Hope for progressive politics is emerging in the form of a new party and independent candidate Karen Porter, writes Kevan Sangster.
IT’S JUST OVER five months ago, before the world was gripped with the coronavirus pandemic, that Australia was headline news across the globe as bushfires swept through large swathes of regional New South Wales and Victoria. Given all that has happened in recent months, it’s easy to forget that as 11 million hectares of land burnt over a horrific few days in early January, 33 people lost their lives and many more their homes and livelihoods.
The electorate of Eden-Monaro was particularly hard hit, with towns such as Cobargo and Narooma becoming etched in the nation’s consciousness as fires engulfed them. In a few weeks’ time, this rural community of approximately 110,000 people stretching from south of Batemans Bay to the Victorian border will be back in focus once again, as the first by-election of the post-COVID-19 era takes place.
Yet, in a local economy still reeling from damage inflicted – tourism and agriculture are major income generators here – the bushfires will likely to be front of mind for many in the area as they cast their vote.
It is against this backdrop that I spoke with Karen Porter, a local to the area and someone who understands the hardship many regional communities went through during those fateful weeks. Karen was elected president of her local Progress Association in Bredbo, a small town only two hours’ drive from Canberra, just 12 months ago. As such, she was responsible for opening up the community hall for evacuees as the fires hit her small town.
As we discuss the dramatic events that unfolded all too close to her family home, she explains how she even took to live streaming on Facebook to inform people the town was still standing (Sky News were reporting it had been engulfed entirely, apparently).
It’s been a whirlwind (and quite possibly life-changing) few months for Karen since those traumatic events, culminating in her recent decision to stand as a candidate in the looming by-election in her home seat of Eden-Monaro.
It’s quite a turn of events for a lady who, by her own admission:
“...avoided the news for the last few years, as it was always quite depressing.”
So how did this unassuming, down-to-Earth mother of five end up running for parliament?
“It’s a good question and often one I find myself asking,” says Karen jovially, before going on to explain how the bushfires (or more specifically, the response to them), as well as an approach by a new political party, have resulted in her candidacy. The first part of this unlikely equation is borne of frustration at the wait for funding promised to rebuild her community and others like it.
Many will remember the prime minister announcing a $2 billion bushfire recovery package in the immediate aftermath of the event.
Yet according to Karen:
“Many I know are still waiting for that money to reach them, including people who lost their homes and businesses.”
It’s obvious hearing these words that Karen has been inspired to act by this issue and running for election is one way she can help raise the profile of their plight.
Interestingly, the second reason came out of left-field when she was approached via a mutual friend to speak with new political party, The New Liberals:
“I honestly didn’t think any of the existing parties were speaking to me, but after a conversation with [New Liberals leader] Vic Kline, I felt this could finally be an organisation that I could align myself to.”
Although the initial conversation centred on her running for office at the next general election in 2022, the sudden resignation of incumbent Labor MP Mike Kelly in late April brought things to a head quicker than anticipated. “It snowballed from there really,” she explains, resulting in Karen formally announcing her candidacy for the by-election a few days later.
It’s worth highlighting at this point that Karen is officially standing as an independent in the by-election, as The New Liberals hadn’t even registered their party when the by-election was unexpectedly called.
Yet, as she’s keen to point out:
“I will be broadly running on their principles, with specific policies shaped on the needs of Eden-Monaro.”
She will also be accessing their support in terms of campaigning, with the overall goal of being the initial standard-bearer for this new entrant to Australia’s political landscape.
So, who exactly are the New Liberals and how did they come about?
Fortunately, I was able to grab a few words with Sydney barrister and aforementioned leader Vic Kline to clarify this:
“After the last general election, a number of my friends and colleagues felt disenfranchised with the political system, so we decided to do something about it.”
He goes on to outline how he feels his organisation can fill the void of a truly centrist party in Australian politics, one which is aligned to business yet willing to act on climate change, as well as being made up “of people with real-world experience rather than career politicians”. It’s quite a compelling argument, particularly when he indicates his party wants to “claim back the true meaning of the word ‘liberal’, which is very different to the conservative mantra of the LNP,” alluding both to his party’s name and the current government.
While that may appeal to many, why isn’t the party officially on the ballot in Eden-Monaro? As Vic explains, the Australian Election Commission rules only allow registered parties on the ballot paper when the election is called. Given the process can take three months, The New Liberals won’t be officially registered when the by-election takes on 4 July.
Vic clarifies with the legal precision you’d expect of his profession:
“We have submitted our application but for the time being, Karen will be campaigning as an Independent, supported by our party and guided by our Charter of Core Values.”
One of the things that attracted his party to Karen, he goes on to add, was her “business acumen” and it’s something the candidate herself is keen to highlight as our conversation turns to her background. It transpires that Karen is a successful businesswoman in her own right, having started a double-glazing business in nearby Canberra over a decade ago, building this up to such an extent that she was crowned Businesswoman Entrepreneur of the Year for the nation’s capital in 2015.
A subsequent nomination for Telstra Businesswoman of the Year followed in 2016 and although she didn’t take out the big prize on that occasion, it’s clear this is an impressive track record.
So how will the people of Eden-Monaro benefit from this experience if she were to be elected? “I’ve learnt that hard work gets results. I’m very much a doer and I’d try to run things like my own business where possible,” Karen replies confidently, adding that her compassionate, community focus will be crucial for an electorate that “needs love at present”.
She goes on to outline how working in an industry that promotes energy efficiency has shown her how important this issue is, both from an economic and environmental perspective. Given climate change has been promoted as a contributing factor to the severity of the bushfires, her green credentials may be just as relevant to many.
I ended our conversation by asking Karen what she would like to achieve by running for election in her home seat.
Among the promises to fight for a new hospital for the region – something that has been promised for years — and get the bushfire relief funds that her community so desperately needs, it’s her last statement that leaves a lasting impression:
“I believe an Independent will give a voice to the community that they wouldn’t get from the major parties.”
Although it’s sure to be an uphill task given the resources those major parties will undoubtedly throw at this by-election, particularly as the margin of victory for Labor in this traditionally bellwether seat was only two per cent at the last election, I sense this straightforward, honest Australian has a fighting chance. There has never been an Independent, or a woman for that matter, elected here.
However, given the unprecedented events both the region and the broader nation have experienced in recent months, now might just be the time for the voters of Eden-Monaro to change that.
Kevan Sangster is a freelance journalist based in Brisbane and holds a Bachelor's Degree in Economics & Politics from Birmingham University in the UK.
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