There’s no doubt the campaigns that broke the Liberal-National Coalition’s hold on the seats of Indi in Victoria and Warringah in New South Wales inspired a new approach to electioneering.
We are referring, to the movements that successfully replaced former Liberal member Sophie Mirabella with independent candidate Cathy McGowan in 2013 and former Liberal prime minister Tony Abbott with independent candidate Zali Steggall in 2019.
Since then, we’ve heard about the rise of similar campaigns to challenge the Liberal member for North Sydney Trent Zimmerman, Liberal member for Bradfield, Paul Fletcher and closer to home, Liberal member for Hume and Minister for Energy, Angus Taylor.
Moving in an even more alternate direction is a group that goes by the name of ‘A Better Eurobodalla’ (ABE).
Based in the Eurobodalla Shire on the NSW South Coast, the group is made up of locals who want better candidates to stand in the September election but isn’t aligned to a political party or any candidates.
To achieve that, ABE members have been busy talking to locals about what they want from their council in a bid to get more people thinking about running for council or who they vote for.
“Local government has a much more profound influence on our lives than other levels of government, but not many people realise that,” said ABE co-convenor Bernie O’Neil.
“We don’t go out and find candidates, but we have been encouraging locals to get more involved in local government. For some people that means running as a candidate, for others it means being an active part of a political party or handing out leaflets at market stalls.”
ABE was formed in September 2019 – 12 months from when the NSW Local Government Elections were due to be held.
“I guess around this time people were looking at the promises in 2016 by the councillors. There was a lot of concern that those promises hadn’t been kept and a groundswell of interest in keeping candidates accountable,” said Ms O’Neil.*
Members are volunteers from all walks of life with backgrounds in science, engineering, auditing, law and business and some have government experience.
In the early days, ABE looked to the Voices for Indi and Voices of Warringah campaigns for inspiration.
“They were fantastic organisations for us to start with because they’re very strong on governance. Where we differ is that their work is very much towards finding a candidate, supporting that candidate and getting that candidate to win, whereas we’re interested in providing an analysis of what is good governance and then applying that to issues and candidates.”
Part of encouraging more engagement with local government includes talking to the 34 per cent of Eurobodalla Shire Council ratepayers who don’t live in the area all of the time.
Because of its location, many people own homes or holiday homes in Eurobodalla but spend the week working elsewhere.
“To my knowledge, only several hundred of those people voted in 2016. We are taking it on ourselves to let non-resident ratepayers know they’re entitled to one vote per household,” said Ms O’Neil.
Another ABE role is helping constituents make informed decisions about who to vote for.
“Council decisions are made by councillors but many decisions at local government level are made under delegation. In fact, most decisions are made by the general manager and Eurobodalla Shire Council staff,” said Ms O’Neil.
“So we’ve been trying to get a real understanding of how councillors make decisions, how they are briefed by council staff and how they are treated in a council meeting to come to the best decision, as well as how staff make decisions under delegation from councillors, how they consult and how they are held accountable.
“The next stage of our process is to question the candidates against the things we think are important – openness, responsiveness and accountability. We want to know how they’ll improve service delivery and decision making in council.”
Ms O’Neil said ABE had received several calls from residents in other council areas enquiring about how their model works and hoping to share their learnings to improve local governance more broadly.
CORRECTION 16 July, 3:45 pm: Originally this quotation said, ” There was a lot of concern that those promises hadn’t been made.” It has been corrected to: “There was a lot of concern that those promises hadn’t been kept …”