Latrobe Valley First preselection candidate Tracie Lund (centre) speaks with locals as part of a community consultation

In the lead-up to the Victorian election independent candidates are popping up throughout the state, hoping to emulate the success of federal Indi MP Cathy McGowan, who famously upended Sophie Mirabella in last year’s federal election. While the areas vary, the issues and message stay the same — communities in safe seats feel neglected by both sides of politics, and they’re trying to do something about it.

Voice for the West is applying for registration as a new political party for the November poll, and although it aims for party status, it holds many similarities with McGowan’s hard-fought independent campaign. While independent candidates and minor parties are not new to the Australian political landscape, this party and other groups in Victoria are hoping to change the way voters interact with their representatives.

Vern Hughes, the director of the Centre for Civil Society, has lived in Melbourne’s western suburbs for 30 years and is registering the party. He says the area is ignored by the major parties because the seats are safe for Labor and residents need a party, not individual candidates, to represent the wide geographical area that covers the west. “The problem of neglect of the west has been a deep-seated structural problem, so tackling it requires an organised effort on a region-wide basis,” he said.

He points towards issues such as high unemployment and lack of infrastructure as issues that get “put on the back burner” because the seats aren’t electorally important to either of the major parties. Hughes also says that the Labor members representing the area don’t reflect the cultural diversity of Melbourne’s western suburbs, home to migrant communities from Africa, Vietnam and China and large Buddhist, Muslim and Sikh communities.

“We are very serious about ethnic and cultural diversity because it’s just the obvious factor of life about the west. The political representatives here are stuck in 1930s in terms of their cultural profile,” Hughes said.

On the other side of the state, the group Latrobe Valley First is asking residents to vote in a preselection process to put forward an independent candidate. They have three hopefuls in a campaign that is closely modeled on McGowan’s. The group was spurred on by the lack of action and communication following the Hazelwood mine fire in February and March this year, but high unemployment and lack of infrastucture are again the major issues. Like in Indi, they have held “kitchen table meetings” and undertaken surveys to find out which issues are on locals’ minds. Spokesperson Ann Pulbrook says that a long list of issues came up in the meetings, “really strongly is unemployment, the transition from coal, jobs for the future, fuel costs, surviving in the valley. We need money injected into the area.”

“Loyalty isn’t rewarded, marginality is, so that’s why people are looking at ‘how do we make ourselves marginal?'”

Unlike Indi or Melbourne’s western suburbs, the seat of Morwell is held by a likeable local, Russell Northe — a “former business manager and football champion”, according to his website. However, Northe’s promotion to Energy Minister earlier this year rankled with locals after they felt authorities mismanaged the reaction to the mine fire. As a safe National seat, locals feel neglected and unheard in state Parliament.

It takes a safe seat to give independents and minor parties a chance, says Hughes. Like McGowan in Indi and the Greens; Adam Bandt in Melbourne, a challenger needs to attract more votes than the weaker of the two major parties to get over the line. “Marginal seats are not doable, it’s too much of a Labor-Liberal contest and it’s very difficult for a third force. It’s not that difficult to finish second in a lot of the west where, for instance, the Liberal vote is 20% or less.”

So what is the end game of these groups — winning a seat or making their seat marginal to get the attention of the major parties? It depends who you ask. Using a line very similar to that of the McGowan campaign, Pulbrook says the group wants to win the seat, but making the seat marginal would still achieve a lot. “If we can make our own seat marginal — even if our own candidate doesn’t get in — we want people to take notice. We want to make sure we can keep living here, this is only way to make them listen.”

Hughes is playing to win though and says Voice for the West will run for 13 lower house seats and in the Western Metro Region of the upper house. “If Labor wins, life will go on as is. They think there’s going to be challenge and as long as they can weather it they will go on as is. Labor thinks it will prevail and the challengers will tire and go away.”

But even if they do get elected, can these independent and minor parties make a marked difference on local issues if they sit in a lower house with a majority government that doesn’t need to work for their vote? Tony Windsor, the former independent member for New England, says independents can be effective. “I don’t think there’s any doubt about that. You don’t have to play the politics — you just to stick to the issues.”

He says that it’s a “tragedy” that the Australian political system actually disadvantages voters who are the most loyal to a party. “Loyalty isn’t rewarded, marginality is, so that’s why people are looking at ‘how do we make ourselves marginal?'”

Voice for the West is also attempting to start a New South Wales offshoot, so even if the group does not succeed in November, we might still hear the name again when New South Wales goes to the polls next year.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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