Warrenbayne farmer Bill Hill got almost seven per cent of the vote in the Benalla by-election. Today he looks back proudly on the events that eventually led to Labor winning the seat for the first time.
I had planned to have lunch that day with a journalist friend of mine in Benalla. He put the acid on me as to my intentions. I had crunched the numbers several times prior to, and during the September election and was advised that there were not enough available votes to get an independent up in Benalla, particularly against the Deputy Premier. I believe that an independent may have gained 20% but any greater percentage would have required a very expensive, well supported campaign.
We were in the midst of major change in our farming operations and I was unwilling to sacrifice the time or money required. However, in retrospect I probably made the right decision for the wrong reason. If I had run in what would have been a three way contest I would have probably been the pressure release valve and the Nationals desperately needed to mitigate a growing feeling of dissatisfaction in the country. However in the two way contest that eventuated, a key block of voters had to make a very difficult decision about how they would vote. Would they National again or Labor for the first time in their life?
A Surprisingly Big Swing
Although I suspected there would be a swing, like most people I was surprised at the level of dissatisfaction right across rural Victoria. The swing was devastating for the Coalition. For the Nationals, generational voting patterns changed and substantial margins disappeared. No seat was safe. The country had spoken, the message was loud and clear, we want effective, responsive representation and you haven’t given it to us.
A story appeared in the local paper indicating that I was considering standing and I was on my way, albeit reluctantly with the 1996 campaign still a very painful memory, with the knowledge that it would be difficult to emulate that result. However, personal self- aggrandisement is no longer a factor in my decision making process. This one would be for democracy.
I had some unfinished business from the 1996 election and decided to use the principle of leverage to make Benalla marginal. I would use my 16% 1996 vote as encouragement for the Nationals to search for a candidate who would serve the electorate rather than himself and the party. I still could not conceive that the National’s could lose Benalla. Perhaps on a good day with a following wind and a well-funded campaign I might get up. At least I would make a difference, particularly in the way that the campaign would be fought
Dining With Bracks And The Independents
On November 30 1999, I was invited to Parliament House, Spring Street, Melbourne for dinner with Steve Bracks and the independents, Russell Savage, Susan Davies and Craig Ingram. During dinner I met several people that had had various experiences and successes in both the state election and the federal sphere. Stephen Mayne, Jeff Kennett’s nemesis, and independent candidate for Burwood, was present and we struck up an instant rapport.
My process has always been one of information, education and accountability – be hung out to dry for what you said rather than what someone thought you said. As I couldn’t assume to be inundated with offers of money and support I determined to use the electoral process to increase my skills and networks. I would try to make a real difference by helping community groups to get their share of the money that Labor would spend in the electorate as a result of trying to win the seat.
The Internet A Big Factor
I knew that the Internet would play an increasingly important role in how political campaigns were waged. A web site appealed to my egalitarian ethic and belief that democracy should not be a spectator sport. A considerable percentage of voters have access to the Internet and some of those people would have the opportunity to find out what I stood for. Although many of my strategies tend to be long term I believe that voters need to be given options and they will become empowered over time. The level of understanding of the average punter has risen over the last four years. The other main benefit for me was that journalists could access the web site so that they would have accurate background information about me.
A History Of Political Action
I had a history of political action, stretching back at least 7 years. In 1993, I had successfully led a campaign to retain the Warrenbayne School. I had a minor victory when council amalgamations were forced on us. We managed to redress an anomaly that had existed since formation of the Violet Town and Benalla Shires; it was a small but significant victory for community of interest, a principle that will be employed in the redrawing of council boundaries in the future.
The reforms, which were sought for the wool industry in early 1990’s, have been generally implemented and the Australian Woolgrowers Association, which grew out of the struggle, of which I was part, now has an influential role in advising the federal government on the wool industry. These achievements are only mentioned to illustrate that principle can triumph over pragmatism if grass roots action can be focused, targeted and sustained. My experience during those times proved to me that community action could achieve major change.
Unfortunately in this by-election the votes were polarised and as an Independent there were an insufficient block of votes to enable one to get up. The number of candidates further fragmented the situation. People who know me well realise that I have a commitment to the process of representative democracy. I believed that my life should be available for scrutiny by those who wished to support me.
As a relative novice to web design and the use of the electronic media I was on a steep learning curve. Before the by-election I was a farmer who could not even add an attachment to an email! A Webmaster designed the site using my ideas and my words. Another friend agreed to host the site, thereby lessening the opportunities for political operatives to hack into it and cause mischief. Finally, by the end of February we had the site up and www.billhill.com.au was finally launched and had received 8000 hits by the time voters went to the polls.
The waiting game was frustrating, not knowing what would happen, or when. Key dates came and went, but the phoney campaign moved up a gear when Labor endorsed their candidate, Denise Allen. When the Nationals finally endorsed Bill Sykes, who had only joined the National Party prior to Christmas, the campaign was on. When the Liberals declared that they would not run a candidate against the National’s, I was appalled, how could they make such a fundamental error of judgement. The National’s needed the preferences of the Liberal’s to win and this was borne out in the vote on May 13.
A Very Short Campaign
Pat McNamara was still the incumbent, and just prior to the National Party Annual Conference he announced his resignation. Steve Bracks called the election for May 13, taking full advantage of his country friendly budget and so the campaign was in full swing over Easter. Effectively it was only a three-week campaign and with weekly papers it was imperative to get that first advertisement in all the papers. Although I had received good publicity prior to the announcement of the election and had a few targeted advertisements placed in local papers, the real campaign started then.
My difficulty was that I had to get my profile up without attracting the wrath of the major parties, which unfortunately saw me as a major threat. This was confirmed when they revealed their “How to Vote” cards. Labor placed me fifth and the Nationals placed me fourth, a somewhat backhanded compliment, dispelling forever any doubt that they feared most in this by-election.
Voters Deluged With Propaganda
The polls were jumping around and voters were becoming increasingly annoyed. Telephone polling was almost continuous for five months. Our mailboxes were inundated with election propaganda. Posters peered down from trees, out from shop windows and from front yards and from farm fences. Our senses were assaulted with TV advertisements written by spin-doctors using information gained through market research. The electorate of Benalla became the favourite destination for state and federal MPs, using their electoral expenses and government funded transport to help bolster their candidate’s chances.
Pork barrelling and promises became the norm and Labour ministers seemed to be around every corner, each trying to outdo each other. The National Party found themselves in the unenviable position of the underdog on their own patch. The amount of money spent in the electorate to buy votes can only be guessed at but many voters have become very cynical that they can find plenty of money when they need too, and they can spare their valuable time that formerly was far too precious to spend in a safe National Party seat.
The major party’s had too much money to spend and they ran campaign’s that betrayed their lack of insight into country issues. Their spin-doctors tried to use metropolitan tactics by using polling research results to devise advertising campaigns, but they both came unstuck. The National’s, “I will not let you down” line went down like a lead balloon, because you can’t please all the people all the time. The “team player” also caused some mixed messages, if you are going to be a member of a team, maybe even captain, you may have to do things that you do not like. You can’t please all the people, all the time and so you will inevitably upset some of your constituents some of the time.
The Nationals tactics, which tried to turn the campaign into a personality cult, was short circuited early in the piece. Gradually the “Independent ” running for the National Party began to acknowledge the party footing the bill for his campaign.
At Bill Sykes’ launch the only member of the National Party that impressed me was Roger Hallam, not because I liked what he said, but because he was direct and unequivocal. He didn’t prevaricate, didn’t blame anyone else, was matter of fact about why they did what they did and accepted that Nationals should have been seen to stand up for the bush a bit more. After all Jeff Kennett was only one man in a coalition of more than fifty MPs, they could have curbed his excesses if they had the guts to stand together.
The Labor Machine Carried An Average Candidate
Steve Brack’s and the Party dominated Labor’s campaign for Denise Allen. Big strong Steve Bracks in a dark suit with a big smile telling us what Labor would do for us. Denise stood small and mute, lips moving, with Steve Brack’s voice coming out of her mouth, while she seemed to be disappearing into the background. A powerful metaphor that unsettled the voters, although it was discovered by market research and rectified in the last week but a great deal of damage had been done.
The Nats Get Dirty
A pivotal decision in the campaign was the National’s decision to go the hatchet on Ms Allen’s CV. This strategy initially worked in favour of the National’s but when Labor chose not to retaliate, the National’s had to go into damage control. Polling suggested that the National’s vote was going into free fall and they only halted it when they brought up the “injecting room” debate. Fear will always drive people back to their roots and so this desperate party pulled the only stunt that could reverse their flagging fortunes. I can testify to the effectiveness of the campaign because it was the major question asked during candidate forums in the last week. It is despicable that people have to be terrified into voting for such a morally bankrupt party that will tell you what they won’t do but can’t tell you what they will do.
Public Forums Were Very Important
Although money played a major role in this by-election, I was proud of the fact that I caused a few democratic innovations that have not been seen in this electorate for many years. Candidate forums were an initiative that I encouraged, using my networks in Bright, Euroa and Benalla. It was unsuccessful in Alexandra but we did try to get a meeting organised in Denise Allen’s home town.
These forums are of no benefit to the major parties and they certainly would not have happened if I had left it up to them. Radio stations in the electorate were also influential in the democratic process; their coverage was unbiased and professional. My experience with public broadcasting was most positive, they are the new “Bush Telegraph”. The importance of a candidate having to think on their feet cannot be underestimated in the political process. It was interesting for me to see how candidates grew and matured during the campaign. We all had our good and bad days but the forums were the great leveller.
Massively Outspent And Closely Watched
With a small-dedicated campaign committee, it was a very hands on experience. Our budget was minute in comparison with the major players. Being aware of the threat that I posed to the National’s and Labor I was in the invidious position of staying under their radar while getting my profile up. This meant that everything we did had to be immediate, relevant and targeted.
Advertisements and brochures were written and rewritten. Policy was developed and then we had to synthesize it to its essence while maintaining its integrity. Perhaps an independent does not need a policy. These are documents for parties who aspire to the treasury benches. However, I believed that voters had the right to know what I stood for and how I would vote on a given issue.
How Independent Is Independent
Unfortunately there was a perception in the electorate that a vote for an Independent was a vote for Labor. This resulted from an incorrectly held view that the three sitting Independents were effectively in a defacto coalition with Labor. This is definitely not the case, in fact the Labor Party had been careful to modify all legislation to suit the Independents prior to presenting it to parliament for a vote. If they could not get unanimous agreement from the Independents they would not present it at all. Equally as important would have been for me to make a commitment not to vote for “safe injecting rooms” in country Victoria, something that was not going to happen anyway. Perhaps my time and effort would have been better-spent telling people that I would not sign any agreement with the other Independents or with the Labor party. Whenever I had the opportunity to dispel this perception I did so vigorously but to little avail. However it was an interesting fact that when voters chose to vote Independent they then preferenced the Nationals and Labor almost equally.
I am proud to have inspired such dedicated support from individuals who used their energy and experience to promote an independent cause and to improve my opportunity to make a difference. Although I was not successful, we had a significant effect on the way democracy has been served and the way political campaigns will be waged in the Benalla electorate in the future.
The voters of Benalla electorate have matured and are now ready to embrace necessary change in voting patterns to leverage their vote. They have been exposed to a split ticket. When they more clearly understand the preferential system and are confident to vote for an Independent or minor party, in the knowledge that their vote returns in full value to the major party of their traditional allegiance, if the independent of their choice is not successful. Then they will be fully empowered to make their vote matter.
By the next election the voters will be less likely to be frightened into voting for the major parties and will rejoice in the fact that they can have two bites at the cherry. I could have rested on my laurels of the 16% I gained in 1996, realising that it was probably not achievable this time.
The electorate of Benalla is now well placed to receive due recognition of its new strategic position in both state and federal politics, we will not only be heard but our voice will be heeded.
One of the most important things to come out of this election for me was the recognition from the major parties that I was the independent that was just too independent.
Thomas Jefferson. 1820
“I know of no safe repository of the ultimate powers of society but the people themselves, and if we think they are not enlightened enough to exercise their control, the remedy is not to take from them, but to inform their discretion. To remain democratic, a society must find ways to put specialised knowledge into the service of public choice, and keep it from becoming the power basis for the elite.”
How Did We Score Out Of Ten?
- The Democratic process has been well served in Benalla; I take some pride in being a part of this process.
- Loyalty is a two way street and voters now understand the value of a marginal seat.
- The voters will not suffer an unresponsive member, who can’t do the job or a party that won’t listen.
- Their expectations have been lifted and they will be much quicker to judge.
- Benalla is now a most marginal seat, which will ensure that our voice is heard and heeded in Spring Street.
- A federal election will be held in 12 – 18 months and the state seat of Benalla overlays two federal seats, the top part of McEwen and the lower part of Indi, both Liberal seats. McEwen is marginal and Indi increasingly so, with the sitting member Lou Lieberman retiring at the next election, the federal coalition government will be very keen to spend federal money in our electorate to try to secure our votes.
- The Nationals are gravely wounded, and unless they can get back to their roots, a new party for the country will probably emerge in the next twelve months in Victoria. It will essentially be a coalition of conservative rural independents. They will have an overarching set of policies and principles that voters need, to feel comfortable to vote for them.
- Community networking will once again be encouraged and facilitated.
- Country people have cast off the shackles of the National party and and are prepared to try something different. This electorate will be well served so long as it remains marginal. The Labor party will have will have to perform or it may well lose this seat at the next state election.
- I didn’t win. It was always an outside chance and the polarisation of the electorate made it impossible for an independent to win this time.
I believe democracy was served and the Benalla electors received good measure as a result of my efforts. I am well satisfied.
Post Script: The suggestion that the former Deputy Premier and member for Benalla should have served out his term is both self-serving and gratuitous advice from the National Party. I put Mr McNamara on notice in the 1996 state election that the Nationals had to represent rural and regional Victoria much more vigorously and he totally ignored the message.
Instead he employed various methods to try and neutralise me, and as the time was not right I went back to what I do well, farming. I continued my process of educating myself to be ready for when the time for change was right. The fact that I did not get elected at this by-election is almost irrelevant in the context of the overall ramifications that are only now being realised. A careful assessment of www.billhill.com.au will show that our strategies were well thought out and reasonably well executed.
Mr McNamara had been an ineffective local member for at least the last four years and many would argue most of the last seven while in government in coalition with the Liberals. The electors had had enough of being ignored and neglected, he should have gone when Mr Kennett did and the National party may well have held the seat, but it was always going to be difficult because they had forgotten their roots.
When the axe first came to the forest
The trees said to each other
The handle is one of us.
Jas. H. Duke