By all accounts, Victoria’s state election in Hawthorn is a tight contest.
The Liberal candidate John Pesutto is hoping to take back the seat he famously conceded on live TV to John Kennedy, the retired Labor Party member who volunteered to run because nobody else would.
Now a new “teal wave” aims to repeat the independents’ federal success at the state level and disrupt Hawthorn’s two-party race.
While an election loss can be devastating for any candidate, a defeat for the former Hawthorn MP, John Pesutto, would spell even deeper strife for the Victorian Liberal Party.
Brent Hodgson is the campaign director for Hawthorn’s teal independent candidate, Melissa Lowe, and was a strategist in Monique Ryan’s winning campaign in Kooyong.
“They recognise that if Hawthorn is lost at the state level, then they lose a significant amount of donors,” Hodgson said. “They lose a potential future leader in John Pesutto. They also lose a group of potentially influential people that they can apprentice into the party. But even more than that, they lose almost any viable path to forming a government in the next decade.”
Age senior reporter Clay Lucas sums up the Liberal camp’s concerns: “The fear is this: if they can’t win back this seat with a candidate as well-known as Pesutto, will they ever get it back?”
Hodgson says Hawthorn is likely to be held “for a significant amount of time”, should an independent candidate be elected.
The Victorian Liberal Party faces an even steeper uphill battle to form government if its heartland begins to vote independent. Hodgson says their only alternatives “are in places where the Liberal Party, for example, would need to get a 10 to 15 per cent swing in order to form government”.
The federal election has prompted much soul searching for the Liberal Party. Should the party shift further towards the right, or take a more moderate approach to politics?
Hodgson says it doesn’t matter for the coalition now, that the party is already “captive to the right … people don’t want to be associated with the Liberal brand if they’re anything but further right of the Liberal Party”.
“To that end, I think that the inevitable destruction of the Liberal Party is almost baked in now. What does that mean for the independence movement?”
The issues of integrity and community
Hodgson is a data and marketing strategist and a former member of the Liberal Party. He became disillusioned after failing “to bring people on board who could offset that rise of the right” and joined Monique Ryan’s campaign.
Hodgson says community dissatisfaction over values is the core foundation for the rise of the community independents movement. “It’s going out and identifying what the values are, in terms of the electorate and then representing those values.” People want “good government” that would “elevate the standards of governance”.
Independent candidate for Hawthorn Melissa Lowe says integrity in politics is “huge”.
“I’m an independent candidate because I don’t believe in the party machine. Too much of politics and too many decisions have been left to too few people.”
Lowe questions IBAC hearings held behind closed doors and believes integrity commissions should be properly funded. “Transparency about what the decisions are about, the evidence that was used to make them, they’re all the things that I believe are about integrity.”
Alex Fein, a political strategist with the RedBridge group, previously the head of strategy for Zoe Daniel’s Goldstein campaign, says party interests “compete with the community whom they’re actually elected to serve and represent”.
Fein says corporate donations also create divided loyalties. “These have an inherently distortionary effect on policy as well. If you ever wonder why major parties are propounding policies that don’t actually benefit ordinary Australians, it’s because they have divided loyalties to their donors and their party interests.”
Fein says an absence of “meaningful alternatives” leads to a lack of participation, especially for young people.
“What this community independents movement is doing is providing people with not just an outlet and not just with someone hopeful to vote for, but a means of actually participating directly in the democratic process so that they want to participate.”
Sophie Torney, the independent candidate for Kew, is concerned about government accountability. “What we’re seeing in state parliament at the moment is a very strong government and a weaker opposition, ” she said.
“People are tired of that. They want to see integrity brought back into politics, and I think that would be good for democracy.”
Torney says if she were in the balance of power, she would negotiate with “whichever” parties were prepared to develop policies around issues that benefit the community, including “urgent action on climate, on integrity, a stronger IBAC, economy, green economy, stronger reforms for small business”.
Torney says action on climate change and logging is the “No.1 issue” in Kew, as calls to end native forest logging by 2023 grow. “We are not going to stop logging until 2030, and that is frightening.”
Chop wood, carry water
Hodgson says a driving mantra in Monique Ryan’s and now Melissa Lowe’s election campaign is the time-honoured and oft-tweeted Zen proverb “chop wood, carry water”.
“Last time around, we thought that we’d see a change of government. There is a little bit of trauma. We had a saying in the Monique Ryan campaign, and we do again inside the Melissa Lowe campaign, it was chop wood, carry water,” Hodgson said.
“We knew that the polling was going to be good at times and bad at times. We wanted to inoculate the volunteer base … the last thing that you want is your crew to get discouraged if the polling isn’t good.
“So, ‘chop wood, carry water’ is – ignore the news story, ignore the Herald Sun attack piece that’s on the front page and just keep doing the things that we know that work.”
Hodgson says a core campaign principle was elevating people with professional skills so “everyone can take on the roles that they want” as well as developing innovative and evidence-based tactics including social media and social media advertising as campaign characteristics.
Hodgson isn’t bashful about the importance of funding for building momentum. “You need to find people that believe sufficiently enough in the mission, to actually bring in those early donors.”
“That early money is used to do things like advertise for a candidate”. Hodgson talks about identifying and staying close to the citizens’ agenda, finding out and representing values that are critically important to the electorate.
The next phase involves “social proof”. Once the first few signs are up, it becomes “a lot easier because people are seeing that there’s momentum. They’re not the only people on the street that’s hosting signs. They’re not the first person on the dance floor.”
Lowe says a whole-of-government approach is required to untangle “wicked problems” like health, “which crosses a number of funding areas”.
There are some things that are just fundamental to humanity Lowe says, that shouldn’t be political. “I don’t know why we politicise the climate. I don’t know why we politicise health.
The rights to self-determination, the rights to make decisions about our own bodies and our lives should not be political or party-room driven.
Lowe says that we “should have been supporting people to make decisions about their lives, to make educated decisions that are supported by health and community.”
The role of the crossbench
As major party votes continue to slide, particularly in the face of a “diminishing Liberal party”, Hodgson says, “at a certain point there’s a responsibility on the crossbench to no longer be a crossbench, but to actually be a viable alternative government.”
Hodgson says more community members now appreciate the teal independent campaign.
“A whole bunch of people who voted for Josh Frydenberg are now coming up to Melissa Lowe at train stations and saying, you know what, I voted for Josh, but now I’m seeing what Monique does.”
He says the crossbench could elevate community concerns instead of just scoring points; independents represent “a new way of doing government”.
“I think the idea of good government is not over.”