This Federal election is powered by Kitchen Table Conversations, a technique developed in Melbourne in the late 1990s and which has mobilised the constant political chatter around tables, in cafés and over drinks
THE “CLIMATE” INDEPENDENTS expected to win an increased number of seats on 21 May, and conceivably the balance of power, are propelled by KTC.
This is the mobilising technique of “Kitchen Table Conversations”. Self-selected hosts invite perhaps nine others around to discuss the political issues they find important, and to plan possible actions. A coordinating group collate reports from the kitchens to help find and inform a local candidate.
A relatively spontaneous, and still quite loose, movement is now significant in Australian politics (and I would like to learn about similar techniques elsewhere in the world).
Various “Voices 4”, “climate”, “teal” or “community” independents have sprung up in Coalition electorates, with voters disgruntled principally about lack of action on the climate emergency, and on an independent commission on corruption.
Behind that, kitchen-table activists respond to perceptions that political parties have failed participatory democracy.
While progressive on some core issues, participants thus far tend to be relatively comfortable, financially, so that campaigns lack neither professional access, nor funds.
Compiling a definitive list of KTC-propelled candidates proves tricky, initially because I have not checked through all possibilities. Climate 200 has published a list of those it supports, but others remain sufficiently independent as to refuse all outside funding. Other estimates suggest more than two dozen “teal” candidates. My attempted list (below) contains four up for re-election, plus eleven newcomers in city seats held by Liberals, and six rural candidates mainly challenging Nationals.
The mechanism was adopted famously in the rural Victorian seat of Indi in 2013, when Cathy McGowan replaced Sophie Mirabella (and was succeeded by fellow independent Helen Haines). In like manner, in 2019, Zali Steggall spectacularly beat former Prime Minister Tony Abbott in Warringah.
KTC had originated even earlier, among women worried by the aggressive neoliberalism of Premier of Victoria Jeff Kennett as he closed schools, privatised government activities, and dismantled democracy.
Introducing a new booklet on the topic, Mary Crooks relates how, in 1996, she lunched with two friends (Sandra Hart and Angela Munro) at the Red Sage Café in Clifton Hill (Melbourne). “Despite the Kennett government being re-elected for a second term, we sensed a groundswell of community unease across Victoria,” Crooks recalls.
At a second meeting, Crooks took along an ad for the position of executive director of the Victoria Women’s Trust. She got the job, and developed the grassroots mechanism. The initial name of the “Red Sage Project” (after the café) was soon changed to Purple Sage to avoid political confusion (and setting off a palette of colours, often teal). Working with other respected community groups, the project engaged as many as 6000 women and men across the state “in a thoughtful deliberation of the key issues and the actions they could think about taking”.
The model very much belongs to the (traditionally womanly) domain of the kitchen table, and the treatment of women has remained prominent.
In the new booklet, Mary Crooks and Leah McPherson advise: “Hosts will need to provide some drinks and light snacks. This may be as simple as tea, coffee, and a packet of biscuits.” This contrasts with political candidates drinking a beer at the traditionally male pub (although photo-ops have lately included sipping tea in workplaces).
Crooks and McPherson accept that “Core Group” organisers might enjoy a proper meal for a post-mortem: “You may wish to organise a lunch or dinner together, share a drink at the pub or café, or enjoy a peaceful walk to decompress.”
These domestic get-togethers should be viewed as a deliberate alternative to the presently dominant conversations at board tables, business lunches and cocktail parties among politicians, billionaires and lobbyists, titillating each other with coal mines, highways, new airports, outsourcing opportunities, and cuts to public education. (For more on “state capture”, read this recent report.)
In pursuit of the “delicious revolution” in Meals Matter, I recognise meal conversations as the essential ground of democracy, because table chat covers not only regular meals past, future and present, but also the wider meals of schools, hospitals and aged care, and all that surrounds them – table talk naturally encompasses life’s essentials.
Political theorist Janet Flammang has written how everyday meals generate popular political consciousness.Even slightly more formality can be powerful. Like-minded experts and enthusiasts typically “socialise” at drinks and restaurant tables.
Courtly banquets were centres of political proposals and intrigue. Regicide has been plotted at aristocratic feasts, and so, too, revolutions have been planned in coffee-houses, and people’s victories celebrated in street banquets.
Some might defend digital media as furthering political discourse, but online chat drifts too far from social foundations in food sharing.
Politics emerges from the pleasure of the stomach, “especially through participatory democracy, in which everybody labors at everyday meals and converses, so that knowledge collects up and distributes”. The political economy is to be “rewritten by living well” (Symons, Meals Matter, 2020: 272-273).
Long live table politics!
The “community”, “climate”, “Voices 4” and “teal” independents seeking lower-house re-election are: Helen Haines in Victoria, Rebekha Sharkie in South Australia, Zali Steggall in NSW, and Andrew Wilkie in Tasmania.
As to newcomers in Liberal city seats, we’re speaking of at least: Nicolette Boele in Bradfield; Jo Dyer in Boothby; Kate Chaney in Curtin; Zoe Daniel in Goldstein; Claire Miles in Casey; Despi O’Connor in Flinders; Monique Ryan in Kooyong; Sophie Scamps in Mackellar; Allegra Spender in Wentworth; Georgia Steele in Hughes; and Kylea Tink in North Sydney.
Taking a swing at rural, mainly National seats, similar candidates include: Penny Ackery (Hume), Kate Hook (Calare), Suzie Holt (Groom), Hanabeth Luke (Page), Caz Heise (Cowper), and Rob Priestly (Nicholls).
The campaigns are unique to each electorate, but all wanting to “do politics differently”, and they generally feature climate action, and integrity in parliament, and they listen at kitchen table, fireside and pub get-togethers.