Inside Story

A red-hot chance in Indi?

Andrew Wilkie rates her prospects highly, but independent candidate Helen Haines faces quite a challenge if she’s to follow Cathy McGowan into parliament

Kerry Ryan 13 March 2019 2470 words

“Radical trust”: the independent candidate for Indi, Helen Haines. Aaron Francis/Newspix

Robert Menzies once said that getting the Australian people to vote yes at a referendum was “one of the labours of Hercules.” It was typical Menzies colour; he could simply have said it was bloody near impossible. Fast-forward almost seventy years and either of those phrases could describe the task now before Helen Haines in the federal seat of Indi.

Haines, a nurse, midwife and rural health academic, is Cathy McGowan’s anointed successor as independent member for Indi and the new face of grassroots political organisation Voices for Indi. She is hoping to carry McGowan’s orange flag back to Canberra and do what no person has done before in Australian federal politics — follow a fellow independent into parliament’s lower house.

If that isn’t enough of a challenge for Haines, history also shows that female independents are extremely rare in Canberra. Cathy McGowan and Kerryn Phelps, both of whom enjoy national profiles, are a historical anomaly. Together, they account for 50 per cent of the total number of women to have sat as independents in the House of Representatives since Federation. The other two? From 1946 to 1949, Doris Blackburn represented the seat of Bourke — now Wills — in the northern suburbs of Melbourne, and much later Pauline Hanson had an even shorter and somewhat explosive stint as the independent member for Oxley from 1996 until she formed One Nation the following year.

While there can only ever be one Doris Blackburn, McGowan was a first of her own. No other woman has ever represented a rural electorate as an independent in federal parliament.

Despite all that history, Helen Haines is a serious chance for making it to Canberra in 2019. Andrew Wilkie, a possible future crossbench colleague with an eye and ear on the hype currently swirling around independents in general, says she’s “a red-hot chance.” But some pundits are not so sure, pointing out that an independent relies on name recognition and reputation to be elected and that Haines, at least politically, is yet to establish either.

It might just be that Cathy McGowan’s name and reputation will be enough to get Haines the gig, though. Certainly, hitching her wagon to the retiring member’s legacy will be vital to her chances.

With all this in mind I head to Wangaratta — urban population 18,566 at the 2016 census — the town that sits at the heart of the federal division of Indi. Cathy McGowan has an office here, on the same street as Tim McCurdy, the embattled National Party member for Ovens Valley in the Victorian Legislative Assembly. Two doors down from McCurdy’s office is the orange-themed campaign hub of Helen Haines.

It’s a quiet morning in the office, with just the one volunteer on hand, a former Wang local, now living in Melbourne, who found herself between jobs and decided to come up to her home town and help out with the campaign. The space is basic and the furnishings are sparse — hardly surprising, because Haines is just one day out of her job as a senior research fellow at the University of Melbourne and director of its Rural Health Academic Network. Her other job, as director of education and research at Northeast Health Wangaratta, is soon to come to an end too. By the middle of this month, she will be full-time on the campaign.

I hadn’t planned to ask about the orange, but there’s a lot of it around the place. Haines says that during the 2013 campaign journalists picked up on the colour — chosen initially because it wasn’t red, blue or green — and began referring to McGowan’s volunteers as the orange army. With Haines keen to present herself as a “fresh new independent coming from the same stable,” the colour is vital to establishing her connection with the electorate.

Haines is relaxed and confident, with a talent for combining detail and clarity. And, as is important around here in the new Indi, she’s no blow-in from the city. As an Indi local for the past thirty-two years, having grown up on a dairy farm in Victoria’s northwest, she has solid rural credentials — though one thing that becomes clear is that she would, and does, mix well in pretty much any company.

Voices for Indi obviously thinks so too. It was this local group, the same one that propelled Cathy McGowan into Canberra, that chose Haines to take over as the Orange Independent candidate in the upcoming election. In Benalla, one of Indi’s other big towns, around 200 of the orange army gathered mid January to hear three women, including Cathy McGowan’s sister, also a Helen, put their cases as to why they were a good fit for the Indi candidacy on behalf of the group. It was Haines who emerged the clear winner.

But it was a different kind of gathering, one that Haines says was held in “the back room of a library” in 2012, that got all of this going in the first place. It was there that a group of disgruntled Indi residents — the backbone of the original Voice for Indi movement, which would be pluralised to Voices for Indi after McGowan’s win — got together to air, and document, their concerns about how they were being represented in parliament by local Liberal member Sophie Mirabella.

Mirabella, who first won Indi in 2001 when she was Sophie Panopoulos, was initially popular — her two-party-preferred vote in 2004 was 67 per cent — but began shedding friends rapidly after the 2010 election when she hitched her political aspirations to Tony Abbott’s less-than-subtle brand of opposition politics. In 2011, at an anti–carbon tax rally on the lawn outside parliament house, Mirabella stood at Abbott’s shoulder as he addressed the crowd, famously, in front of a sign that read “JuLIAR…. BOB BROWNS [sic] BITCH.” The photo of that moment, which flatters not one person in it, became an enduring image in Australian politics.

Then, in 2012, during a live broadcast of ABC’s Q&A program, Get Up! director Simon Sheikh, who was sitting on the panel beside Mirabella, collapsed, slumping head first onto the desk. The public reaction to Mirabella’s delayed and somewhat confused reaction was fierce and, it must be said, somewhat unfair. Fair or not, it did nothing to soften Mirabella’s image.

It was perhaps a more private moment, also in 2012, that sealed Mirabella’s fate in Indi more than any other. That group of library patrons, one of whom was Cathy McGowan, gathered at Mirabella’s office to convey their concerns about her representation of Indi and let her know that they would soon be presenting her with a report outlining those concerns in more detail. It is now local folklore that the meeting was brief and ended with a dismissal from Mirabella that has been much quoted since. “The people of Indi aren’t interested in politics,” she said. She would go on to learn quite painfully, twice in fact, that the people of Indi were indeed interested in politics.

One of the core principles of McGowan’s tenure has been the demystification of the machinery of government. From her earliest days in parliament she has run a volunteer internship program for Indi people to come and spend a week in her Canberra office and experience the life of an MP. It began with the purpose of making parliament more accessible, McGowan tells me, but “over time the program has evolved to be more of an internship in professional development.”

Will Haines follow McGowan’s example? On this she is unequivocal: little will change in the Canberra office of the member for Indi. The internship program, which has been taken up by 225 volunteers over the past five and a half years, is free and open to people of all political stripes. They’ve finished the program, says McGowan, with “knowledge, not just about how parliament works, but about how they can use that knowledge to create connections and build support for their own particular interests and projects.”

Haines, a three-time beneficiary of the program, agrees, particularly about the demystification of politics. Working alongside McGowan in Canberra, she says, taught her that “I can do this too.” She learnt about “the parliamentary tools, about the value of a ninety-second speech on the floor, how to do a question without notice, how to do a question with notice, committees and parliamentary friends groups…”

McGowan says the program is a highlight of her parliamentary week that keeps her “grounded” and “provides a fascinating insight into constituents and their lives and interests.” Some other MPs have expressed interest in the idea, but she knows of none who has adopted it.

MPs are often fascinated but worried about what would happen if a volunteer said or did something newsworthy, says Haines. “They always ask about risk,” she says, “but for us it’s more about radical trust. We talk a lot about radical trust around here.” Using constituents as resources and generators of ideas might sound like a no-brainer, but in risk-averse Canberra it flips convention.

While Haines will be looking to emulate McGowan’s style in parliament, she has to get there first. Thankfully, the retiring member has created a blueprint for doing that too. When McGowan won the 2013 election she reportedly had 600 volunteers. By 2016 she’d built that number up to what the Sydney Morning Herald described as a “whopping 800.” Haines has more than 1200 volunteers operating online — much of the chatter that provided the groundswell of support for McGowan was via social media — or out of communication hubs in Euroa, Wangaratta, Benalla, Wodonga and Beechworth, with plans for more. That’s an awful lot of orange shirts in and around the towns and valleys of Indi.

As the orange army rides again in 2019, they’ll be pushing most of the same issues they’ve been pushing over the past two campaigns. The problems in rural areas are perennials that don’t get fixed overnight, says Haines, and not even in six years. Chief among them are climate change, reliable trains, telecommunications and health.

“People want action on climate change,” Haines says bluntly. It’s a policy area where she feels she holds significant advantage over her competitors. “The Liberal Party and National Party simply cannot speak to the issue. Not with any integrity, because they’ve done nothing about it.” Trains that can be trusted to get people to larger centres for social and cultural events, university and medical appointments are a “super hot-button issue,” she says. On telecommunications, she tips her hat to McGowan, who, she says, brought local, state and federal governments together to eliminate around 200 mobile phone blackspots in the electorate.

On health, an area over which she has obvious command, Haines is keen to make the point that in rural areas it’s not the incidence of health problems that’s the problem; it’s much the same as in the city. It’s the outcomes that differ. “I have a really good sense of what it looks like when you don’t have an emergency room in a small town,” says Haines. “I know what poor policy looks like and the effects they have on people — how political decisions can enhance a person’s life or really hold them back.”

One of the trickier variables for Haines will be Mirabella’s absence from the field. In the successful campaigns of 2013 and 2016 McGowan had a rival who galvanised the McGowan camp and allowed them to run a campaign on “Indi values,” the first of which is “respect.”

The Libs have taken heed of those lessons and, free of Mirabella, have decided to play it down the line. Like Haines, Steve Martin, a thirty-nine-year-old engineer from Wodonga, is a political novice. His campaign’s Facebook page presents him as a hardworking family man who loves the outdoors, is active in the community, sports clubs and charities, and attends church. Although he doesn’t come across on his live-to-camera grabs as the type to light up a room, he has a fan in federal health minister Greg Hunt, who called him an “unbelievable talent” and an “extraordinary opportunity for the future.”

Hunt’s stocks aren’t exactly soaring at the moment — not since he backed Peter Dutton to be prime minister anyway — but Martin is certainly working hard. At the time of writing, he’s just finished the fifty-towns-in-fifty-days tour of the electorate he began in January. Still, one can’t help but think that the Libs aren’t exactly throwing the kitchen sink at Haines.

Also out and about in Indi is National Party candidate Mark Byatt. While he was the last of the main contenders to declare, he’s arguably the best-credentialed in terms of political experience. Like all the confirmed candidates except for Haines, Byatt is male and Wodonga-based. “Upper Murray born and bred,” he’s been in and around rural development roles for much of his working life, and served as a Wodonga councillor for more than ten years and mayor for half that time. His efforts to continue in the role as mayor of Wodonga were thwarted in 2013 when he was defeated 4–3 in a vote by a fellow councillor called Wangman. (If that’s an omen for his next attempt at office, and at the risk of an appalling pun, Byatt may now be headed for a defeat by Wangwoman.)

Labor, which hasn’t had a sitting member in Indi since 1931, is going with twenty-five-year-old former Wodonga councillor Eric Kerr, already a second-time candidate, whose 2016 return of 9.8 per cent of first-preference votes rules him out as a contender in 2019. And, the Greens? While they are yet to declare a candidate, it ain’t easy being Green in Indi. The party’s first-preference votes took a savage beating in 2013, dropping from 9.5 per cent in 2010 to 3.4 per cent, presumably in a general migration to McGowan, which was replicated in 2016. I asked a Greens official in Melbourne who they’d be running in Indi in 2019, and the reply was, “Dunno, but we’ll be preferencing whoever’s taking over from Cathy McGowan.” “Helen Haines,” I offered. “Yeah, right. Her. What’s her name again?”

And therein lies the main task for Helen Haines: creating name recognition. And while it’s not surprising that she’s unknown to a Melbourne-based Greens official right now, she just might have a better chance than history would suggest of becoming a household name on election night sometime in May. •

But Haines is not the type to get carried away. “It’s a huge challenge. The big parties don’t think we can do it again. The challenge is to get people to see in me what they saw in Cathy and to show that she wasn’t just a one-hit wonder.” •