Grassroots political action group Voices of Mackellar are challenging the two-party political system.
On Wednesday, 24 March, the group held an event called ‘Democracy Drinks’ at Newport Bowling Club with an address by writer and academic Tim Dunlop. Around 80 people gathered to hear Mr Dunlop explain his views on why the two-party political system does not work.
Mr Dunlop said the push for Independents has had success with a growing number of crossbenchers, including Zali Steggall in Warringah.
“They [Independents] are people who represent voters in a way that those voters feel better represents their values than if they were attached to one of the major parties. And that notion of values is, I think, at the heart of what is happening.
“It is interesting to note, that parties as such are not mentioned in the constitutions of any major democracy. Parties can be useful, and they can help organise our politics, which is inherently messy, particularly the legislative branch of government, the electoral side of things, and they can bring some unity and simplification to the complexity of governance.
“But they can also bring a sort of stasis to our politics. An inertia that makes it hard to get things done. This is why we have to remember that parties themselves are not a foundational part of democratic governance. They are just one way of organising politicians,” said Mr Dunlop.
Mr Dunlop went on to discuss the roots of democracy and whether representative democracy itself was the best form of government, suggesting an alternative method of government he referred to as ‘sortition’ in which people would be selected to govern by lottery. He compared the process to the way people are selected for jury duty.
Mr Dunlop said that participation in the political process was something he had observed to be empowering for everyday people.
“Movements like Voices of Indi, Warringah and Mackellar, seem to me to be part of a movement that is not just looking for share in public power for its own sake, but to be part of something, to experience the sense of freedom that arises when we participate in our own governance.
“Voices of Mackellar may or may not succeed in unearthing their own Zali Steggall or Helen Haynes, and then get them elected, but simply participating in the process itself is a democratic good, a way of helping make our country better,” said Mr Dunlop.
Voices of Mackellar have been conducting Kitchen Table Conversations with residents of the Mackellar electorate and are eager to get more people involved in those discussions.
President of Voices of Mackellar Leonie Scarlett said she was inspired to set up Voices of Mackellar by childhood friend Louise Hislop who was ‘one of the driving forces behind Voices of Warringah’ according to Mr Dunlop.
“For the last three or four years I was sitting there listening to Louise. I didn’t know anything about this stuff and I thought, that makes sense, why doesn’t it work like that? What she was saying made sense. I did have my point, during those fires last year, it was like a switch. I thought, I’m going to do something about this,” said Ms Scarlett.
A local member of the Liberal Party who did not wish to be quoted on record due to rules about speaking with the media said they felt the claims of non-partisanship would be tested closer to the election but they were sceptical.
Based on attendance at the Democracy Drinks, some of the scepticism may be warranted with Labor and advocacy groups noted in attendance. Former Voices of Mackellar member Anyo Geddes revealed she and Sophie Scamps had left the group to form their own direct action groups for Mackellar. Ms Geddes has created a group called Mackellar Rising with the intention of driving political discussion and change in Mackellar.
Of the 47 federal electorates in NSW, Northern Beaches Advocate found that 13 have (or had) a ‘Voices’ group patterned after the ‘Voices for Indi’ movement that unseated conservative Sophie Mirabella at the 2013 election. Of those 13 groups, all are in Liberal or National electorates, with the exception of Richmond which covers the area around Byron on the NSW far north coast, held by Labor’s Justine Elliot.
Ms Scarlett insisted that the group was not interested in pushing a political agenda however and was instead focused on listening to the voices of ordinary people.
“We are non-partisan and I don’t think we’ll back a candidate. We will hold a community forum and ask the candidates questions based on what we heard at the Kitchen Table Conversations,” said Ms Scarlett.
Images: Michael Mannington, Northern Beaches Advocate