young People

Young people were never great ones for the kitchen table conversations.

There were other lessons in how to get young people involved. Social networking of those young people was superb. It delivered a deep penetration into their demographic. Once I realised that working one-on-one with young voters was the way to find out about their issues. I added that to my toolkit.

In Parliament, I actively sought out young voters. I actually had to jump the hurdles if I wanted their input.

Community Consultation

The Voices for Indi team was more than a collection of leadership graduates: it was a diverse group covering many skill sets, had connections to many organisations and as a result was very strong.

In Australia we don’t as a rule consult well on any topic. Across the nation, our engagement processes are poor. Many Australians aren’t familiar with their civic duty to engage. Others are, but because the returns are often so poor they give up.

As a result governments and communities don’t work together. Government is far from the ‘coal face’ is one result.

After the kitchen tables we put together a 16-page report released May 2013.

It was all there — thousands of words about living in Indi, about issues of concern, about what constituted a community and effective political representation.

It was a way of showing voters that we already had a strong community.

Voices 4 Indi Report

Our Voices for Indi report had taken four months from conception to execution.

Out of all the issues, we took five that we thought we could do something about and used them for the campaign. At no stage did we commit to do everything suggested.

For all the value of the process, it didn’t do all we’d hoped. It didn’t transform the participants into activists.

Word-of-mouth side, build up of trust, raising profile worked. But it didn’t convert people into V4I cadres; apart from some, who had hosted kitchen table conversations.

What it taught me was that it takes a long time to build a culture of political engagement; that a one-off experience was not enough to inspire a large number of people to say they were going to change, which ultimately was what we were asking them to do in this rural community.

Perhaps 500 did, which was probably a big number, but out of more than 110,000 people in the whole electorate, it’s not necessarily that many.

Numbers and Issues

By the end of my second term, I had 20,000 people on my Facebook account. Most of the time I was probably working with about 8000 active people on my social media.

I knew that in Indi there were about 50–60,000 people in the middle of the political interest curve with a vague interest in politics or the activities of their representative, and then there was a significant tail who had no interest.

In communities, there was never enough money to do what we wanted to do. Problems were clear, but solutions less so.

One simple way to start to get heard would be to shift Indi out of the safe-seat column so that our voices could be heard for the first time in a long time. (But, not the solution to improve our lives.)

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Chapter 6 The Candidate

Selecting the Candidate

The search for a candidate proceeded through the early months of 2013 without getting very far. A lot of people wanted a footballer (AFL).

I liked the general idea of creating some disruption in what had become a staid and dysfunctional electorate — upsetting the dominant paradigm had its attractions.

Coming around to the idea of becoming the candidate. Subcommittee set up to support a candidate.

I resigned from the position as convenor of Voices for Indi and reconciled myself to 6 months campaigning.

An advertisement was placed in regional papers. Four people responded and two were interviewed. (My interview was tough.)

May, at the launch of the Voices for Indi report, I announced, colour was orange.

One must avoid making the worst choice that aspiring politicians regularly make, which is to get ahead of themselves.

I constantly reminded myself that it was about making the seat marginal, it wasn’t about winning.

But it has to be about winning and you have to put all your power into it (can’t be half committed).

Starting a Campaign

Initially there was no campaign strategy (Tim Fischer and Judy Brewer gave guidance).

Cathy Goes To Canberra, 2020

Cathy Goes To Canberra, 2020

Numerical target of meeting people. Weekly, initially it was a target of 1000, which turned out not to be too daunting.

I just had to go to places where there were people in large numbers. I didn’t do a lot of doorknocking. But setting up a stall on a Saturday morning outside a Coles or at a market would boost my weekly tally. I also had to focus on community meetings and events which attracted larger numbers of constituents.

The organisational structure grew, with six campaign hubs in larger towns.

I soon learnt that I had to be able to explain, succinctly, my role as an independent candidate and future MP.

Sensitive issue in 2013, I’d say ‘As an independent I’ll support the government of the day’, which somehow seemed to defuse the situation

The importance of wider recognition: Tony Windsor said there’s an excellent candidate down there. This national endorsement took my candidacy to another level. It got huge media coverage. The timing was terrific. 

The most popular events were Farm Open Days.

We had a lot of these community-based, locally sponsored events, with generally 30–40 people.

If you think about who you know and then pick up the phone, you can make a lot of things happen. The circles begin pushing out to make bigger circles. Social media coverage was important but mostly it was on the rural grapevine, word of mouth to get people to events.

Door knocking (how to vote cards) were important. Wodonga was Liberal heartland, but we also had good connections. The little extra was that Sophie based herself mostly in Wangaratta (Indi Voices heartland).

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Chapter 7 The Campaign

In the first year, the ongoing tension was between those who wanted to give priority to spending time and resources on a process for finding and using our voices and those who were inclined to launch a more conventional election campaign.

The sweet spot we landed on was to establish the hubs, which satisfied both conventional campaigning strategies with community-based grassroots organisational strategies. Hard to overstate the importance of the hubs, everything ran through them.

Butchers paper lined the walls with rosters, timetables, maps, agendas, lists of actions, names, contacts and inspirational sayings.

The hubs were where the training took place.

Campaign volunteers — dedication and commitment. The less tangible side of campaigning, making sure that we kept ourselves true to our values, was a constant challenge.

In community organisations staying focused and managing risk is essential.

We required all volunteers to sign an agreement to abide by campaign values (practical purpose insurance cover).

We did research about political training techniques and drew on some American examples. 

Members of Voices for Indi moved around the hubs to begin the train-the-trainer sessions.

In keeping with rejection of politics as usual were running an open ticket and weren’t directing preferences.

The traditional marketing, branding and merchandise of campaigns was not something we could afford to ignore. Indeed, we did it but in an Indi, country community way.

An adaption with permission of ‘From Little Things Big Things Grow’ as a theme song, was used widely (and before many of our major events).

We sought endorsements from high-profile locals and asked them to place ‘Vote 1 Cathy’ signs on their front gates. It had a big impact in rural parts of Indi.

We had various enthusiastic campaign teams.

We were professional and responsible, and established a constituent enquiry team.

Because of the kitchen table based V4I Report, we began the campaign armed with a deep knowledge of what our fellow constituents thought about the northeast and what they wanted.

They loved the place and wanted values-based representation, with a focus on respect and integrity (not policy focused).

They wanted to be consulted and involved. They wanted something better.

The message was that they had nothing to lose and everything to gain by backing me

We needed preferences from the National Party, Labor and Greens voters. Could we get disaffected Liberals and Nationals to give us their primary vote?

Young people were targeted with an appeal to their idealism and the need for action on climate change, transport, telecommunication, mental health and my support for action on marriage equality.

What is an Independent

The ‘What is an independent?’ question.

In speeches, I explored a range of reasons. They varied from the very pragmatic ‘I’m a local and you can trust me’, to ‘Independents get things done and nothing’s happened here for a long time, and we want to get things done’, to ‘You’ve got a choice about how you want your community to be; we’re giving you a choice.’ And, ‘Do you want more of the same or something different?’ Variations on a theme.

The National Party, if an independent won, under the rules they could run a candidate against the Liberals at the next election.

We kept ourselves removed from the orthodox Labor–Liberal–Green debates. 

Our volunteer campaign workers urged voters to give me their second preference, if they couldn’t give me a ‘1’.

We were putting our beliefs into action. The problem we were trying to overcome was sharply defined. The problem was a lack of recognition of our voice. The solution was to establish a process for engaging so that a diversity of voices could be raised in Canberra.

We campaigned so strongly that by August the Liberal Party realised we were around in a serious way. They boosted their investment, but were following the standard big-party electioneering template. The contrast was useful to us!

Chapter 8 Indi Turns Orange

At the previous election, Sophie’s vote after preferences had been distributed was 59.19 per cent. To win, we needed to roll back that preferred vote by 8 or 9 per cent. To make the contest really tight, 6 or 7 per cent would have been good too. 

The preference allocation split this way: 4,517 votes for Sophie and 16,978 votes for me — I got a shade less than 80 per cent of the preferences.

I got 27,763 primary votes or 31.18 per cent of the total. Sophie’s primary vote fell by almost 5000 to 39,785 votes or 44.68% of the total. This was not good for her. 

The truth is, I quickly came to love being the member for Indi, though first I had to learn how to do this new job. One serious advantage I had was my past experience as a member of an MP’s staff.

I had so much to learn, particularly about how to be an MP, so I started looking for mentors. The first was Tim Fischer [as mentioned]. Because of my PNG connection and the advice of the governor general to pick one country, I formed a productive relationship with Julie Bishop (foreign affairs minister).

Advice on constituents (‘many time wasters’) was to get them to put concerns in writing.

Tim also pointed out that any Member of Parliament had the right to request a minister to provide a departmental briefing on any topic. I asked Greg Hunt for this on the carbon trading scheme.

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Chapter 9 Using the Courage Muscle

Starting Out

After the quivers had settled, I set myself task of a six-year, two-term project.

On the first day I was given a warm welcome by many MPs. I was seated next to Clive Palmer (and had adjacent offices). We formed a most unlikely alliance over time.

Clive told me that new PM Tony Abbott was only interested in politics, he had no interest in policy.

Initial alliances: women, with some connection to Wangaratta.

I sought advice from two National MPs: Peter Walsh and Tim McCurdy, state MP for the Murray Valley based in Wangaratta (both in the Victorian Parliament). I knew them through the rural leadership program.

Peter gave me clever, practical office management advice for a big rural electorate. His practice was to set up big wall-charts with your communities across the bottom and issues along the side, and make sure that there was a balance of time shared between electorate communities and interest groups. Throughout an electoral term it was important to have covered personal meetings so that everybody was looked after. 

Tim warned me the job by its very nature was reactive, with people coming in the door all the time and political things happening that were outside your control. ‘Unless you decide what you want to do and carve out time to devote to it, you’re in danger of going under as wave after wave of events and demands consume you.’

Tony Windsor put me in touch with his former advisor John Clements. I offered John a job, but he offered to mentor me instead, as needed. John advised me to get to know the senators: first the Victorians.

Community work 101: build your networks.

My politician’s wardrobe: Canberra loosely styled on Hilary Clinton’s pants suits and a more complex one for the electorate. 

My immediate neighbours were Adam Bandt and Clive Palmer. While we may have had political differences, as in most communities our interdependence and need for each other was greater than our differences.

I met with Adam in Melbourne shortly after election to meet & greet and talk through the practical aspects of running the office, working with volunteers, handling constituent issues and correspondence.

One joint position with Adam was the need to do something about climate change. I managed to stop the Senate abolishing the Clean Energy Finance Corporation (CEFC), Climate Change Authority (CCA) and the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA). Clive helped here. With Clive I discovered a mutual strong love for regional Australia. We developed a working relationship based on mutual respect and understanding.

I was thrilled later when ARENA decided to invest in community-based renewable energy projects in Indi.

Managing the Job

The parliamentary agenda was full, the days were long, beginning no later than 8am and finishing at 10pm, and it was a huge job to be across every piece of legislation — and we tried. 

I slipped up! Early on I voted with the government on a social security bill that I didn’t really understand. I was incredibly distressed, but was told not make a fuss. It is possible to repeal a vote, but unwise. Draws more attention! Sophie was on the lookout for ammunition.

I had to get more up to speed on the details of how the parliament actually worked, understand the procedures and practices.

Another valuable professional relationship was with Christopher Pine the Leader of the House (of Representatives) — the one who managed the government’s business and was also education minister, an area of special interest for me.

I was now on a big learning curve not just to familiarise myself with Christopher, but to get to know all the other members of the House, especially the ministers and the key backbenchers.

I read up on Christopher, about his background and his electorate, and read his first speech. I studied him. And then I crammed on the other MPs.

We printed out an electoral map of Australia and put it up on a wall and put a list of all the MPs in alphabetical order in our office kitchen, so that everyone in the office could also see who was who and where they came from. I also printed out photos and first speeches of all of the MPs and put them in a folder. And when they made speeches or asked questions, I’d be thinking, ‘Oh, that’s so and so, and that’s where they’re from’. 

Systems Thinking

I’ve always been interested in systems and how they work.

I blended my community-building practices to my enthusiasm for systems. Looking beyond the MPs, I wondered if I could apply systems thinking to the whole building and all the people who worked in it. Parliament House is a system, so I mapped it and worked my way through to understanding it. That proved to be such a useful tool.

I liken Parliament House to a game between two AFL football teams. There are the players, who everyone concentrates on. But set them aside. They actually rely on a system that includes umpires and volunteers and support staff, all working together to create a contest. The players are what you are looking at but what you’re watching is the sum total of the efforts of many more people who aren’t on the ground.

I was curious about the over 5000 people who worked in Parliament House and then set about getting to know them — the librarians, the committee staff, clerks, guides, Hansard reporters, security guards, the cafe people, the hairdressers, the gardeners, the mail delivery people. And not only getting to know them, but to develop relationships and find out what they knew about what was going on each day. Over time these relationships paid real dividends. 

The attendants who dropped off mail to our office would begin with ‘Hi Cathy. Good morning!’ and then bring me up to speed with a small piece of relevant information about the running of the building.

Over time, my staff and volunteers created a small community centred around my parliamentary office. (Reminded me in many ways of the atmosphere during the campaign in the hubs.) The office was a busy place, people coming and going, phones constantly ringing. We had our fair share of butcher’s paper on the wall listing jobs, agendas, commitments, and importantly my voting decision-making framework — the first consideration being ‘Is this right?’

My staff developed a practice of what we called ‘working Parliament House’: when we needed to find information, we would check in with staff from other offices, ask at the hairdresser’s if they’d heard anything, check the press gallery and media or the queue at the coffee cart. Our offices became a go-to place for what was going on.

This was important, because information in Parliament House flows through the parties and not being a member of a party could be a real disadvantage.

The Budget

I was shocked by the Abbott-Hockey 2014 budget. Shorten’s reply tearing it apart was convincing.

We decided to run a community survey and that became our practice with every subsequent budget. It was a simple survey: what did they like and not like about the budget, and was there anything else they wanted to say?

We started with our Voices for Indi campaign volunteers, then expanded across the electorate, visiting all the major towns as well as going online. Compiling the feedback for the report was an enormous job for the staff and we ended up asking a volunteer team to come into the office to help with the data entry.

I spent every moment of the working day outside post offices, supermarkets and shopping centres or standing at the entrance to the Wangaratta football oval wearing my orange Voices for Indi T-shirt talking to everybody and asking them to fill in our survey. And, we took the orange caravan with us everywhere.

We ended up with high-quality data and analysis, which we compiled into the inaugural Indi budget report. I sent a copy of that report to every minister and opposition frontbencher and widely through the electorate. The community loved it and it got excellent local media coverage. It also meant that when I came to do my budget speech, I knew what my community wanted, and I was not working from some assumption about what the people of Indi thought. 

 I ended up voting with the government, because that’s what people said they wanted me to do. They also wanted me to make sure I told Abbott and Hockey, and whoever else wanted to hear, about the parts of it that they didn’t like. I didn’t need to be as concerned about my vote, given that the Labor opposition traditionally supports the budget on the floor of the House.

Higher Education Bill

By mid-2014, I had found my voice and was growing in confidence when Christopher Pyne introduced the Higher Education and Research Bill. It was essentially designed to privatise Australia’s universities. When I read the bill, I knew immediately what it would mean for Indi — devastation for non-metropolitan universities. If it went through, it would mean that in Victoria the universities of Melbourne and Monash would get even bigger and the regional universities would be left behind, unable to compete.

I contacted the Vice-Chancellor of La Trobe University, which has for many years had a Wodonga campus (in fact I had taught there previously), and Charles Sturt University over the border in Albury, and asked how we could work together. Understandably and correctly, they regarded it as terrible policy for their universities. La Trobe took the lead and organised a community forum in Wodonga in February 2015. Charles Sturt University and the Regional Universities Network attended, as did representatives from the Greens and Labor. The outcome was a joint statement calling for a higher education policy that actively supported the regions and clear direction for me to oppose the legislation.

The Nationals weren’t interested but in Senate I arranged interviews with cross-benchers. The Christopher Pine contact was useful. Even though Cathy was voting against the bill, Christopher offered his staff resources and all briefings.The Bill was defeated by one vote in the Senate 31-33 in late 2014, and when sent back up in in March 2015 lost 30-34.

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Chapter 10 Tending the Patch

It was big learning curve setting up offices and systems. Electoral offices were in Wang then Wodonga plus parliament.

The job of a politician had three main parts: representation in parliament, constituent work, and being ‘out and about’ in the electorate. Of them all, constituent work was a priority … of building relationships with the constituents, understanding their issues, solving problems and bringing their voices to parliament.

Encouraging constituents to take an interest in the work of their MP and what was happening in parliament.

Staff and Relationships

Staff and relationships were crucial.

At the beginning, there was a fair bit of micromanaging on my part as we got our systems in place and I learnt how to be a boss and how to respond when something went wrong.

I had 12 staff working across three offices, covering the roles of media and communications, diary management and appointments, constituent issues, policy, parliamentary affairs and legislation, community engagement, projects and volunteers, as well as office management, administration, human resources and chief of staff, managing a budget close to $300,000.

Being an MP was akin to running a small business.

My business background was useful: over time I developed job descriptions for staff, supervision and reporting lines, office policy and procedures, key performance indicators, intra-office communication systems, constituent management protocols, dispute settlement procedures, processes for project planning, implementation, review and continuous improvement, and a yearly strategic plan for the office and the electorate.

Together we developed office administration systems and a policy and procedure manual (later shared with Rebekha Sharkie, Kerryn Phelps and Helen Haines, which meant they could hit the ground running).

Representing the Electorate

An effective link between constituent work in the electorate and representative work in Canberra was also a priority.

Individuals and groups came to Canberra to do their own advocacy and lobbying.

The volunteer program, which we called ‘back of house’, gave an opportunity for any interested constituent to join us in Canberra to experience a parliamentary sitting week.

My predecessor in the seat tended not to turn up enough in the electorate and was too focused on the big picture of politics [typical of party politicians].

There was a host of opportunities. We could offer to connect constituents to a member of parliament: one example was a community health group that was losing its funding. As well as writing letters, I said, ‘Look, why don’t you come to Canberra? I’ll arrange an appointment and you can talk about your emergency health funding.’ They met the relevant advisor, who sorted it out. It had only been a technical hitch, and was able to be resolved on the spot and only by being in Canberra.

I was at long last in a position where I had the opportunity to do something and had the capability to open doors.

‘If we work together, set up partnerships and build relationships, you will be the beneficiary’. I couldn’t say this funding is directly from me! The relevant minister will say ‘The Liberal or National party has given you all of this’ and that will only be partly true; it will be our partnerships that get results. [But people got the message.]

Criticism rarely about how I behaved in parliament, almost always how I performed in the community.

We had a rule in our office that the turnaround time for a constituent inquiry was 21 days. At one stage we got incredibly busy and missed the 21-day target. We soon started hearing from people when I was out and about that I wasn’t being my best self. Occasionally we got nasty emails, challenging to know how to respond. A phone call often worked. If you’ve only won by 439 votes, this is necessary.

I used the word ‘better’ in my campaigning, and I had to deliver. Constituents would come into contact with politics in different ways and many of them were disillusioned, disappointed and distrustful of government. Others were opinionated about politics and wanted a political exchange.

Engagement and Getting the Message Out

My objective was to make everybody more engaged by giving them an experience of politics that was positive. I wanted to motivate them to become politically interested, if not politically active. 

Feedback from the constituent in the vast bulk of cases would run along these lines: ‘Thank you, Cathy. You might not have solved my problem, but I know you have done your best.’ We often got a win. But even when we didn’t, constituents were mostly satisfied…

One thing that constituents genuinely responded to was seeing themselves and their experiences reflected back to them and acknowledged. In the half-hour before the start of Question Time, members are permitted to make 90-second speeches. The government and the opposition had a roster for their speeches, and I worked out when I arrived that no one from the crossbench ever made them.

These speeches went straight back to the constituency with a letter from me, and over time I worked out that if I could speak on issues and send the letter back to the Lions Club or schools, I would be talking to larger numbers of constituents with each speech. This worked well: to give voice to so many constituents about an issue they had with government.

Every week the Indi Scoop — the office newsletter with a summary of events, speeches, parliamentary news and next week’s program — was posted to all media and broadly across the electorate. Quarterly newsletters were sent to every mailbox in the electorate. Across Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and the webpage, speeches were posted, discussions facilitated, and opinions generated.

Every Friday of a parliamentary sitting week, reporters from the local Indi media — newspapers, radio and TV — would gather in Wodonga for an ‘open and frank’ media conference. My office was transparent, we were accountable, and we were available.

Volunteer Program (back-of-house)

But one of the most effective steps we took was bringing the people of Indi for a week to experience the inner workings of Canberra politics and parliament through our volunteer program. Over time, the program built up a head of steam; during my two terms we had more than 200 volunteers working in the parliamentary office.

Together with the staff, we researched, trialled and developed an induction program with pre-reading that included a map of Parliament House, details about parking and information about parliamentary processes.

At 8am we would meet for half an hour and I would induct them into how our office worked, discuss values, expectations and behaviours and get to know each other. We went through a ‘be your best self ‘ process and emphasised that, while we were in a political environment…we did not do big P party politics…  ‘What’s best for Indi and what’s best for the country: that’s what we do.’

It took a while but people came to love it. Volunteers would attend the morning staff meeting and staff debrief at the end of the day, so were fully integrated into the office. If a volunteer had an issue, one of the staff would work with them to come up with solutions. These were community people — competent and able people who ran organisations, and also many young people who were Year 12 or university students… on a Thursday the last sitting day I would give a 90-second speech about their work…

Some of the local councils in Indi used the volunteer program as a professional development activity for a director or manager. This was valuable for both parties and had obvious spin-offs.

I kept the program under the rug, so that the government wouldn’t think of shutting it down.

The volunteer program kept me sane and happy. Talking about and showing interested members of my community how democracy worked was often the highlight of my week.


There were many issues that came through the doors of the electorate office and during listening posts as part of the valley visits, which had local as well as national impacts; and the Indi reference groups — sometimes morphing into action groups — became our way of building partnerships, enabling engagement and action.

Indi Telecommunication Action Group, which achieved great results on the mobile phone towers, and the work of the Border Rail Action Group (BRAG).

Also through committee work Cathy became involved in indigenous issues and this continued under Helen Haines.

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Chapter 11 Make Some Noise

Telecommunications Action

The first part of this chapter involves a long complex and multi-tiered case study. From kitchen table conversations one of the key issues was poor mobile coverage in the electorate. More mobile towers were needed, but private Telcos and the government were both involved in decisions. Also, the issues were technically complicated.

In Mansfield, the gateway to ski fields, an active and skilled Telecommunications Action Group (TAG) had been set up. A special kind of knowledge is required to tackle the major telcos. We needed to extend this and use the Mansfield group to aid in developing an entire Indi TAG. We then needed to get nine councils onside.

Indi is 70% National Park or State parks. Emergency services needed to be on board because poor coverage was a major issue for them. The poor mobile coverage was geographical, a series of isolated valleys and their councils tended to be parochial. We managed to get the councils to put up $2000 for a consultant to pin point where towers were needed. Later, the councils weren’t squabbling as usual and each put up their top 3 locations.

Meanwhile in Canberra, Cathy had to learn about the DOC (Department of Communications) and get briefings, also she had to get familiar and friendly with staffers in Malcolm Turnbull’s office (the Minister). This all took a couple of years.

Then, when $100 million was allocated Australia-wide for more mobile towers. Indi was prepared, but also had to make noise through the media to get attention and Cathy had to manoeuvre in Canberra.

In the end Indi got the best result in the country, but it hadn’t happened by accident. [Excellent case study and well-worth studying. The case study shows that complex things take time, patience and a little luck. They may play out over years and they don’t happen without community involvement and careful planning.]

The Second Election 2016

Nasty Politics

Cathy didn’t like Tony Abbott’s attitude to politics. He was a big contrast to Malcolm Turnbull.

Post Cathy’s first election, there was the saga of attempting to criminally prosecute 27 of the young people from Indi, who’d been based in Melbourne and supported the setting up of voices for India and the campaign. The threat eventually went away before the 2016 election, but was a traumatic episode for a couple of years for those people their families and networks. This had been instigated by the Liberal Party. (Tony Abbott and Sophie Mirabella primarily, and seemed in keeping with his politics.)

The episode ultimately hurt the Liberal Party in Indi.

The Liberal Party Plays Hardball

In 2016, as expected, the Liberal Party with Sophie Mirabella as the candidate threw enormous resources into the campaign to win Indi back. [One must expect the major parties to play dirty and sometimes they are successful.]

At a speech between candidates dominated by Sophie supporters, Cathy performed badly, she thought Sophie said that Cathy’s election had denied Indi a $10 million Wangaratta hospital upgrade. This blew up in Sophie’s face on social media and later the local and national media, partly because Barrie Cassidy (a popular long-term ABC TV presenter) and his 168,000 followers from nearby Chiltern weighed in. The incident hurt the Liberal campaign.

Nevertheless Cathy opted for some renewed tough media coaching.

The Liberal party also put up some ugly posters — a black and white photo with Bill Shorten and a message that Cathy voted with Labor and the Greens.  Such a negative campaign though rationally ridiculous hurt Cathy in an electorate with a strong conservative rural vote. [In Canberra, not conservative, similar negative posters likening David Pocock to a covert Green helped his campaign immensely.]

In the 2016 election Cathy’s vote climbed 3.5% to 34.7%. The National party candidate (standing by coalition rules) picked up 17.2% of the primary vote and Sophie’s primary vote fell by almost the same amount 17%. Cathy won by taking 54% of the preferred vote. [Numbers matter in a representative system. No matter how good the candidate is, if they aren’t well known they have no chance as an independent.]

The day after the election (the Liberals scraped in with a one seat majority) Malcolm Turnbull phoned Cathy. She told him that she wouldn’t do deals. She’d treat every piece of legislation on its merits. [Independents are really obliged to do this or lose support.]

Chapter 12 Is This the Best Our Politics Can Be?

This chapter is primarily about the 45th parliament, its history, and the major change from Turnbull to Morrison and its effect on Cathy. Interesting but fewer lessons.

The complex case study in the previous chapter on making a noise was about telecommunications towers (Mansfield and Indi TAG). A similar group was set up to attack the rail problem, Border Rail Action Group (BRAG). Cathy didn’t realise it but the $100 million rail upgrade item mentioned in the 2017 budget was for Indi. The components of success were: 1 the noise made previously, 2 the balance of power position she found herself in later with Morrison, and 3 the fact that she was in a marginal electorate.

The $100 million was one of three gifts allocated. The Coalition government was notorious for pork barrelling and such-like, it was all about politics.

Cathy was ethically appalled by this behaviour, but BRAG networking, partnerships with the Victorian government and the Rail Track Corporation, and the people of Indi being strategic and developing plans, as well as a genuine need made it almost palatable.

Indi made some gains on climate change despite the poisonous environment in parliament, with demonstration projects in Indi. Cathy also voted for the medevac legislation against the government, which brought Morrison’s wrath for a time.

Nevertheless, her potential balance of power position helped her to amend bad legislation on the Future Drought, which was merely $100 million a year to be spent on pipes and dams (capture by the irrigation lobby). She lobbied hard and won practical amendments on improving governance and consultation, with strong oversight.

Politically it was good for the upcoming election and for handing over to Helen Haines. The Coalition always ran the stock criticism against all independents that they cannot do or achieve anything. In fact, every time the Nationals or the Liberals ran that line, Helen Haines simply replied, ‘Drought bill’. It was so effective early in the campaign that they stopped running it after a while.

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Chapter 13 A Survival Guide

Reflections on her final speech in April 2019 and how six years in parliament had changed her. Cathy certainly didn’t know how to build a mass movement when she set out. After 2016 she and her staff had decided to be bold in her second term.

Helen Haines was selected as her successor through a consultative community-based process. The important aspect of a community-based movement is that it must be self-sustaining, it must get beyond its initial burst of enthusiasm and the original personalities, not quite a succession plan, but in some respects it resembles one.

When it was announced that I would not be recontesting and Helen would be our orange independent candidate, I saw the community transfer its loyalty to a bigger ideal. Truly they had supported me and now their loyalty was to the ideal that underpinned our movement. What we were all about was electing a strong independent person who could go on our behalf to Canberra. The fact that people understood this was enormously satisfying.

The government threw enormous resources to win back Indi, in addition to the party machine funding. Random spending promises didn’t work as the government had hoped in Indi. Nevertheless, the wider election campaign showed: money can still buy political power.

Clive Palmer’s $90 million advertising campaign, designed to stop Bill Shorten becoming prime minister and shore up the government, had the biggest influence on the national result… The impact of that money and that advertising, and the viciousness of the campaigning, made me feel sad for Australia, for our democracy.   …

Relying on the traditional, two-sided political model will not generate enough change and will continue to leave large sections of Australian society feeling left out. This is especially so in rural and regional Australia. 

The National Party (regional party)

Cathy says after six years in parliament: I do not know what the National Party stands for. She gives examples and says: Once portfolios are allocated that decides what policies the entire party will pay attention to. It’s crazy. It dawned on me that for the whole of Australia, if a portfolio was held by a Liberal, Rebekha Sharkie and I were the only members of the House of Representatives actually looking at the regional implications of these policies [because the National Party wasn’t.] …

Pork Barreling

The experience since 2013 in Indi is that voters will see through the conventional parties — and here I’m talking about the Liberals and the Nationals — if they are offered a better, more open, more trustworthy alternative. The sports-rorts scandal shone a light on a cynical and incoherent form of politicking. It was based on a raw calculation: the parties had a political need to hold or win a seat, so they just shot money in the direction of random parts of seats in the hope of picking up votes, without a plan for what they wanted to happen socially in those places. The National Party especially favours this practice. 

Cathy grew tired of Bridget MacKenzie (A National Party minister) visiting Indi to make a funding announcement and texting her ten minutes after the event or ten minutes before if the location was remote. She says the Liberals did it too: Steven Martin, visited 50 towns in 50 days and then had funding announcements for each of those towns when I knew in some instances no formal application had been lodged.

She says a lot of local people in Indi weren’t happy about these practices. And that was a lesson from this: the people of Indi couldn’t be bought. They chose a straight-shooting community independent, despite the enticements.

Bad Behaviour in Parliament

Regarding sexism and harassment [a current topic], mostly she could hold her own, but she made it her policy not to put up with bad behaviour or sexism. She got to know the two party whips and if any male was being rude or unduly aggressive, she would have a quiet work over a cup of coffee rather than make a public fuss.

When you’re operating on your own, you always need to know how to protect your space.

Chapter 14 You Can Do It

In this final chapter Cathy wants to offer advice and make a call to action. In similar manner I’m going to stick mainly to pertinent quotations on how to achieve this.


[H]elping Australia [to] reach its potential through an engaged citizenry active in its democracy is critical and complex work. I believe independents and community politics hold a vital piece of the jigsaw. I hope my story inspires others to be part of this movement and are motivated to activate their courage muscle; to turn up, speak up and step up to leadership. 

To me, their politics do not matter that much. If you’ve got quality people as parliamentarians and good leaders who can see beyond their own self-interest, they will be able to work together. Politics is a team effort, and without a quality team it will always be dysfunctional and produce lesser outcomes.

I have a bias for good women independent candidates who have had life experience, strong morals, know how to run an office…

The Aim is to Target People in the Middle

In Indi we saw our 110,000 voters as existing across a spectrum of political engagement. At one end were the people who disliked politics and would never want to think about it. At the other end were those who were devoted to the political contest. Most people were in the middle.

Constituent Work

In my final full calendar year as the member for Indi, in 2018, out of 110,000 constituents 32,415 individual pieces of correspondence came into the office and we opened 15,285 new cases. The numbers were similar the year before. I seriously doubt those sorts of numbers would be replicated in a safe seat held by a major party, because in safe seats many people lose the sense that their MP is there to help them.

 Our approach created a significant workload in the office. Sometimes, if one of the staff were not up on the customer service, there would have to be a difficult conversation: ‘Perhaps this job’s not for you, because you actually need to care for people. That’s what we’re here for.’ We could not afford to relax on this because it was one of the things that distinguished us from our major-party predecessor. Our level and type of constituent service was a point of difference.

We built much higher levels of voter engagement by getting things done at a constituent level, which challenged the predictable line that a vote for an independent was a wasted vote. My message to the electorate was ‘I want to represent you and I will always do that. I will always put Indi first.’

What You Need

The longer I was in the job, the better I got at doing it. 

The next question to ask is: can you get organised? Raising community engagement up to a vibrant level is a massive challenge. You cannot afford for it to be shambolic or done in a scattergun way; it has to be coordinated and built upon steadily.

My Behaviour in Parliament

I managed to get some good things done in Canberra (partly by not becoming a major national talking-head on every subject going). [Focus is important — avoid being reactive or you’ll be buried, she says earlier in the book.] I also stuck to my ‘knitting’, approaching every issue on its merits (no deals).

Both sides had a pretty clear idea of my agenda. I did not needlessly play the power card. I understood from my leadership experience pre-politics that your power was something you managed, not brandished about. I did play on the national political stage when I needed to: on drought policy, for example. I knew about that subject. I had credibility on it.

Late in my second term, I found myself taking much of the load of advancing the idea of a national integrity commission to deal with corruption within federal bodies. I believe it’s an absolute must for the nation, as did many of my fellow crossbenchers. 

Cathy took over Rebekha Sharkie’s work on the topic and partnered with Transparency International Australia. [Helen Haines continued the work.]


Community politics is not for the faint-hearted. One of the challenges of being an independent was how exposed you are; all the time you’re in the public view and there’s no place to hide. You are what you are — with your staff, with the community — and you are incredibly vulnerable if you haven’t learnt how to look after yourself. You’ve actually got to be comfortable in your skin.

As I said earlier in this book, the system was initially designed to accommodate that sort of grassroots, participatory democracy, it’s just that our parties have found ways to get around it.

Being the member for Indi was not the making of me; it was the culmination of everything I had lived through and learnt and loved — the work I had done, the people I had met, my family, my community, the land. I am privileged to have had this unique opportunity. Being the member for Indi gave me a platform to talk about the issues that are important to me and our nation, an opportunity to practise my leadership skills in my community where I belonged… at a personal level I grew in courage and confidence, and I hope patience and tolerance, and I discovered skills I didn’t know I had.

Have a go!

Further Information

Helpful Links

Cathy McGowan

The Cathy McGowan website as mentioned has much information about Cathy, videos of key speeches and a host of other resources.

The Community Independents Project site also has a host of information and resources. It also has the recent parliamentary speeches by all the successful current independents and links to their websites.

David Pocock

David Pockock has an excellent website as do most of the others.

Rebekha Sharkie

For some reason there is no link to Rebekha Sharkie’s website on the Community Independents site.


The brown divisions between longish sections are a bit of fun to help comprehension. They are provided free by Image Raw Pixel on FreePik.

Published in Canberra



  1. The Aam Admi Party in Delhi successfully managed to win elections by involving young people and setting up dialogues with deprived citizens in the slums of Delhi. Middle class volunteers played an important part in the win. The search for participative action experiments continues in India with latest example being the nation wide farmer’s movement which forced the government to withdraw and repeal three anti- farmer laws. Much to learn from each other.

  2. Author

    Thank you for that. A very interesting comparison. Will keep you posted on Independents in Australia.

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