“WHEN I finish my term, I want people to be able to say, ‘She’s done a really good job’.
“I’m going to be the federal member for Indi and I’m going to be one of the best members we’ve ever had.”
So says Cathy McGowan, 59, Indi’s newly elected federal member.
But those words are not as part of any victory speech.
They were uttered on September 6, on the eve of the history-changing election.
Cut to Thursday afternoon — less than 24 hours after the Liberal member for 12 years Sophie Mirabella conceded defeat — and the independent MP is already focusing on the next task: working for the electorate.
There’s an office in Wangaratta to set up, a maiden speech to write, community plans to put into action.
Ms McGowan’s comment pre-election to strive for the best exudes determination and confidence.
But today the reality of the situation is still sinking in, as she takes up temporary residence in a Yackandandah cafe.
“My mobile phone has run out of space, there’s 100 messages on there, there’s all these journalist calls from Melbourne and Sydney,” Ms McGowan laughs in disbelief.
Later her media adviser Cambell Klose will inform her of an upcoming interview with ABC’s Australian Story.
“Oh wow, imagine that,” she says wide-eyed, shaking her head slightly.
“Who would have ever thought?”
There’s little doubt that the story of the “Ïndi spring” has been one of the most intriguing of this year’s election that elsewhere saw a landslide to the Liberal-National Coalition.
For most who live in the North East, the background of the so-called David and Goliath battle is well-known.
An electorate, fed up with the major political parties, is wrested from conservative hands for the first time since the 1930s by an enthusiastic grassroots campaign.
Pending the formal declaration at 2pm on Monday, Ms McGowan is leading by 395 votes.
With just a handful left to count, it’s the closest ballot Indi has seen — on a two-candidate preferred basis, she rests on 50.22 per cent to Sophie Mirabella’s 49.78.
That Mrs Mirabella didn’t seek a recount surprised many, including Ms McGowan.
“I was so pleased when she rang (to concede), she was so gracious and lovely,” Ms McGowan said.
“I was hugely relieved, I thought, ‘This is solved now, we can move on’.”
Indeed, while the rest of the nation might still be marvelling at this unknown independent who unseated one of the Coalition’s biggest players, those who live in Indi are ready to see what happens next.
For Ms McGowan, the first order of business is addressing the key points she campaigned on: trains, NBN, mobile phone blackspots, health and education, and agriculture.
She and her team are already developing plans on each issue, which will include lobbying, speaking to departments and organisations, and keeping the public in the loop.
She’s realistic about what she can achieve — she knows she’s not in the position to solve everything but what she can do, she says, is get a plan in action and hold the relevant organisations to it.
Then there’s her intention to make her office in Canberra open to Indi constituents.
She wants to have community groups and representatives visit, so she can introduce them to MPs and departments, help them with more successful lobbying and grant applications, and give them a better understanding of politics.
“We did this a lot when I was president of Australian Women in Agriculture,” she explains.
“Canberra pollies just loved it because they got to meet real-life people, they got to hear the issues and see the impact.”
And finally, there’s the big vision for the electorate.
She says she intends to keep consulting the community widely on its views on issues from Canberra, by speaking with major stakeholders, using social media and continuing the community meetings that were a theme of her campaign.
But the fact remains, Ms McGowan was elected on preferences by just a few hundred votes, with support from people from right across the political spectrum.
If she is vowing to be “the voice for Indi”, how can she be sure she won’t risk alienating part of the electorate?
“The issues I’ve campaigned on aren’t polarised by politics — the focus has been on jobs, on trains, on getting things happening here,” she says.
“And I think that’s why I feel safe in the job. Yes, there will be some decisions in Canberra that are going to be controversial, but the focus has been on putting Indi first.
“Indi’s going to have its day in the sun — people are going to pay attention to us, so it’s about what we want.”
She’s interrupted briefly by a kiss on the cheek.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t realise we had the member for Indi in here!” says Sue Reynolds, of the Yackandandah Museum.
The two women stop to chat, Ms McGowan warmly introducing Mrs Reynolds to everyone around her.
This, many say, is what appealed to voters: the sense of community and friendliness Ms McGowan exudes.
Already, she has pointed out several others in the cafe — “Helen from Sandy Creek” and “Jenny”, who’s involved in a local environment network — and stops to chat to others outside.
That sense of community and listening to everyone was part of the driving force behind Voices 4 Indi.
A number of paths crossed in the past year or so that led to the support base that would swell to 600 volunteers during the campaign — a group of disillusioned youth in Melbourne, “kitchen table” conversations in the electorate to re-engage locals, an unfruitful meeting last year with Mrs Mirabella.
“She wasn’t particularly interested, she thought she already knew what mattered to people,” Ms McGowan says.
“We spoke to a lot of people about what we were doing but in retrospect you can see that was a really pivotal meeting.”
Voice 4 Indi member Tammy Atkins reflected on the group’s success at one of Ms McGowan’s celebrations.
“The most interesting thing I think is that as a group we haven’t discussed party politics,” she said.
“It’s been current affairs, positive and values the whole time.”
Was there not a small sub-section, an underlying desire, to get rid of Mrs Mirabella as well?
“Perhaps that might have been the case for some people, but at the end of the day, when you look at where it’s come from, it’s always been values-based and people were engaged in ways they haven’t been before,” she insisted.
“We’ll keep the member — whoever the member is — to account.”
Politically engaged as she was, Ms McGowan admits it took some persuading to run.
As the “keen and enthusiastic” group of young people kept trying to find a candidate for Indi, she was among those giving the same responses: “No, I’m really busy … this doesn’t fit with my life … busy, busy, busy …”
“Then with all the leadership programs I’ve been running, I’ve been saying to people, ‘Ýou’ve got to be courageous, you’ve got to step up, no one else is going to’,” she says. “I could hear that disconnect and thought, well, I’ve got to take my own advice.”
But the real turning point came at Easter with the McGowan clan.
A jokey ribbing from one of her brothers-in-law led her to answer forthrightly: “Absolutely I could do it, and I think I could win.”
“When I heard myself saying it, I knew there was a plan,” she says.
“It’s been one of the biggest challenges in my life, nothing else compares … well, I think maybe this next bit will compare.”
This “next bit” will no doubt throw up many unexpected curves. For all the well-intentioned goals, politics is far from predictable — as this election has unequivocally shown.
Monash University political lecturer and commentator Nick Economou — who is blunt in admitting he was surprised by the result — says there might be an unrealistic expectation from voters that McGowan would be as central to the next Parliament as Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott were.
But it’s more likely hers will be just another vote, given the Coalition’s clear majority.
“I know (Tony) Windsor and New England is the example here, that being marginal is a way to get attention, but Windsor was in a strategic position,” he says.
“Indi is not marginal in the same way, because it’s not a recurring marginal seat. It won’t get more attention; in fact the Coalition may feel a sense of, ‘We’ll punish the seat’.”
Still, he believes Ms McGowan and her platform could succeed.
Rather than looking to Mr Windsor, a better model could be the late Peter Andren, who held the seat of Calare for 11 years.
With a 75 per cent majority, it became the second-safest seat in the nation and Mr Andren, despite not holding a balance of power, was highly regarded by voters.
“Going by her (independent) predecessors, she can look at at least two terms,” Dr Economou says.
“But of course next time the Nationals will put a candidate up, so it will be a four-cornered contest.”
To that, McGowan has one thing to say — bring it on.
“I love the thought, it’ll be a bit of a competition,” she says.
“It’s like a really good game of football; if it’s close people will work to their best, they’ll produce their best, and we’ll have a grand final in three years, and people will have a really good choice about what they want.”
And now for someone completely different ... Cathy McGowan says Indi will have its day in the sun when she takes her seat in Federal Parliament as its first independent MP. But how will she translate election euphoria into action in the corridors of power?