When Cathy McGowan and her “orange army” of volunteers claimed victory in the regional Victorian seat of Indi at the 2013 federal election, she was unwittingly creating a template for a new wave of independent candidates to follow.
Some of these followed the grass-roots “Voices for” campaign model, which saw six “teal” candidates sweep aside six government MPs at the federal election in May. Others did things their own way.
But six months later, last week’s Victorian state election is likely to deliver no independent MPs at all in the new parliament.
While much of the media attention has focused on the failure of teal candidates to flip seats in the inner city, the Nationals claimed back three of the party’s former stronghold seats that had fallen to independents in recent years.
Two-term MP Suzanna Sheed – defeated by the Nationals in Shepparton – says rural independents will require fresh strategies if they want to succeed in future against the major party machines.
“A lot of us got in by taking them by surprise and the surprise element is gone,” she told Guardian Australia.
“I came out of nowhere, and they were in no way prepared for it. This time they [the Nationals] were big on promises.”
While Sheed says independents have “been trying to do our own thing, our own way”, it wasn’t enough to fight a well-organised campaign this time around.
The Nationals have heralded it the party’s best result since 1943.
As well as Shepparton, they also won back the seats of Mildura – where Jade Benham unseated one-term independent MP Ali Cupper – and Morwell, where the retirement of Nationals-turned independent MP Russell Northe paved the way for the party to reclaim the seat.
After the Liberal party struggled to make an impact in the city, the Nationals’ state leader, Peter Walsh, this week did not rule out the Coalition junior partner leaving the agreement in the current term of government, but stressed that the two parties could work well together on important issues for Victorians.
Sheed held Shepparton on a margin of 5.3% but lost to the town’s former mayor Kim O’Keeffe. She acknowledges O’Keeffe had a high profile and was the “face of the community on the ground”, particularly during Covid, when Sheed was travelling to Spring Street for sitting days.
O’Keeffe attributes her victory to the brand recognition held by the Nationals as a party “solely about regional and rural Victoria” and her work fighting for almost six years for the community in local government.
“I think the community have seen my passion and commitment, and want for better things ahead for all of us,” she said.
O’Keeffe believes the party preselecting female candidates to unseat female independents played some role in its success but stresses it’s also about selecting someone with a “really good track record” in their community. Or as Walsh puts it: “already proven local champions”.
‘A lot of promises have been made’
Monash University politics lecturer Zareh Ghazarian says frustration had been simmering in regional communities, particularly towns on the border with NSW, over Victoria’s Covid response.
“The so-called ring of steel around Melbourne made it difficult for people to come in and out of Melbourne. The Nationals were able to attract people who had been dissatisfied with what was going on.”
Sheed points to the Coalition framing a vote for an independent as a “vote for Dan Andrews” – leveraging what the deputy Nationals leader, Emma Kealy, described as a “hatred” for the premier in some regional communities due to the pandemic response.
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Sheed says independents need to improve people’s understanding of the value they could provide, noting that she had the ear of the Andrews government and was able to deliver more than $1bn of investment in education, health and transport infrastructure for the electorate.
“I think we probably left it a bit late to run the … ‘don’t vote for an ineffective backbencher’ line,” she says.
“One of the takeaways for our independents in regional areas is that we’ve been very much following the notion of ‘when they go low, we’ll go high’, [but] it doesn’t [always] work because you’re not on a level playing field.”
Victoria’s strict political donation laws – which came into force for the first time this election – were anticipated to make it harder for independents running against party machines.
Sheed says they did, and also blamed the wipeout of regional local TV stations as something that made campaigning more difficult.
Incumbent Liberal MP Bill Tilley held off independent challenger Jacqui Hawkins in the border seat of Benambra.
Hawkins says the tight margin – 51.1% to 48.9% – sends a strong message to major parties that the community “wants to participate in the political process and not have politics done to us but done for us and with us”.
“What our post-campaign assessment shows is that the Liberal party here probably garnered about 3.5 or 4% roughly of votes from people who vote Labor and probably jumped ship, given what’s happened to you living on the border and the lockdowns,” she said.
“But that doesn’t mean that people still don’t want independent representation at the state level.”
Hawkins says that despite the results she is confident independents will run again in four years in country Victoria.
“A lot of promises have been made in these seats, so there’s a high expectation from community around that delivery,” she says.
“A lot of people within those electorates will be watching with bated breath to see what comes of this new representation. And then judgement day will come in four years.”