The Social Experiment

This a long form profile piece by Sandra Boul, for a University Assignment. 

Victoria Pye is curious. After a long conversation about her political views, her motivation to stand for election and her life in general she poses a rhetorical question: Is it possible to win an election with a clean campaign?

There is some distrust of established party politics that resonates in this question. Not that all Liberal or Labour politicians – or even the Greens – necessarily thrive on dirty campaigns and secretive favouritism. “But being a member of an established party comes with its obligations”, says Vic Pye. She does not want to get caught up in such obligations – and therefore runs as an independent for the Inner West Council elections, specifically for the Marrickville ward, which includes Marrickville, St Peters, Sydenham and Tempe.

 

Where else than in Marrickville of course would chances be the highest to convince the electorate of something new, something outside the establishment? Ongoing gentrification transformed the traditionally working-class area into a hip neighbourhood – with all that is associated with it: bars and cafes, foodie eateries, live music venues, independent art production and festivals. People who live here have a higher median weekly income than the Australian average, they pay more mortgage, they are between 30 and 40 years old, they are less likely to believe in any god and chances are they were not born in Australia. And of course: Marrickville’s proportion of same-sex couples is amongst the highest in the country.

 

Considering the demographics, Vic Pye seems like an amalgamation of everything that comes together in Marrickville. “I am young, I am a woman and I am a lesbian”, she says, “and as such I just didn’t find anyone on the council who represents me.” Not feeling represented by the policymakers of such an inclusive neighbourhood – “Marrickville was the first place I ever felt comfortable holding my girlfriend’s hand” – made her think. If she cannot identify herself with anyone on the council or the election list, others like her must feel the same. Why not try and give them someone who truly represents them? And thus, Vic Pye became Victoria Pye, “Marrickville’s Independent”.

 

Independent politicians occupy a very specific position in Australian politics. With the major parties dominating the political agenda, they are often considered marginal or even irrelevant. A look on the composition of both the House of Representatives and the Senate supports this view: there are currently two independents in the lower and just one in the upper house. However, an extremely small majority on the side of the government – like it is at present found in both chambers of parliament – plays in the hands of the small parties and the independents. In a hung parliament, the crossbenchers can actually make a difference. They are the tip of the tongue.

 

Independents are on the rise. The percentage of people who always vote for the same political party has declined from 68 to 44 over the last 40 years according to the Australian Electoral Survey. “While there is no clear consensus on the reason for the decline of the major parties, theories include the general decline in voter identification with political parties, the context of changing demographics, the rise of new social movements and ‘post-material politics’, the decline in union membership and class-based politics, and the ideological convergence between the major parties”, say Dr Mark Rodrigues and Dr Scott Brenton in their research paper “The age of independence?”. In other words: people are less likely to stick to the same mind-set but like to pick from here and there instead. Big chance for the independents.

 

Big chance for Vic Pye? She heads one of two independent tickets that stand for election in the Marrickville ward, thus is one of six without party affiliation. Labour, the Liberals and the Greens enter the election with a ticket each. That makes Pye one of 15 candidates. She smiles. “I see my chance at about 30 percent”, she says confidently. She is convinced that the demographics of Marrickville are going to be her big advantage. After all, all the other candidates on top of the tickets are male, old-ish – and very straight. Most of them served as Councillor on the Marrickville Council before it got forcibly amalgamated with Leichhardt and Ashfield – with Pye, there would be some fresh wind on the council. However, without a political party in the background, it takes tremendous effort to tell people what she stands for.

 

Being female, young-ish and very gay is not enough to get elected as Councillor – or at least it should not be. Pye states several key policies on her agenda: support of local public transport, commitment to sustainable development, to save and increase green space, to keep Marrickville save and vibrant, to continue opposition to WestConnex and support for local small businesses. Community is spelled with a capital C when it comes to her sense of modern lifestyle. Community needs space though, and to keep these spaces alive and secure is one of Pye’s main concerns.

 

A big threat to these spaces and a big this-is-not-how-it-should-be-done for Pye is the infamous WestConnex, the “biggest transport project in Sydney since the Harbour Bridge”, as it has been called. It is also what many locals in the Inner West fear: a monstrous street that spits out thousands of cars into the city. And it cuts right through the heart of these communities. Critics say it will make car driving more attractive due to an improved infrastructure and thus more cars will flood the dense inner-city centres which do not have the space to deal with more private transport. And that is just about the aspect of practicability. Money then is another sore subject: while WestConnex was originally estimated to cost 10 billion Dollars, the latest figure lies at 15 billion Dollars. The WestConnex project is being worked on as we speak. Pye knows that. Still: “There is still time to stop it and reshape what already has been done”, she says – all the while being aware that as a single voice on the council, her possibilities to bring on change would be fairly limited. “I can’t make any promises”, she keeps telling the electorate. “All I could do is give my voice and my vote to good ideas and advocate for issues I stand for.” Especially minor issues that might just be her thing. “Independents have the advantage to pick up ideas and hammer them in until the bigger parties take notice of them”, she explains.

 

Vic Pye might me politically unknown, but she learnt the campaigning business from the pike. A few years back when she was looking for a doorway to become politically involved she wrote an email to Alex Greenwich. Greenwich holds the seat of Sydney for the New South Wales Legislative Assembly, the lower house of the NSW parliament. He invited her for coffee and shortly after she volunteered for him in his office and subsequent campaign of 2015. “The coffee was a good move of him”, Pye laughs. In the 2016 NSW local government elections she then volunteered for Clover Moore, the Lord Mayor of Sydney who returned to office after a comfortable victory. Both Greenwich and Clover are independents and shaped Pye’s ideas about what a politician should represent. Both of them also took a liking to her. They endorse her campaign, which could clearly play in Pye’s favour, considering the popularity of the two politicians in the Sydney area.

 

Running for an office takes some thick skin – even if it is “only” for a neighbourhood council. But Vic Pye knows a thing or two about resilience. “Coming out as a lesbian (and an atheist) to a non-supportive and very religious family taught me a few lessons about not caring too much about what other people think of me”, she explains. While her father has a military background and considers the Greens as communists, her mother had teacher union affiliations and would vote for Labour. “However, she is so religious that she is genuinely afraid that I will go to hell”, says Pye, who as a kid and teenager thought similarly as her parents but then could no longer agree on such views because she became increasingly aware of her homosexuality.

 

While the Pye family has a longstanding connection with Marrickville, Vic Pye actually grew up on the Central Coast. While still living there, she was in denial about her queerness. It was not until she moved to Sydney and got introduced to the Bombers, the women’s AFL team at the University of Sydney, that she fully embraced her sexuality. “Back then, the whole team was gay”, she laughs, slightly exaggerating. “Before I joined them, I didn’t really meet any young and cool lesbians. The footy was great for that. Suddenly I was surrounded by people like me”, she remembers. While she is no longer an active player, Pye volunteered on the committee and is regularly attending the games. After the election is over, she will be back in the oval and run water for the players or be of any other help that is needed. The team is where she found support back in the day when nobody else was there to give it to her. Today, her parents still do not talk about her homosexuality. “They have seen me with my girlfriend but they will refer to her as a ‘friend’. They will likely vote no in the postal vote about same-sex marriage”, Pye says, shrugging it off.

 

The last few weeks have been hectic for Vic Pye. While she was working full-time as a biostatistician – Pye has a Master’s degree in Statistics – the campaign took its toll on the evenings and weekends. “At least three nights per week I invested in campaign work like candidate’s forums and similar events. And on the weekends, I went from door to door, talked to the people in my ward, was present at the markets and visited the small businesses in Marrickville”, she says. For an independent, the financial and administrative burden of campaigning is much higher than for someone with a party in the background. Considering these circumstances, Pye is convinced that she did the best with what limited funds she had – and with her honesty. She tells the story of a man who emailed her and wanted to know her stance on a possible change of the date of Australia Day, implying that he disagreed with such efforts. She answered and told him that she was in favour of a change, therefore not being a suitable candidate for him. “He thanked me of my honesty. I think me being sincere about disagreeing with him surprised him. Who knows, maybe that will be enough to get his vote after all”, Pye muses. She wants people to know where she stands. And she wants to know if being that honest will end with a positive result. She calls it a social experiment. 


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