Listen, engage, show you care: how Greens and independents took local politics all the way to Canberra

Voters disenchanted with the cynical politics of the main parties were ripe for conversion – they just needed someone to knock on their door and listen

While the Liberal party licks its election wounds, Susan Harris Rimmer says she’s not surprised by the success of the Greens and the independents.

Rimmer, a politics and policy expert, lives in the Queensland seat of Griffith, where Labor’s Terri Butler was ousted by the Greens’ Max Chandler-Mather.

“Max came to my house three or four times,” Rimmer says. “He knows my dog’s name. He was there. He’s at the Mount Gravatt markets, saying hello to everyone.

“Terri’s also great, but she had portfolio responsibilities … they took some safe Labor seats for granted.”

The Greens’ “never-ending door-knocking campaign” in inner-city Brisbane is poised to deliver them at least two seats in the House of Representatives, with a strong chance of a third, in the seat of Brisbane.

And they didn’t just knock on doors. Candidates and an army of volunteers delivered care packages during Covid and helped clean up after the floods.

“All politics is local, all the time,” says Rimmer, a professor and the director of Griffith University’s policy innovation hub.

“You’re going to like the people who’ve come to your house and helped you lift the garbage off your lawn, help with your flood damage.”

While Labor picked up a swag of seats – almost certainly enough to govern in its own right – the real surprise of the 21 May election was the success of the Greens and the independents.

Australia’s 47th parliament is set to have the biggest crossbench yet, while support for the major parties is at an all-time low.

On the current count, the Greens will join Centre Alliance’s Rebekha Sharkie, Bob Katter from Katter’s Australian party and 10 independents, most of them “teal”.

(Meanwhile, Clive Palmer’s United Australia party failed to make any significant inroads, despite spending $100m on advertising – the Legalise Cannabis micro party spent just $10,000 and came closer to gaining a Senate seat.)

So what went so wrong for the major parties, and so right for (some of) the rest?

A former Labor strategist and director of the lobbying firm RedBridge Group, Kos Samaras, who worked with Climate 200 and the “Voices for” independents, has a brutal take.

“There’s a strong perception now that the major parties are perpetuating a scam,” he says.

“Representative democracy is at a crisis point, because the safe seats that the major parties have held on to … have been shortchanged for this pursuit of marginal seats.”

Asked if Australia is looking at the end of the two-party system, Samaras says: “It’s coming.”

Larissa Waters (left) and Max Chandler-Mather.
Larissa Waters (left) and Max Chandler-Mather. The Greens’ ‘never-ending door-knocking’ in inner-city Brisbane is poised to deliver them three seats in the House of Representatives. Photograph: Darren England/AAP

‘Greenslide’ in Queensland

The Greens leader, Adam Bandt, coined the word “greenslide” after the election, with the party hoping to gain up to three new Senate spots, on top of those lower house wins.

In Queensland the Greens knocked on 90,000 doors in their effort to win Griffith.

Rimmer says “human interaction” is what will change people’s votes, and points to the success of Barack Obama’s 2008 and 2012 campaigns in the US, where he mobilised more than 2 million volunteers. “The fundamentals still matter,” she says. “You have to listen to people. You have to establish yourself as someone who’s helping the community, and the best time to do that is when the community is in crisis.

“Both major parties rolled out a ‘business as usual’ campaign focusing on marginal seats without thinking to themselves that the pandemic, the bushfires and the floods changed people fundamentally.”

And she’s scathing about blokey photo opportunities: “Cut the hi-vis out, no one cares. Whatever strategist is behind this needs to be dealt with.”

Chandler-Mathers says it was in 2016, when he was managing Jonathan Sri’s bid for the ward of Gabba on Brisbane council, that the Greens realised people were feeling disconnected from politics. The theory was that actually talking to people, and immersing the Greens in the community, offered a winning formula.

Sri won 31.4% of the primary vote.

“It’s one thing to knock on someone’s door and talk to them about their interests,” Chandler-Mathers says. “But the second thing we’ve done is recognise that we need to become a permanent fixture in these communities – to the point that when the floods hit, we literally suspended our entire campaign and diverted our enormous volunteer movement towards cleaning up people’s homes.

“We need to prove we’re capable of improving people’s lives, even when we’re not in government.”

The Greens talked to people about the insecurity of their rental contracts, their annoyance with aeroplane noise, and their difficulties paying their student loans or dental bills. “Real, material discussions.”

The theory worked. The Greens replicated it at the Queensland state election, and won. And now they have applied the strategy federally.

Finding their Voices

In 2013 the “Voices for” Indi movement held a series of kitchen-table conversations to find out what the Victorian community wanted.

They presented their findings to their federal MP, the Liberal party’s Sophie Mirabella.

“The people of Indi aren’t interested in politics,” they say was how Mirabella responded.

The group put forward Cathy McGowan as an independent at that year’s election. She won. Mirabella challenged McGowan in 2016, and lost again.

There are now dozens of “Voices for” groups across Australia. It’s not a formal link, or a franchise, but a similar way of working towards community engagement. Many of the candidates picked by the various groups have received funding from Simon Holmes à Court’s Climate 200.

And many of the candidates are those now called teal independents. Picture a Venn diagram, where many are teals (Liberal-ish but with a green tinge); many came from Voices for campaigns; many received Climate 200 funding. While they intersect, they are not a uniform crowd.

Successful ‘teal independents’, clockwise from top left: Zali Steggall, Kylea Tink, Sophie Scamps, Allegra Spender, Monique Ryan, Zoe Daniel.
Successful ‘teal independents’, clockwise from top left: Zali Steggall, Kylea Tink, Sophie Scamps, Allegra Spender, Monique Ryan, Zoe Daniel. Composite: Bianca De Marchi/AAP/Mark Metcalfe/Getty/James Ross/Joel Carrett/AAP

As for Indi, Helen Haines stepped up when McGowan stepped down in 2019, and she secured an 8.6% swing this year.

Haines says it’s “so basic” that the people who elect someone would like that someone to keep checking in with them. “It’s all built on this fundamental premise that you need to start by asking the community: what is it you want?” she says. “And what does representation look like to you?

“The commonalities are the values – we want an MP who is ethical, who has values aligned to ours, who turns up, who stands up in the parliament and speaks for us.”

Haines talks about the “constant feedback loop” that Voices for Indi has started, from the kitchen-table conversations, to a grassroots movement in which people are invited to take part. She checks in constantly with constituents through doorknocking and phone calls – what the group calls the “good chat”. She works with local governments, companies and the community to develop her budget submissions. That’s followed by a survey asking people what they thought, which then feeds into her budget replies.

“What we’ve seen in Indi, what we’ve seen in Warringah and all the other seats, is a reclaiming of representation,” she says.

Warringah, of course, is where the independent Zali Steggall turfed out the former prime minister Tony Abbott in 2019. Other “Voices for” winners include Zoe Daniel in Goldstein, Kylea Tink in North Sydney, Monique Ryan in Kooyong, Sophie Scamps in Mackellar and Allegra Spender in Wentworth.

Holmes à Court says while there have been “exceptional” independents in the past, the difference with the current crop is that they are “led by the community, not the candidate”.

“And that can be traced back to Indi.”

Dealing with data

It may sound a little touchy-feely, all this community engagement. But it didn’t happen in a vacuum. Samaras tells Guardian Australia that the teals used research to work out which conversations they needed to be having, and with whom.

Instead of relying on a preconceived notion of the demographics of a seat, he says, the data gave them a broader insight. For example, people thought of Kooyong – which the former treasurer Josh Frydenberg lost to Ryan - as a conservative seat. But it has the highest proportion of 18- to 24-year-olds of any seat in Victoria.

It’s people moving around that has “the biggest impact” on electorates.

“Corangamite, for example [where the Labor incumbent Libby Coker has increased her margin] … 3,000 people have moved there as sea changers coming from well-heeled parts of Melbourne,” he says. “They’re more likely to be progressive, to care about climate change.”

The pandemic speeded up the shift of tree changers and sea changers into different seats, he says, but it also slowed down the movement of younger people. Seats gentrified or became home to more young people or renters.

While the major parties focused on swinging voters, RedBridge looked at human movement and helped independents target the real, not perceived, community.

“Data will help you strategically allocate your limited resources, particularly if you’re an independent and you don’t have the full party resources at your disposal,” he says.

In other words, as Holmes à Court said on Twitter, the teal independents “scienced the shit out of it”.

Haines agrees: “Nothing takes away from having people on the ground but if you’re smart about how you use your people on the ground with your data, that is how you move [votes].”

A local community- and grassroots-focused campaign also worked for Labor in Western Australia, where it piggybacked on anger at the former prime minister Scott Morrison’s contempt for the state’s cautious coronavirus approach, and his support for Palmer’s legal challenge to the border closure.

The party strategists knew east coast messages would not translate to the west. They went hyper-local and it netted them four new seats.

Over in Tasmania, the Liberal MP Bridget Archer managed to hold on to the ultra-marginal seat of Bass. In the face of a national swing against her party of more than 3%, she picked up 1.4%.

She has been credited with being a “champion” doorknocker.

“I do like a bit of doorknocking,” she says. “I don’t know if I’m a champion because I do like to talk a lot. I think the most important thing we do is – we often describe ourselves as politicians, but I prefer to think of myself as a representative.

“It’s the old adage; you’ve got two ears and one mouth and you should use them in those proportions.”

Her local government experience (she was a local councillor, deputy mayor, then mayor) taught her the value of grassroots campaigning. If not doorknocking (which was complicated by Covid), then it was phoning people, visiting shopping centres, running a mobile office, posting handwritten birthday cards, asking constituents to respond to surveys and hosting barbecues.

“It sounds really obvious, but what we’ve seen in recent years in Australia and around the world is a bit of a descent into tribal politics, and politics and representation are not the same thing,” she says. “You can exercise the political at the same time as providing representation.

“If you’re talking more than you’re listening, that’s probably not going to end well, not only for them, but for democracy.”

Sharkie, who increased her margin in the South Australian seat of Mayo, has a similar message. “All politics is local,” she says.

“I think there’s a bit of cynicism with the two major parties, the slickness of the campaigns, the negativity. We [independents] talked about what our communities cared about.

Sharkie did a couple of Zoom sessions with the “Voices for” candidates.

‘All politics is local’: Independent Dai Le chats with voters on election day in Fowler.
‘All politics is local’: independent Dai Le chats with voters on election day in Fowler. Photograph: Dean Lewins/AAP

“I said the one thing you can do, the thing that is powerful and doesn’t cost anything but your time, is to knock on doors and say hello,” she says. “You can never forget that you’re there on behalf of 100,000 people.”

Chelsey Potter is a former Liberal staffer who spoke out about the party’s treatment of women after she was allegedly assaulted in 2015 while working for the SA senator Simon Birmingham. Now, she runs a consultancy, the Suffragette Group, supporting women to get into politics. She says it’s “about working smarter”. Instead of facing the gruelling challenges of beating men in a preselection battle, they’re going straight to voters, she says.

“It’s shown us the importance of having healthy major parties that have a healthy relationship with women.”

Potter now says she hopes to be part of the solution, with a tilt at state politics.

Samaras says people have a “real hunger” to have a member who represents them, and they “think the major parties don’t”. He points to the success of the local deputy mayor and Vietnamese refugee Dai Le in Fowler, south-western Sydney. Labor had blocked the local hopeful, Tu Le, in favour of high-profile former senator Kristina Keneally.

But the parachuted Keneally failed to land.

“Dai Le didn’t even have to try,” Samaras says.

Where Samaras sees the end of the two-party system as a crisis of representative democracy, Archer says parties ignore representation “at their peril”.

“Actually, we need to find our way back to that,” she says.

Haines says Liberal moderates lost their seats because “their loyalty was to the party, not the people”.

Meanwhile, the Voices for Indi group will shortly publish a book; the title a dig at Mirabella and her ilk. It’s called The People Are Interested in Politics.


Tory Shepherd

The GuardianTramp

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