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The Voices of Wentworth: following in the footsteps of past ‘voices’ movements

The Voices of Wentworth

By ERIN MODARO

The Voices of Wentworth is just one of over 50 independent local organisations helping their communities engage in local democracy.

Starting in 2019, the non-partisan group was devised by local residents who felt disillusioned and underrepresented by their local members. The Voices of Wentworth model was based off previous groups who had successfully seen the election of independents into Parliament.

Wentworth is an electorate that spans across affluent eastern Sydney suburbs such as Bondi, Vaucluse and Double Bay, and has been a safe Liberal seat since the electorate’s conception.

Leading into the 2022 federal election, The Voices of Wentworth began collecting data on political issues that were most important to its community.

The organisation found that climate change and integrity were overwhelmingly the most popular issues going into the election.

When May came around, the election saw independent candidate Allegra Spender find success along the nation-wide wave of ‘teal independents’. Her campaign promises mirrored closely with the ‘Voices’ findings.

The Voices of Wentworth has a grassroots model that collects data from local political discussions by community members, and then forms a detailed analysis in a report.

Voices of Wentworth 2022 Report

Quote from Voices of Wentworth 2022 report. Photo: Voices of Wentworth.

The 2022 report revealed that the two highest areas of concern in the Wentworth electorate were climate change and integrity in politics. The number one issue raised by a Voices of Wentworth survey of over 580 respondents was ‘climate and energy’, with nearly 40% of people identifying it as their main issue leading into the election.

81% of respondents said that they did not feel represented by their current federal MP.

City Hub speaks with ‘Voices of Wentworth’ Co-founder

Voices of Wentworth co-founder Eliana Leopold, a mother of two who works in financial services, said she was motivated to start the group after noting a lack of response from mainstream political parties on climate change.

“My issues and challenges around the lack of action on climate was because there wasn’t enough advocacy and debate” Ms Leopold said. “It was more about the lack of a strong healthy democracy that really sold me in the end.”

Ms Leopold, who previously came from a Liberal party background, and said that starting Voices of Wentworth was confronting.

“It was a very uncomfortable move for me to co-found the voices of Wentworth” she said. “I’m someone who tends not to be openly an advocate for issues.”

Ms Leopold ran the Voices of Wentworth until she stepped down to volunteer for the Allegra Spender campaign, along with other Wentworth Voices founder Kath Naish.

“When independents found Allegra, obviously they were looking at the key thematics that were coming through ‘voices’ to then look for a candidate” Ms Leopold said.

“With Allegra it was just ‘what I will represent is what the community wants’” Leopold said about her move. “[There was] so much alignment for me around her values, what she was standing for, what she was concerned about”

She said that she admired Spender for being a “business-woman”, and not a “career politician”.

“I realized that I connected with the platform, I connected with what she was going to take to Parliament.”

‘Wentworth Voices’ modelled off previous successes

The original ‘Voices’ movement began the Indi electorate in regional Victoria, when locals banded together to inspire active community engagement in politics, and saw the election of independent candidate Cathy McGowan in 2013.

A Northern Sydney electorate then followed suit in 2019, establishing the Voices of Warringah, where a push to vote out former Prime Minister Tony Abbott resulted in the election of independent Zali Steggall.

Both Indi and Warringah saw the success of independent candidates in safe Liberal party seats directly following the conception of these local ‘voices’ movements.

Delia Burrage, a lawyer and resident who joined the Voices of Wentworth group in 2020, said that the Wentworth group was modelled off  a “combination” of the two previous ‘voices’ groups.

Voices of Wentworth Committee member Delia Burrage. Photo: Voices of Wentworth.

“Voices of Indi had been set up with the non-partisan goal of simply achieving better policy” Ms Burrage said.

After the Voices of Indi found their current Liberal member resistant to community concerns, the group decided the way forward was to “make the electorate marginal by putting up an independent candidate.”

“They didn’t expect that they would win” Ms Burrage said.

She said that Voices of Wentworth was established as non-partisan from the start, so that members could “reach people and talk to people about their concerns, regardless of whether they were in favor of an independent or not”.

The Voices of Wentworth began its movement by running a series of community discussions, named ‘Kitchen Table Conversations’ after the Voices of Indi coined the term.

The attendees split into groups of 8-10 people and engage in political discussions run by a moderator and recorded by a scribe, before the information is documented in reports. Burrage describes the ‘Kitchen Table Conversations’ as diverse, passionate and rewarding.

Voices of Wentworth

The Voices of Wentworth engaging in group discussion. Photo: Supplied.

“Sometimes people will have wildly different views” she said. “Each table would go in a completely different direction.”

“Everyone comes away buzzing and going ‘wow that was amazing’.”

Wendy Power, a local resident and volunteer for Grandmothers for Refugees, saw the Voices of Wentworth social media and decided to attend some events.

“I was blown away by their energy, their intent, what they were trying to achieve” Ms Power said. She said that climate and integrity were her main reasons for joining.

“I think I was, like many others, increasingly appalled by what I was seeing as a really quite dysfunctional government in many ways.”

She said the ‘Kitchen Table Conversations’ were “diverse in ages and diverse in opinions”, and that she liked the “community aspect of the group”.

How ‘Voices’ led the way into the 2022 election

The Voices of Wentworth interacted with a variety of Wentworth candidates leading into the federal election, including publishing policy overviews and inviting candidates to a forum where community members could ask questions.

The forum was attended by Labor candidate Tim Murray, NSW Greens Senate candidate David Shoebridge and independent Allegra Spender.

Dave Sharma, previous Liberal MP for Wentworth, was absent. As other partisan voices movements began outright backing specific independents, Ms Burrage said that Sharma began pulling away.

Dave Sharma

Former Wentworth MP Dave Sharma speaking with US Diplomat in his new role. Photo: Facebook.

Ms Burrage said that “by then Dave Sharma was less willing to engage with us.”

She said that Voices of Wentworth also sent out ‘candidate questionnaires’ filled with popular policy questions from the community. Allegra Spender and Greens cadidate Dominic Wy Kanak were the only politicians to respond.

Ms Spender went on to win the electorate with a nearly 7% swing away from the Liberal Party. Ms Leopold, while volunteering on Ms Spender’s campaign, said that the victory was not guaranteed.

She said that she questioned if the community would be willing to see change.

“We are a deeply blue electorate, we’ve tried and failed with an independent before… is it really going to work this time?”

What’s next for Wentworth?

“If experience tells us, more broadly, in seats that have been won by community independents, this will remain a community, this will remain an independent seat ongoing” Ms Leopold said about Ms Spender’s future.

“We will see the Australian political system improve in the terms of the trust and respect we have for it, because it actually represents us.”

Ms Burrage said that it’s “heartening” to know that the Voices of Wentworth has “the ear of the MP”.

“We have an MP whose primary loyalty is to the community that they serve, rather than to a party.”

The Voices of Wentworth will continue running community events to actively engage the community on political issues, including a recent Town Hall on the current energy crisis. All Town Halls are available on the Voices of Wentworth Youtube Channel.

Going forwards, the group will continue to run town halls, and will bring industry experts to Wentworth so members of the community can ask their questions.

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