POLITICS: by Patrick J. ByrneNews Weekly
How feminists defeated Liberal frontbencher Sophie Mirabella
, February 1, 2014
The Voice4Indi campaign that saw Cathy McGowan defeat Liberal shadow industry minister, Sophie Mirabella, at last year’s federal election is now eyeing the forthcoming November 2014 Victorian state election.
Speculation is that they could target the seat of Benambra, which covers the north-eastern Victorian town of Wodonga and the surrounding region. Liberal Party member Bill Tilley holds the seat by a margin of about 15.9 per cent after a sweeping Victorian electoral redistribution.
Such a campaign by Voice4Indi (V4I) could impact on who forms the next state government.
Currently, the Liberal-National coalition holds each of the lower and upper houses by only one seat.
The V4Icampaign was modelled on the Purple Sage Project that was aimed at defeating Jeff Kennett’s Liberal-National government at the 1999 Victorian state election.
Both initiatives were organised and guided by the Victorian Women’s Trust (VWT), a hardline left-wing feminist organisation established with a grant from John Cain’s Labor government in 1985, with the strong support of Joan Kirner, who herself later became Victorian premier.
At the federal election, the campaign promoted local candidate Cathy McGowan, who comes from a large Catholic family of 13 that is well networked in northern Victoria, including into the Catholic and farming communities and the education system. Many on the V4I committee are family, relatives or friends of Cathy McGowan.
While McGowan operated on the pretence of being an independent, a façade backed by the media, there was evidence of a tacit alliance between Labor, the Greens and some independents to defeat Mirabella.
Early in the campaign, Greens candidate Jenny O’Connor admitted, “Even though there are differences in our approach, we (the Greens and independents) are all strongly united in wanting to change the representation from Sophie Mirabella”.
After the vote, leading local ALP member Zuvele Leschen told the Border Mail that the 17 per cent drop in Labor’s vote was the price of backing independent Cathy McGowan.
Despite being critical of some of McGowan’s positions, he said, “I’m comfortable with much of what has happened in this campaign”.
The media tone of the campaign was set early by the Albury-Wodonga Fairfax Border Mail, which covers the populous top end of the electorate.
First, it interviewed Greens candidate Jenny O’Connor, saying that the Greens and independents were “strongly united” to defeat Mirabella (see above).
Second, it ran an attack on Mirabella based on statements by retiring federal rural independent MP, Tony Windsor, from his interview on ABC television’s Insiders program. Windsor repeated similar comments in a number of other papers across the electorate.
From then on, the Border Mail portrayed the campaign as a contest, not between Liberal and the ALP, but between Mirabella and an independent challenger, McGowan.
The regional paper strongly backed McGowan. It used Tweets from McGowan’s supporters outside the electorate as the basis of major headlined stories directed against Mirabella.
Knowing they could not win the seat from the Liberals, the ALP ran dead in the election campaign, allowing the combined left-wing forces to effectively rally behind McGowan. The left-wing online activist group GetUp!’s how-to-vote card handed out at the polling booths also strongly favoured McGowan.
Support for McGowan also came from the former state National Party member for Murray Valley, Ken Jasper.
The ALP, Greens, other independents (and the Palmer United Party) all directed their preferences to McGowan, who won by 420 votes.
Indeed, all the candidates opposing Mirabella sang from the same hymn sheet, calling for a protest vote against the sitting member to make the seat more marginal. Their line was: “Give the Coalition a kick by voting one for McGowan to make Indi more marginal”. (A similar theme was used by the VWT’s Purple Sage Project to defeat the Kennett government).
From left to right: Alana Johnson,
Cathy McGowan and Mary Crooks
The effect was seen in the final vote. Just under 10,000 of those who gave McGowan their primary vote, gave Mirabella their second vote, thinking that they would still have an active vote supporting the sitting member. In fact, their second preference was never counted because McGowan was not eliminated in the ballot.
Many voters in this very conservative electorate feel hoodwinked, partly because their second preferences didn’t count towards Mirabella, partly because of the hard-left groups that organised or backed McGowan, and partly because of the organisation provided from outside the electorate by Melbourne’s feminist-run VWT.
Nick Haines, McGowan’s volunteer coordinator and social media campaign team member, is a member of the Melbourne University Greens and had worked on Adam Bandt’s campaign at the 2010 federal election. He is also the son of V4I campaign director, Phil Haines.
Further, the framework of the operation against Mirabella came from the Victorian Women’s Trust.
The VWT was established by the Labor government of John Cain, which provided the body with a sizeable foundation grant. It is a leading organisation for the feminist sisterhood and networks with an array of women’s health and left-wing feminist groups. While its members straddle both major parties, it aligns closely with the feminist left of the ALP.
For example, the guest speaker for the November 2013 VWT annual lecture was former Prime Minister Julia Gillard. Special tributes were given by former Victorian Labor attorney-general, Rob Hulls, and former federal rural independent MP, Tony Windsor.
In 1998-99, the VWT’s Purple Sage Project involved up to 6,000 people across rural and regional Victoria. This campaign attacked marginal Coalition seats and brought down the Kennett government in 1999. The project was a partnership between the VWT, the Brotherhood of St Laurence, the Stegley Foundation, YWCA, Victorian Local Governance Association and the People Together Project.
Subsequently, the VWT produced a comprehensive book on the project, From the Wisdom of the People: The Purple Sage Project: Action for Our Times. The book describes the community consultation processes that were used to ferment opposition to the state Coalition government.
Mary Crooks, who has been the executive director of the VWT since 1996, formulated both the 1999 Purple Sage Project and the 2013 Voice4Indi campaign.
Alana Johnson, who is now the president of V4I, is also a board member of the VWT. In 2011-12 she was a member of the Women’s Advisory Panel to the Victorian Minister for Agriculture. She is also a director of the federal government’s Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation and is a founding member of Australian Women in Agriculture.
Cathy McGowan herself is part of the VWT. She is listed on the VWT professional women’s networking site, Here She Is!, as offering leadership training and facilitation advocacy mainly to rural women.
An article in the VWT online blog, Sheilas, outlined the campaign and the key role of the VWT against Mirabella.
Mary Crooks described V4I as a “carefully-constructed campaign” which began in August 2012, over a year before the election.
It said Alana Johnson was one of the original members of the campaign, and that she had also “been involved in the Purple Sage Project’s ‘Kitchen Table’ conversation process…
“By the end of April, the ‘Kitchen Table Conversations’ had occurred across Indi, with over 400 people engaged in the process…
“The same ground rules adopted in Purple Sage were re-employed so that participants all had a say…
“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 distil it’.”
The ALP, the Greens and some others who directed voting preferences in favour of McGowan all denied there was any formal alliance to defeat Mirabella. However, it’s curious that the VWT’s Sheila blog also ran a “Snapshot of the candidates” article, covering women candidates in several electorates. Interestingly, the article focused considerably on the seat of Indi, and promoted Cathy McGowan, Greens candidate Jenny O’Connor and independent candidate Jennifer Podesta.
Further, eight months before the federal election, the V4I ran a “Melbourne briefing” on February 15, 2013, “for all those living in Melbourne who still vote in Indi, are from Indi, have been there once, or are interested in the Voice for Indi project”.
The meeting was held at the Victorian Women’s Trust office in Melbourne. One of those who registered an RSVP for the evening was the Indi independent candidate, Jennifer Podesta.
Members of Women’s Health Goulburn North East — based in Wangaratta and part of a network of 10 women’s health centres closely allied to the government’s Women’s Health Victoria — also played an active role backing the McGowan campaign.
When the women’s health centre organised a “meet the candidates” evening in Benalla, the centre’s director Susie Reid also sang from the same hymn sheet as those campaigning against Mirabella.
Reid said: “From what I’m hearing here, they’re very interested in the need for Indi to be a swinging electorate. Being a safe Labor or Liberal seat doesn’t help the constituents much these days”.
This women’s health centre is substantially funded by the state government’s Department of Human Services — over $600,000 annually, according to the centre’s 2010-11 annual report. It has also received grants from the VWT, including $125,000 in 2011.
Another key factor in McGowan’s narrow victory was support garnered from leading figures in some local state schools, Catholic education and some Catholic parishes.
Cathy McGowan has been associated with Catholic education, having been a one-time teacher. Until 2012 she was the chair of Catholic Education Wodonga Council. This figured prominently in her literature, despite the fact that her support for abortion and same-sex marriage puts her at loggerheads with the Catholic Church.
V4I committee member Diane Shepheard is a leader of Friends of the Arts at Catholic College Wodonga.
V4I convenor Tony Lane has been a board chair at Galen Catholic College in Wangaratta for six years.
Phil Haines, V4I campaign director, is school council president of Wangaratta High School.
In the run-up to the election, V4I opened four offices in towns across the electorate.
Since the federal election, McGowan has officially “separated” herself from V4I, presumably to avoid association with V4I’s next project, taking on a state seat at the coming state election.
This appears more symbolic than real, given that many on the V4I committee are family, relatives or friends of McGowan. Committee member Diane Shepheard is McGowan’s sister-in-law.
Given the support it received from the Border Mail (which covers Wodonga), the backing from leaders in Catholic education and preferences from the ALP, Greens and independents, V4I could impact on the next Victorian state election if it runs a candidate in Benambra.
Benambra takes in the main population centre of Wodonga and, following the electorate distribution, also includes Rutherglen.
This is the home of Ken Jasper, the former National Party MP who supported V4I against Mirabella. Jasper was used to persuade many conservative locals to give their primary vote to McGowan, and as a result many put Mirabella second.
V4I’s main support base was through this region.
If the V4I runs a candidate in Benambra, it could make the next Victorian government very marginal.
There is a final irony in the campaign orchestrated against Mirabella. Many of the same feminist types who campaigned against Mirabella have since complained of the lack of female representation in federal Cabinet.
Patrick J. Byrne is national vice-president of the National Civic Council.
 “Labor happy with Indi result”, Border Mail, September 28, 2013.
 From the Wisdom of the People: The Purple Sage Project, op. cit.
 Victorian Women’s Trust annual report, 2011-12, p.2.
 Sheilas, VWT, August 20, 2013.
 Women’s Health Goulburn North East annual report, 2010-11.
 Victorian Women’s Trust annual report, 2011, p.23.