Cathy McGowan has never been one to crave the political spotlight.
The trailblazing former independent member for Indi is more naturally at home working in the background — organising, strategising and influencing, encouraging others to take a step forward.
Her own step into the glare of national politics a decade ago came reluctantly at first, but in the end proved transformative.
Now 68 and retired, the so-called “godmother” of the independents movement flies under the radar. However, McGowan remains a force to be reckoned with in this current election, despite not standing as a candidate.
Away from the media’s view, Cathy has been nurturing a support network for independent candidates running in federal seats across the country, sharing her insider’s knowledge of how to run a successful political insurgency.
“Because she was so successful at what she’s done, she’s now in demand,” political journalist Phil Coorey said. “She looks like your mum. You know, she’s sort of a harmless lady from the country, but she’s very formidable and not to be underestimated.”
With the so-called “teal independents” proving one of the decisive factors in this federal election, McGowan’s influence may be reaching its zenith at a moment when she’s more removed from the public eye than at any time in the past decade.
The power of community
McGowan, a sheep farmer and agricultural consultant, made history in 2013 when she staged an unlikely victory as a community independent in the safe seat of Indi, in north-east Victoria, defeating sitting Liberal Sophie Mirabella.
“It really took the Coalition by surprise when Cathy McGowan initially won the seat,” Insiders Host David Speers said. “But then [she] became a model for how this could be done not only in regional Australia but in urban areas as well.”
“So Cathy McGowan is really the architect, in many ways, of how to successfully generate that community momentum and turn that into a seat victory.”
McGowan defeated Mirabella again in 2016 before handing the political baton to independent Helen Haines in 2019. It is the first time in Australia that an independent has succeeded another.
The Liberal Party were “quietly confident” they would regain Indi once McGowan retired, Coorey said, so they were “not only shocked when she took it off them, they were shocked when they couldn’t get it back either, because Cathy had engineered a succession that stopped that happening.”
“I think with Cathy McGowan, it’s not just taking seats, it’s keeping them in independent hands afterwards,” he said. “She’s the one who can teach you how to do it.”
McGowan might have left Canberra for the relative peace of her 100-acre property in the Indigo Valley, but she hasn’t completely exited the political scrap.
For the past few months, she has been travelling around the country mentoring many of the so-called “teal independents”, sharing the learnings from her own campaigns and rallying their army of 20,000 volunteers.
“I don’t think Cathy would ever have foreseen this, but she has become a lightning rod for so many other independents,” McGowan’s sister and campaign manager Ruth McGowan said.
“People are naturally drawn to Cathy’s story of what she’s achieved as an independent and can see well, if this middle-aged, short woman from rural Victoria is able to do it, then maybe I can have a crack at being an independent for my community.”
In an exclusive, Australian Story joined the media-shy Cathy McGowan on the political hustings as she sought to shore up election victory for the independents contesting more than 23 seats across Australia.
Replicating the success of Indi
On a flying visit to the Nationals-held seat of Cowper, on the NSW mid-north coast, McGowan unpacked a political “survival kit” for independent candidate Caz Heise in front of a room of campaign volunteers.
“I’ve brought [Caz] a present – here’s a dummy for the occasional person who does a dummy spit,” McGowan told the group, lightening the mood in the room.
“[And] a little clapper,” she added, revealing a pair of toy hands. “Because not many people actually know how much work the campaign candidate actually does. So that’s a personal clap to you.”
With that, it was down to the business, training the volunteers in how to run a successful campaign for an independent candidate. McGowan is the consummate political strategist, Heise said, and she also knows how to read a room.
“Volunteers love [Cathy] because she is so engaging,” Heise said. “She has a very big impact wherever she goes.
Like many of the new independent candidates, Heise decided to stand in the 2022 election after taking part in an online conference in February last year held by Cathy McGowan’s Community Independents Project.
“It was really what inspired me to actually put my application in and say that I’d like to run as an independent here in Cowper,” Heise said.
The project, designed to get more independents elected, is the brainchild of McGowan, two of her fellow Indi campaigners Alana Johnson and Jill Briggs, as well as Tina Jackson from the Warringah independent campaign in Sydney, which got Zali Steggall elected to former Liberal PM Tony Abbott’s seat.
“We ran the Community Independents convention and we thought we’d get 50 people,” McGowan said. “We got 300 and out of that convention, this number of electorates running independents has sort of blossomed. So part of my job is to stay in contact with those people.”
Since then, McGowan has been instructing Heise and her team in how to best connect with the community, how to win a seat and run a campaign, “to hopefully replicate the success of Indi,” Heise said.
She has mentored and helped Heise, as a novice, to navigate the political landscape, as she attempts to unseat sitting Nationals MP Pat Conaghan on a “safe” margin of 11.9 per cent.
“I take nothing for granted,” Conaghan told Australian Story. “There is certainly a move and a movement away from the major parties.”
Indeed the “teal movement” is a lot bigger than just the city seats – Wentworth, Kooyong, Goldstein and North Sydney – that attract the lion’s share of media attention.
“Every seat is important,” Coorey said. “Cathy’s been working quite assiduously in a lot of rural electorates like Cowper. So we’re going to see on election night just all sorts of spot fires and that’s why I just wouldn’t rule out anything happening in any electorate, including Cowper.”
It’s a race McGowan said she’ll be watching closely come election night. Working with rural and regional electorates is a matter close to her heart, thanks to her own upbringing in the foothills of the Great Dividing range in north-eastern Victoria.
How people power helped drive Indi win
Cathy McGowan is one of 13 children who all grew up in the Indigo Valley, where she still lives on in an off-the-grid stone cottage. Her partner David lives 100km away, which she regards as the “ideal relationship”.
“He’s got his own farm, and I’ve got my own farm, and we keep to ourselves during the week and get together on weekends,” she said. “And he’s my biggest supporter.”
McGowan’s parents were farmers too, until her father later went into business. Growing up in the country in a big family was the perfect grounding for a future in politics, her friend Alana Johnson said.
“She learnt early how to negotiate,” she said. “She learnt very early about having a voice. She learnt very early about power within groups.”
Many of McGowan’s family are still in the district and have worked on her campaigns.
“One of Cathy’s secret weapons was her sisters, in that we all look alike,” said Ruth, one of the seven sisters.
“So we got involved in the campaign, whether it was door knocking or handing out how-to-vote cards. And often people would think… we were Cathy, even though Cathy would be 200 miles away.”
Back in 2012, McGowan’s life changed when a group of her nieces and nephews, who were at university in Melbourne, asked her to stand for Indi. She didn’t want to go into politics, but she offered to see if other locals thought there was momentum for change.
Maggie McGowan, one of the nieces, said they wanted to return to Indi after university but were reluctant because of the lack of services and progress on social issues like climate change and marriage equality.
“We also had really shoddy train service, bad mobile phone coverage, and we really wanted to, I guess, make a change,” she said. “We wanted someone who would actually listen to our voices and stand up for us.”
Cathy McGowan started talking to the community and from that Voices for Indi, a group of about 12 people, was formed, which started kitchen table conversations across the electorate to see what the issues were for people.
Around Christmas 2012, McGowan and other members of her budding movement went to speak with Liberal incumbent Sophie Mirabella about the community mood.
“That discussion lasted 11 minutes,” Alana Johnson said. “She [Mirabella] basically said, ‘well, I don’t believe the people in Indi are interested in politics’. And that was the end of that discussion and probably, in hindsight, the start of her downfall.”
There became great interest in fielding a community candidate, but no-one wanted the herculean job of trying to unseat the incumbent.
“So I was incredibly reluctant to step up,” McGowan said. “It was such a safe seat, like, why would you do that when you were going to lose?”
McGowan said when no-one would, she decided to take it on, only ever thinking that perhaps they could help make the seat marginal. Behind her, a huge grassroots movement of orange-coloured volunteers formed.
McGowan said it was all about participatory democracy, and what started in Indi now has been replicated across the country, with more than 20,000 volunteers supporting the independents.
“It is not just about getting elected or making a seat marginal, it is about getting people involved in grassroots democracy, engaged with our political system,” she said.
Coorey said the number of volunteers turning up to support the independents in this election was a new phenomenon.
“It’s interesting because the major parties have been losing membership numbers,” he said. “They’ve been struggling to find volunteers, even to hand out how-to-vote cards on election days in some seats.”
‘There is such a thing as a safe seat in Australian politics anymore’
At a town hall forum in the seat of North Sydney, Cathy McGowan took a question from a nervous volunteer on a topic that strikes fear into the heart of many novice campaigners – door knocking.
It’s the kind of campaign know-how the seat’s independent challenger, Kylea Tink, invited McGowan here to find out.
“There was not a single person in my campaign who wanted to door knock,” McGowan told the group. “And by the time my first campaign finished, the door-knocking teams were the most successful, most fun, of any of the stuff we did in the campaign.”
Tink is running against Liberal incumbent Trent Zimmerman, on what would once have been considered a “safe” margin of 9.3 per cent.
“I genuinely don’t believe there is such a thing as a safe seat in Australian politics anymore,” Zimmerman told Australian Story. “Only a fool would take their electorate for granted.”
With Labor also fielding a competitive candidate in Catherine Renshaw, the seat of North Sydney – reliably Liberal for all but six of the last 50 years – has become a three-way contest.
“Those three are going to be fighting to get the most first votes and then they’ll be fighting for preferences,” McGowan said. “It’s hard to predict who will get ahead, who’ll actually get enough preferences to win that seat.”
In a tight race, Tink said McGowan has been “very much a touchstone” for her as she takes on an incumbent with the inherent advantages of name recognition and an experienced political operation.
“No matter what is going on around us in this very hectic world – which is campaigning, which none of us were prepared for – she is the voice that you can go to and sound things out,” she said.
‘Fake’ independent political party undermines parliament: Liberal MP
Prime Minister Scott Morrison and other members of the Coalition are stepping up their commentary on the independents who have targeted Coalition seats, warning they are “fake” independents.
Zimmerman said teal independents were part of a political network with common messaging, branding and funding sources. He claims they are acting more like a political party than they are prepared to admit.
“I think a lot of these independents, to say that they’re not acting in concert with others… all the evidence points to the contrary,” he said.
The Coalition is also critical of the funding Climate 200 (a group backing independent candidates who share its goals on climate action) has been giving the independents, saying it comes “with strings attached”.
It’s a claim Climate 200’s convenor, Simon Holmes a’ Court, has repeatedly denied.
“I’m not trying to buy the election,” Holmes a’ Court said. “I’m one of 10,000 donors. I’m only about 2 per cent of the money raised by Climate 200.”
The government also warns independents will cause “chaos” if there is a hung parliament, where both major parties fail to win the 76 seats required to govern in their own right and the independents hold the balance of power.
Former Liberal minister Julie Bishop told Australian Story that “independents in a hung parliament actually undermine the government that the majority of Australians elected”.
Cathy McGowan rejects the idea that voters have anything to fear.
“The attack in the media against the community independents is really terrifying. It scares me,” she said.
“There’s nothing bad about having a hung parliament, particularly knowing the calibre of the candidates.
“There are about 20,000 grassroots volunteers engaged with the community independents, which is wonderful, but this is being portrayed as something that is bad for democracy and bad for the country. How can that be so?”
What McGowan sees when she looks out over the independents movement is a legion of “grassroots people all over the country doing amazing things”.
Her sister, Ruth McGowan, said it’s this “genuine passion for participatory democracy” which means Cathy will likely continue to work in the background and fly under the radar, not content with a “cosy little gig” after politics.
“She’s going to keep doing this till the day she dies,” Ruth said. “Cathy’s passion is to continue to inspire people to get involved in politics, to come and have a play because politics touches us all.
“It’s not something elite. It’s not something divisive to be afraid of. It’s actually something that affects us all.”
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