Who says democracy is dead? A triumphant cheer for democracy’s worker-bees

Carolyn Hendriks takes a trip to the Australian electorate of Indi, and finds a community keen to reinvigorate democracy.

If anyone needs an antidote to the ‘Trump-dumps’ then can I suggest you take a road trip to northeast Victoria to the electorate of Indi.


There you will be welcomed by a growing group of citizens who are committed to switching democracy back on.

Recently I left the nation’s capital and headed south down the Hume to speak at the Annual General Meeting for the Voices for Indi (V4I) community organisation.

V4I is mostly known for its role in assisting Independent Cathy McGowan MP defeat liberal candidate Sophie Mirabella in 2013 and again in 2016.

But the democratic efforts of V4I extend well beyond mounting successful electoral campaigns. V4I is a movement of diverse people committed to making democracy work better in all manner of ways.

This year V4I held its AGM as an open public meeting in a Wangaratta community hall on a hot spring Sunday morning. Forget about that lazy brunch with smashed avocado by the Ovens River! This was an event attended by well over 50 young and old citizens from around northeast Victoria keen to talk more about public engagement and democratic change.

Like many around the world, these citizens are dissatisfied with the way democracy is working. But rather than disengage they are mobilising people, speaking up, talking, listening, organising, acting, agitating and in some cases, standing for office.

Take, for example, Anne Shaw, aged 59, who is described as a real ‘worker bee’ of democratic change in region. Anne is the furthest thing from a populist demagogue: she an unassuming, humble, democratic ‘do-er’. She works tirelessly behind the scenes of V4I – organising events, sending emails, writing minutes, maintaining the database, networking and connecting people. In addition, she continues to work with a host of community groups throughout the region, as she has done for most of her adult life. Anne’s longstanding commitment to community leadership, education and social change earned her the honour of 2016 Wangaratta Citizen of the Year.

Then there’s Sophie Price, a 24-year old mum, who is youngest person to be elected in Indigo Shire council’s history. Sophie represents a new generation of democratic reformers. She’s committed to making local government work for the youth.

I also met Florent Thivillier, a young new Australian citizen from France who now lives in Benalla. Florent is passionate about making our democracy open to people from all cultures.

Another unassuming democratic change agent is Denis Ginnivan – a retired health worker, now farmer and events manager from Yackandandah. Denis is one of the founding members of V4I, and now President, he also works on several community projects including a local solar energy initiative.

These are just some of the hundreds of diverse citizens across Indi who are not just part of a V4I but who are actively working away to improve the quality and responsiveness of their democratic institutions.

Citizens like Anne, Sophie, Florent and Denis are what make democracies work. They get informed, ask questions, talk to people, engage in debates, organise, write letters, agitate, and most importantly, they act.

Indi is not alone. Communities around the world are full of committed and engaged citizens taking small, significant steps everyday to make sure their democracies function as they should.

In an era of loud voices and populism, let us not forget the significant but often silent work of people within our democracies who are nudging away at change.

Through their often unseen efforts our imperfect democratic systems are that bit more responsive and accountable to the public. A triumphant cheer for democracy’s worker-bees!

Carolyn M. Hendriks is an Associate Professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy at the ANU. She researches and teaches on political participation and democratic innovation.

This piece is published in partnership with Policy Forum.net – Asia and the Pacific’s platform for public policy debate and discussion at ANU Crawford School.