Sue Barrett: “Our Independent’s Day is coming”

Sue Barrett spoke at Geelong West Townhall on 9 May 2024. She has successfully led Voices of Goldstein, March4Justice, Zoe Daniel’s 2022 campaign and Goldstein for Yes campaign using her professional knowledge, skills and experience.

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Sue Barrett: I don’t know where you were at Christmas 2019-2020, when Australia was literally going up in flames. ScoMo was away and wouldn’t hold a hose. I was lying on my couch up in the electorate of Goldstein having an existential crisis. Several, many existential crises I’ve had since my early 20s, when I became aware of the climate crisis, wondering what on earth we could do.

My friend Denise from the electorate of North Sydney rang me because we were talking to each other via Twitter, and she said, “Sue, you know what? You’ve got to do in Goldstein and I’ve got to do in North Sydney what Cathy McGowan did in Indi, and Zali Steggall did in Warringah.” And I said, “Sure, how do you do that?” Then Covid hit, and of course we were all kind of occupied with that. But this still went away.

And as I started to think about this more and more and I thought about what I also do professionally—connections of… interactions with people, and all the networks that you have. Denise rang me in about November 2020 and she said, “Listen, there’s a woman you need to speak to. They’re putting some people together in Goldstein to have a chat about whether or not we could do and put up an independent candidate in the seat of Goldstein.”

I said, “Sure.” So I went and actually got on a Zoom call with about 15 or so people, most of them strangers, were all strangers to me, and some of them knew each other.

There’s a group called the Bayside Climate Crisis Action Group, which is down in our electorate. So a few people there. So we all got on Zoom and we talked about, “What the hell can we do about this?” Because quite frankly, this party-powered politics isn’t working for us. They work for vested interests. And some of those have just been mentioned by Mik before, I won’t have to go over them. You know who I’m talking about. We want people-powered politics because democracy is not a spectator sport. In a country like Australia for many years we’ve been able to sort of sit back and, you know, think about things going pretty well. But in the last 20 or so years, probably even longer tail than that, things have not been going well. Things aren’t being going in our favour. And we had to do something.

Now, of the 50 or so people on that Zoom call at the end of 2020, eight of us decided that we would actually start Voices of Goldstein. So we got a website up, we got some messaging happening, and of course, we had a t-shirt, and on our t-shirt we had: “Our Independent’s Day is coming” and we started to do some key activities that were done in Indi. And that is: we started to host kitchen table conversations. We started to get people in our community and we asked them, “What’s important to you?” “What do you want to see happen?” “How do you want to see politics done better?” And of course, what came out as top priority was climate action, followed by integrity in politics, followed by equality for women and minorities, and mutual prosperity. We actually had all of these conversations going on. Some remote, some in person.

Of course, we weren’t in lockdown, and we also started getting out on the street. We had no money, but we managed to sort-of pull together some things and put our t-shirts on, and we’d go and do Democracy Walks, and we would actually go out and speak to people and we’d ask them, “What’s important to you?” “What do you want?” And they kept telling us the same thing over and over, and over again.

We built up a following of about 300-400 people, and then we asked those people, “Would you like to see a Community Independent candidate for the seat of Goldstein?” And they all went, “Yes, because it’s better than what we’ve got at the moment,” because we got nothing done about any of the stuff that you see up here and all the other topics. So then we actually put out… communicated our first letterbox drop across the whole electorate. So we letterbox dropped 66,000 homes with a little basic flyer that told them what we were and what we wanted to do, and we started to get people responding that they would like to be a candidate.

So long story short, what happened was that we had 14 self nominations. I became chair of the selection panel. We had a diverse range of people who actually, are part of that panel so we could represent the different types of people in our electorate. And then I got a phone call – actually no, I got a tweet – in July from Angela Pippos, who some of you may recall was actually an ABC… one of the founding sort-of female sports journalists in this country. That was a bit of a baptism of fire for her as well. She tweeted me and I thought, “oh!”… She goes, “Can we talk?” And I said, “Sure.”

So we exchanged numbers. We had a chat one Saturday morning and she said, “I see what you’re doing in Goldstein.” “I live in Goldstein.” “It’s not for me, but I reckon my best friend, Zoe Daniel will be amazing.” Now, if you want to have a great candidate you get a marquee candidate that a lot of people might know. So I’m on the other end of the phone with my mouth open, going, “Oh my God!” So… She, Zoe and I met. I explained what we were doing and Zoe said, “No” and I went, “Oh. Okay.”

So then I said to Zoe, “You’re a journalist. Maybe there’s a good story in this. Do you mind if I stay in touch?” So I stay in touch because this is a big decision for people to take on. Okay? It’s not for the faint hearted. And it is a baptism of fire. Anyway, in October, after several kind-of staying in touch, because I let her know, “Look, we’ve really got to get our act together. We don’t know when the election will be called, but, you know, I just need to know, are you in or you’re not?” And she went: “I’m in!”

And so, she went through the process. And of course, as you know, the rest is history. And so of course, I now bring my Zoe Daniel t-shirt. And so we started. We took all of these people, we promoted it, and we ended up with 1,500 volunteers, and as you know, we actually won. It was an incredible experience. But it doesn’t happen by accident.

And this is where I’d like to bring in my experience in a professional sense. I’ve been running my own small business now for the last 30 years. It’s a specialist consulting and education firm, and it specialises in ethical human centered communication and sales strategies and practices. So I know how to sell something. And when she asked me, actually, when we got her to say yes, she then asked me, “Would I be her campaign manager?” I’ve never done that before in my life. But when I thought about it, you know, I thought: a political campaign is an on-the-ground, human-to-human sales ad campaign. It’s about having conversations. Yes. You have an air campaign. You know, your marketing social media campaign, but you need an on-the-ground, human-to-human, having-conversations campaign. And that’s how are we going to win it: human to human. And that’s what I made sure we ran as a campaign.

And it’s been just a really interesting experience: The galvanising of community, bringing people together around something that they can have agency in, that they can take action in. Now, I’m not suggesting you have to run a community backed, independent candidate for your seats here in Geelong. However, you do need to get actual activation around something to make sure these politicians pay attention to us. And so I’m just going to get my phone because that gas thing that was on this morning, you know, that the Labor government actually promoted … Well, Josh Burns has succeeded McNamara. And that’s right next to Goldstein. And he won it by this much from the Greens. And he’s a Labor politician. And he has come out against that announcement today.

So this is very interesting. So if this even stays Labor – which is two Labor seats, you know, in Corangamite it’s always on a knife edge and stuff. By the way I’m originally from Geelong so Geelong girl born and bred. but it doesn’t mean to say you have to run a Zoe candidate. Sure if you want to and you’ve got momentum, by all means go for it. Run a good campaign. There’s materials and stuff that we can share.

I won’t bore you with the details, but I’ve done this Community Independents project and I’ve been able to put up, I’ve done some Zooms and things about how to run strategies and campaigns and stuff. So I won’t bore you for details now. But the point is, even if you don’t put a candidate up unless a bunch of people go in their faces and tell them, “This is what needs to happen,” and force them to pay attention to you.

Democracy is a team sport. It’s an activator sport. You have to get out there and create momentum. Zoe then asked me – just it wasn’t just Zoe’s campaign – but Zoe asked me last year if I’d run a nonpartisan, you know, coalition of people for the Yes campaign in Goldstein. And so I ran a 16-week on-the-ground campaign with 500 volunteers. So I’ve brought my little ‘Yes’ t-shirt for that. It was obviously, you know, not the national result that we wanted. But I can tell you now that if we had not run an on-the-ground, human-to-human campaign to engage people out there, it would have been a ‘No’ in Goldstein. So human to human makes a huge difference.

Where else have I applied my approach, my professional skills to these things? I don’t know if any of you remember, but back on the 15th of March, 2021, there was a big protest called March to Justice, where we stood up for what happened to women in Parliament House, particularly Brittany Higgins. Does everyone remember that? I’m one of the founding organisers for that. I did all this messaging and I made sure our strategy and the website was up there. Here’s some of the steps. On the 28th of February, Denise tweeted how many people it takes to surround

We gathered at Parliament House in Canberra to express our disgust at what was happening in Parliament House, and someone came back and said: “four thousand if you held hands around it.” But then someone said, “You can’t hold hands around Parliament House because it’s actually a security risk.” So we went, “All right, how can we go out on the grass? How many people can we get to Canberra on the 15th of March?” The reason we chose that day was that it was the first day of sitting back. We know when they’re back in the house. Their workday. This is a workplace issue.

That was on the 28th of February. On the 1st of March, someone tweeted, “Could someone build a website?” And I saw that and I looked at my husband who’s an IT geek, and went, “Yes, we can.” And so I even met with Janine on the Tuesday morning, the 2nd of March, and I said, we can build a website, I want to do the messaging that’s very inclusive. I wanted to do messaging that actually is invitational. I don’t want it to be divisive. I felt like I’ve spent my whole life preparing for this assignment. And so we got the website up by 3:30 that afternoon, and then everything started to go, and everything started to happen.

So here’s what ultimately happened. We ended up with 110,000 people marching around Australia at over 200 locations across this country. 8,000 people turned up to Canberra, 15,000 in Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne, 8,000 in Adelaide, 8,000 in Perth, and then places all over the country. Even very conservative places like Orange and Warwick were having their own March for Justice, because this issue of women’s violence and all that sort of stuff and all the things happening to us was just: enough is enough! As you know, the hashtag. On the Saturday before the actual event, the website itself got over 800,000 hits from Australia alone, 40,000 from the U.S., 30,000 from Europe. This event had over 7,000 unique media impressions.

All the mainstream media in this country, both radio, TV, and press, covered us. We had NBC, BBC, Time Magazine, you name it. We were in the major news headlines in the Western world, including also other places in Asia. On the actual Monday in Canberra, it was the most amazing experience to be out there. There were a few of us because we had no money either and these are in short supply. But here’s my March for Justice t-shirt that we went with — that we wore. So there’s only a few of them we gave in to get printed.

And as the posse of us were walking up to Parliament House, we had a Canberra crew organizing everything. It was a beautiful bluebird sunny day, and everyone was coming out of the streets to go to Parliament House. And then people started seeing us and they said, “Oh, are you the organisers?” So we went, “Yes.” They started crying. They started hugging us. They said, “I can’t thank you enough for giving us something to galvanise around — to finally say, enough is enough.”

And this is what I’m trying to share with you. As terrible as the statistics are and the actual experiences that we’re seeing out there, you are not without agency. You are not without something that you can do. But we need a clear message. We need to galvanise. And we have got the capability to take it right up to them.

So, to finish what I want to say. In my last year, I went up for my turn to work out of the Canberra office for Zoe. Because we don’t have a lot of staff, as independents, some volunteers who will take turns and there’s a sitting week to go up and be kind of the admin support and stuff like that. Anyway, when I was sitting on the tarmac in Melbourne airport ready to take off for Canberra, it was about 6:00 in the morning and I was reflecting on, thinking, you know, the last time I was in Canberra was the March for Justice, and I was outside Parliament House. Now I’m going inside Parliament House with Zoe Daniel. That’s what people power can do.

So thank you for the opportunity for me to present this evening. Good luck to you all — and good luck to all of us. Thank you very much.

Audio recording by Robert McLean, Climate Conversations. Video recording by Ben, editing by Mik Aidt

More about the townhall event can be heard in this radio interview with Mik Aidt

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