Local councillor puts her hand up to be the ‘Voices Independent’ but then decides to go solo. Dr Sarah Russell discusses the ethics of Cr O’Connor’s tilt for Flinders.
My eyes popped out of my head when I saw the headline: “Former mayor running as an independent in Flinders“.
Although Cr O’Connor is entitled to run as an independent, she also applied to be the Voices of Mornington Peninsula’s candidate for Flinders. The announcement of her running as an independent occurred when the Voices’ process of endorsing our candidate for Flinders was still in progress.
Does having a bet each way pass the pub test?
Cr O’Connor joined Voices of the Mornington Peninsula (VMP) earlier this year. VMP is a grassroots community organisation. Members have spent the past 8 months hosting kitchen table conversations with residents to explore what federal issues matter to locals.
I met Cr O’Connor when I facilitated a zoom kitchen table conversation. Cr O’Connor was one of the participants. I was very impressed with her. Afterwards, I initiated a private conversation in which I encouraged her to apply to be the Voices’ candidate for Flinders.
Cr O’Connor told me that she had applied. However, she asked members of the Board to keep her application confidential. She did not want people to know she had applied if she was unsuccessful.
Cr O’Connor’s request for confidentiality put a spanner in the works. The original plan was to have a community town hall meeting in which all members of Voices could meet the candidates and vote on their preferred candidate. It was simply not possible to have a town hall meeting and keep Cr O’Connor’s identity confidential.
I admire the 4 members of the Voices’ Board for their ability to “pivot”. They responded to Cr O’Connor’s request for confidentiality while also ensuring the selection process included community members. They designed a process that included professional and community panels. It is the most rigorous process I have witnessed during my 40 years of political engagement.
Cr O’Connor later complained about the absence of ‘community’ in the selection process. I reminded her that she had asked for the process to be confidential. I asked Cr O’Connor: “How could you possibly have remained anonymous in a community town hall meeting?”
Last week, Cr O’Connor told me her application to be the Voices’ candidate for Flinders had been unsuccessful. She asked if I knew the name of the successful candidate. I did not. Cr O’Connor told me that she felt sure she knew who she was, despite the cone of silence.
Cr O’Connor told me she had a ‘plan’. This ‘plan’ was to stand as an ‘independent’ independent (i.e. not a Voices’ independent) for Flinders. She planned to launch the following week – before Voices announced our candidate.
I asked Cr O’Connor whether it was ethical to make her announcement when she was still a member of VMP and when the internal process to endorse the Voices’ candidate (which she was an applicant) was not yet completed.
I texted a board member with my views about Cr O’Connor’s plan. I was confident that I could encourage Cr O’Connor to re-consider her decision. Packing up her bat and ball and going solo so soon after hearing she was unsuccessful seemed to me to be a ‘knee jerk reaction’. I told her she should consider at least waiting until she found out who is the endorsed candidate.
With a commitment to transparency, I sent Cr O’Connor a copy of the text I sent to the board member in which I stated:
“Despi is hurt and disappointed. She is also very smart. I believe she will recognise that it is not in her interest to stand as an independent – those in the voices community who were on the panels may perceive it as an act of vengeance. This will ruin her political future – and this would be such a waste of a good person with so much to give the community. So I am sure Despi will realise that it is in her best interest politically to support the Voices candidate. Our aim is to get an independent into federal parliament – and we all need to work together to do that. Splitting the vote is in no ones’ interest. If the Voices candidate you have chosen is as stellar as you say, Despi will learn a lot from her/him. This will put Despi in a good position to run as Voices candidate for Victorian election next year. However, having said all that – Of course, Despi is entitled to make her own decision. I just hope she makes a decision that supports her political future, not ruins it.”
Later that day, I had a long conversation with Cr O’Connor.
I began with an ethical argument that the candidate selection process should run its course, given she is a part of this process (i.e. one of the 3 applicants).
This didn’t work.
I then suggested that the ‘optics’ would be that she was having a ‘dummy spit’ because she was not the successful candidate. No one likes a sore loser.
I reminded Cr O’Connor that she had been a local councillor for only one year. Surely she recognised that she had things to learn before jumping into federal politics. I also said that many people on the Peninsula don’t take any notice of local council or local councillors. “Her community” may in fact be a small proportion of voters.
I asked Cr O’Connor to consider waiting until she knew the name of the successful candidate. I suggested it would enhance her reputation if she supported the successful candidate (i.e. the person Voices of the Mornington Peninsula had endorsed). I also suggested she could learn from this person.
I pointed out that the other unsuccessful candidate had demonstrated maturity, humility and grace by undertaking to support the successful candidate, whoever she/he is. This candidate chose to respect the process.
Finally, I felt sure that many people in the electorate would perceive her action as selfish, driven by her own ego – and this would ruin her political future. I told her this was regrettable given she has much to give the local community on the Mornington Peninsula.
None of my arguments persuaded Cr O’Connor to change her mind. She believed “her community” wanted her to stand. However, if “her community” – and their desire to have an independent instead of a Liberal as our MP – genuinely motivated Cr O’Connor, she would not consider splitting the vote and funding. It is only by being united and working together that we can achieve our goal of an independent MP for Flinders.
Cr O’Connor stuck to her plan. She launched her campaign several days before Voices endorsed our candidate. Cr O’Connor’s timing was intended for maximum political impact. However, the lack of follow up media suggests the article in The Age quickly became fish and chip paper.
It is quite extraordinary that Cr O’Connor launched her campaign while still a member of VMP. I sent her a text to suggest she should resign from VMP. To be fair, her failure to resign may have been a simple oversight. But it was remarkable that I needed to remind her that it was not appropriate to remain a member of Voices at the same time as announcing that she is forming “Team Despi” to contest the election.
I then looked at Cr O’Connor’s website, including her self-promoting video. How did she have such a slick website ready to go in such a short time? Had she made this ‘back up plan’ before putting her hand up to be the Voices’ candidate? Had she made a bet each way?
If her plan had always been to stand as an independent for Flinders irrespective of the outcome of the Voices’ process, Cr O’Connor wasted Voices’ time, resources etc. While I consider this unethical, others may consider it ‘politics’.
I expressed my disappointment about Cr O’Connor going solo via a tweet. My tweet was re-tweeted by James Massola, an Age journalist. James agreed that Despi’s action was a gift for the Liberals.
Rather than contest the claims in my tweet, Cr O’Connor chose to hide my tweet on her twitter feed. This is ironic given she claims to be “doing politics differently”.
I later tweeted: (1) Voices had clearly chosen the best candidate (evidenced by Despi’s behaviour to ‘spit the dummy’) (2) Despi did not have the integrity to be the Voices candidate (a line I had plagiarised from another member of Voices).
These tweets prompted another independent Councillor to send me a Direct Message. Rather than engage in a robust debate about the issues I had raised, she described my criticisms of Despi’s actions as “dirty”. Gobsmacking stuff.
Unlike our esteemed Prime Minister, I do not normally share private messages. However, the Councillor has asked me to share her message.
How dare I question Cr O’Connor integrity so publicly? Does she think it is OK to publicly question the integrity of members of the current federal government but not Cr O’Connor? Constituents have every right to question a politician’s integrity, loyalty and trustworthiness.
When a politician’s integrity is questioned publicly, politicians have the right to respond to this criticism. It is simply inadequate to say: “I will stand on my integrity” as Cr O’Connor did earlier this year when her integrity as Mayor was questioned publicly.
It is also worth noting that during last year’s council elections, Cr O’Connor was one of the preferred candidates for the Committee of Mornington Peninsula. One of the Committee of Mornington Peninsula members is Exxon Mobil. How does this fit with seeking funding from Climate 200?
An article in The Australian stated: “In Victoria, Climate 200 is readying to back former ABC journalist Zoe Daniel in Gold-stein, Despi O’Connor in Flinders and a soon-to-be-unveiled candidate in the Treasurer’s seat of Kooyong.” Given Julia Banks (Despi’s alleged muse) is on the Advisory Council of Climate 200, this did not surprise me. I do, however, question whether Julia may have a conflict of interest.
I was later told that the article in the Australian was incorrect though no correction was published. So who knows?
One thing I do know is this: When 3 ambitious Greens’ councillors with pumped up tyres sabotaged Alex Bhathal 2018 Batman (now Cooper) federal election campaign because they were unhappy with the outcome of the preselection process, many locals never trusted these councillors again. Their lack of loyalty also ensured that all the work Alex had done over many years to make Batman a marginal seat was ruined.
I have a sense of déjà vu.