STRONG language has been used to characterise some of the colourful candidates contesting Indi at this year’s federal election but nobody has described the incumbent member Cathy McGowan as a magician – until now.
Propelled by the alluring charms of her orange army, the independent MP stole the north-eastern Victorian electorate out from under Liberal Sophie Mirabella at the 2013 election by just 431 votes.
There’s been no love lost between the two women ever since with Ms Mirabella nominating this year to try and reclaim the seat she held for 12-years, while the National party’s challenger Marty Corboy is also making strong claims.
But Ms McGowan has an ace on table and a few others up her sleeve that the other two leading candidates would love to be playing, to gain an edge, during this year’s tense and tight campaign.
Over the past three years, she’s been sharing and giving Indi constituents genuine ownership of the democratic process which the other 149 members of the House of Representatives could do well to replicate.
Ms McGowan has applied a simple strategy and philosophy gained from her experiences pre-parliament working to boost the fortunes of women living and working in regional, rural and remote areas.
Her magic formulae simply transforms the office into a place where Indi people come to Canberra and volunteer to share the workload and unravel the mystery of what’s really going on, beyond the distant illusions of power.
Even if the independent MP disappeared into thin air after this year’s poll, her energetic work over the past three years, giving volunteers first-hand exposure to democracy, will haunt the electorate forever like a smiling, friendly ghost.
Ms McGowan said the volunteering program was open to anybody in her electorate and the charming trick she employs, to demystify Canberra, is elegantly simple, “no politics”.
She said people who were apolitical or even those aligned to another political faction had joined the program, with everyone learning “how to use me as a member of parliament”.
“The office is not political so it doesn’t really matter what your political views are,” she said.
“When we do the induction we talk about respect and treating everybody well and learning how the office works.
“The truth of the matter is there’s very little politics in the office so people just come and learn how to work the system.
“We’ve definitely had people come in who have been ‘anti’ (McGowan) but we just work our magic on them and they get to see how the process works.”
Appearing in Ms McGowan’s Canberra office, the volunteers can work at the centre of the political process answering phones, escorting visitors around the building or attending events she’s unable to make, to gather information and build connections.
The volunteers also help with researching issues the MP’s working on, particularly topics they may know more about than she does, with that information then used for making speeches or building background knowledge on policy.
Ms McGowan said in return, she asked the volunteers to learn how parliament works, how the office operates and how a member of parliament represents them and to then return to their communities and work within community organisations, to make better use of their local member of parliament, in future.
She said the concept stemmed from her time as President of the Australian Women in Agriculture program where participants visited Canberra for two days each year - and still do - to learn the ropes.
During that event, the women received training on political lobbying and after a briefing set out with their papers to walk the corridors of power with a head full of knowledge and a heart full of motivation.
“I knew how effective that program was; not only to give Australian women in agriculture a face in Canberra but also to learn how policy gets developed which made us more efficient,” she said.
“When organising the election campaign (in 2013) we talked about how to get change so taking up that idea was a natural follow-up.”
Ms McGowan said anybody could apply to volunteer and her community engagement manager Simon Crase then vetted the applicants who, if successful, were briefed on requirements and trained.
“Canberra is a bit unique because not many members of parliament bring their people to Canberra,” she said.
“It’s basically minimal cost with the volunteers driving up with me in the car on Sunday afternoons and we have four or five people who live here and offer billets.
“The volunteers don’t have any say on how we vote – the professional staff do that – but they certainly help out with running the office.”
Ms McGowan said as an independent MP she also needed to be “across everything” which was a “huge job” when not empowered by resources that the bigger parties may have available.
But she said the volunteers helped ease the administrative work-load and being constituents they also lived the issues she must ultimately vote on and subsequent decisions.
“In becoming a more effective member of parliament, it helps me understand the community better and the issues that the people of Indi face,” she said.
“And these people then go back to their communities and talk about what fun they had, what they did working in the office and they also learn that politics is not just about question time.
“From the outside, most people think it’s like Carlton versus Collingwood all the time in Canberra but when they volunteer to work in the office they also get a sense of the reality of the job and the professionalism of how people work together.
“Any cynicism they have is proven to be unfounded because they’ve lived the experience and been welcomed.”
Kristy Howard of agricultural consulting business Inspiring Excellence volunteered in Ms McGowan’s office late last year and also lives in Beechworth, in the Indi electorate.
Ms Howard said she was a swinging voter and disillusioned by party politics but when the Independent MP stood at the 2013 election, she felt it was the first time a candidate was in the race that she could believe in and trust.
She said some critics may say ‘independents can’t do anything’ but the Indi electorate now had a new and higher expectation of what politicians should do, to represent them.
“People in Indi will never put up with anything other than what we’ve been getting,” she said of Ms McGowan’s work.
“We’d love to have Cathy stay but even if we had a different politician, we all know now how we can be heard and we didn’t know that before.”
Pam Turnbull also from Beechworth is retired and said she had long understood the value of volunteering; not just to the organisation being volunteered to but also for the people who did the actual volunteering work.
Ms Turnbull said the opportunity to come to Canberra and be part of the behind the scene operations in parliament provided her with a better understanding of how the Australian government worked.
She said the opportunity to be in the building, working in Ms McGowan’s office and meeting many diverse people of varied interests and persuasions was a real highlight of her experience.
“No matter how many times I’ve been lost in this building, there is always someone to say ‘can I help you?’ and they don’t just (direct you) they say ‘come and I’ll show you how to get there’ and they are people that I recognise - not just the guards,” she said.
Leah Nankervis grew up in Beechworth and studies engineering in Melbourne and volunteered in Ms McGowan’s office with her mother Karen, to share the experience.
Leah said volunteering helped deepen her knowledge of the representative system that she could share with other people in her university course who seemed disinterested in politics.
“I learnt that question time is not just politicians arguing with each other but it is actually helpful and does serve a purpose and that things really do get done in parliament,” she said.
Karen lives in Beechworth working as a business consultant and was one of the many Indi volunteers who supported Ms McGowan’s election campaign in 2013.
She said the volunteer program was “like putting the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle together” to see how the Canberra side of the representative equation worked and share that experience with other volunteers.
“If you only look at question time you think all the political parties are at each-others’ throats all of the time,” she said.
“But in actual fact there’s a lot of respect between all of the politicians and a lot of working together – a lot of collaboration between people - and it’s around common interests like agriculture, to get things done.”
Ms Howard said she had worked with Ms McGowan in rural leadership programs and for years they’d talked about strengthening political advocacy and was now pleased to see the volunteering program delivering “an experiential experience”.
She said one of her best outcomes was gaining a deeper understanding of the bipartisan nature of what goes on behind the scenes, when the shouting and posturing of question time is over and the chamber is largely vacated.
“If you’ve got an interest in an issue you can talk to other people about it that have a common interest,” she said.
Ms Howard also had a celebrity moment meeting Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull when representing Ms McGowan during a function, at Parliament House.
Ms Turnbull said she took a group of people from Benalla in the Indi electorate on a tour of Parliament House, which included pushing one of them around the building in a wheelchair.
“I had a real sense of ownership of this place and I felt so good to tell them things and to show them things,” she said.
Ms McGowan said when the Indi volunteers went out and networked on her behalf mixing with other MPs, parliamentary staff and advisors or representative bodies like the National Farmers’ Federation, they returned with the value of that experience which she put to good use.
“Being time-poor, I get the multiplier effect of that help,” she said.
On whether she can beat the Liberals and reclaim Indi at this election, Ms McGowan said having shared a deeper sense of ownership of democracy and behind the scenes processes in Canberra meant the people of Indi would always be winning.
“In running the campaign initially we wanted to make the seat competitive so we’ve definitely ticked that off,” she said.
“And in making it competitive, so it wasn’t just a flash in the pan, we also wanted to make sure the community had a better understanding of the participatory democracy process and the volunteers are really part of that process working.
“Even if the seat goes to another party, the community will not have forgotten what participatory democracy process feels like and they will always be much more efficient and effective in using their member of parliament, no matter who it is, because they’ve actually got the knowledge now.”
Ms McGowan said she was also pleased that the bar had been raised in Indi on what their local member of parliament does, in terms of community engagement.
She said that expectation was well-entrenched now and local groups and Indi constituents, especially the younger voters, “want more of it”.
“The community will have a much higher expectation of who their member of parliament is - whoever it is - and that will hold the member to account,” she said.
“My bit may be a flash in the pan in the greater scheme of things but hopefully Indi will never go back to being a safe seat and will remain marginal and every electorate in rural and regional Australia should have the same thing.
“If the Liberals or Nationals win the next election and then they don’t engage with the community in the way we’ve been doing, there will be a huge reaction.”