The now-Member for Indi, Cathy McGowan, appears to have raised the most in donations of any independent ever to have won in a federal election.

McGowan, widely known for having put her disliked predecessor Sophie Mirabella out of a job, managed to raise $136,956 in the lead-up to last year’s federal election, according to Australian Electoral Commission donation disclosure data. Tasmanian independent Andrew Wilkie came a respectable second, garnering $109,141.

McGowan would have taken out the top spot for money raised, except for the astronomical results of two NSW candidates, Nathan Wade and Lawrie McKinna. Amazingly, although each was given $371,987, neither won their seat. They weren’t even close – Bracken received around 8.23% of the vote, McKinna 8.71%.

What is even more astounding is that both of these candidates accepted donations from only one person – businessman and horse racer John Singleton.  Disregarding the particular qualities of those candidates, it’s reassuring that the attempts of one eye-wateringly rich man to sway the path of democracy appeared to make little difference to the outcome (perhaps Singleton needs some tips from Clive Palmer).

These numbers give a glimpse into the arms race that is political donations. The amount given to the big-name independents Bob Katter, Rob Oakeshott, Tony Windsor and Andrew Wilkie in 2010, and Katter and Windsor in 2007, were mostly a fair bit lower than McGowan’s – ranging between $13,575 and Windsor’s impressive 2007 total of $123,850.

Unfortunately it’s hard to compare independents with party politicians, as those associated with a party are not required to disclose the amount given to and spent by each candidate. It’s almost certain that the Liberal party spent more promoting Sophie Mirabella in Indi than Cathy McGowan ever could have. The Liberal campaign included polling (deemed too expensive by the independent), as well as far more TV ads and mailouts than camp McGowan could afford.

Donation and spending disclosure data for party-affiliated politicians are only available on a party level. It would be more difficult to account for party spending by electorate, but doing so would enhance transparency. I wouldn’t hold my breath on that one, though – the rules are, after all, written primarily by party politicians.

The wave of support generated for Cathy McGowan meant that many supporters were willing to pay for t-shirts, badges and corflutes – something most Labor and Liberal candidates could only dream of.

McGowan’s disclosure data are notable for another reason – the number of people who chose to give money. Whereas most independents have, at most, around 150 donors, Cathy’s campaign took money from 1,120 people. This was partly due to the campaign’s embrace of technological innovation – crowdfunding, for example.

But the technology itself won’t be very useful if no one is willing to give. The McGowan campaign’s big advantage was the sense of excitement created around the candidate. McGowan is charismatic, well-known in the area, had a smart campaign team – and is not Sophie Mirabella, known for receiving Tony Windsor’s ‘nasty prize’ of Australian politics.

Although McGowan assiduously avoided speaking ill of Mirabella in public, one of the key drivers of the campaign was clearly dissatisfaction with the then-Member for Indi. And not only in the electorate itself. The excitement generated on social media and eventually in the mainstream media, combined with the encouragement to give money online, undoubtedly translated into non-Indi residents donating out of a desire to see Mirabella knocked off the perch.

Sometimes David really does beat Goliath.

ACO logo