Cathy McGowan Is Australia’s Leslie Knope

If only Sophie Mirabella were as handsome as Paul Rudd.

Want more Junkee in your life? Sign up to our newsletter, and follow us on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook so you always know where to find us.

It’s just too perfect: An election in a pokey rural town. A plucky, hard-working community organiser with a rag-tag bunch of supporters and a hat full o’dreams. A grassroots campaign run against a nasty, forever-absent frontrunner who has the backing of the big-end of town. A down-to-the-wire race that our heroine tragically loses by the skin of her teeth.

But wait – a last-minute recount! What? The good guys are winning? THE GOOD GUYS ARE WINNING! The crowd goes wild!

While it’s still officially up in the air [Update: It isn’t. McGowan has won!], that’s the too-good-to-be-true story of how independent Cathy McGowan came to be on the cusp of taking the north-eastern Victorian seat of Indi off long-time Coalition member and would-be frontbencher Sophie Mirabella.

It’s also pretty much exactly the plot of season four of Parks and Recreation, if Cathy McGowan was going out with her goofy-but-adorable campaign manager, and Sophie Mirabella’s father owned a candy empire (although she did inherit a bunch of money from a sugar daddy (zing!).

The parallels are so many and so great that we should all just come right out and say it: Indi is Australia’s Pawnee, and it finally has its own Leslie Knope.

She Broke Down Boundaries:

Considering the difference between Cathy McGowan’s personal views and those of her electorate, she should have been tarred and feathered by a mob of cranky old people long ago. She’s on record as a supporter of carbon pricing, same-sex marriage and the dignified treatment of asylum seekers, and in the last days of the campaign Sophie Mirabella’s team swamped Indi with signs like, “An Independent can’t scrap the carbon tax” and “Only the Liberals can stop the boats”. That should’ve made McGowan unelectable in a conservative rural seat like Indi, right?

Nup. As the Book of Knope tells us, that’s a lot of nonsense: people are happy to support someone who doesn’t agree with them on every single thing, so long as that person has principles and goes in to bat for them when it counts. Leslie Knope was hella pro-government and still got uber-libertarian Ron Swanson out to campaign for her. She stood up to Sweetums Candy and Paunch Burger in the fourth-fattest town in America.  Pawnee had a citywide abstinence-only education policy, yet she heroically rolled a condom on a banana in front of a room full of old people. And she got elected. She stood on her principles and voters respected her for it, even if they disagreed with her.

She Got Down With The Youth:

One of the biggest parts of the independent campaign was a focus on young people – the McGowan camp drafted a bunch of policies aimed at students and young Indi kids in the electorate, and built up a huge and active following on social media via photos of Young People Doing Things and Memes:


And it worked: a heap of young people turned out to campaign for her, with some ending up running her social media presence and organising community events.

As did McGowan, soeth did Knope. Was not April Ludgate, as Youth Outreach Officer and Director of New Media, a core part of Leslie’s campaign team? And did she not basically take over Leslie’s Parks Department job towards the end of the election, and rock it? And did she not say, “Almost all politicians and adults in general are stupid and pointless. Leslie isn’t. She’s cool”? She did. She did do and say those things.

Speaking of new media, for the last six weeks the glorious Facebook page ‘Letters About Sophie’ has been publishing fake letters from fictional Indi residents who cite Sophie Mirabella’s knowing “as many as fifteen” words, and claims that she rescued them from rabid bears as reasons to support her. While the page has no official connection with the McGowan camp, if you can look me in the eye and tell me that it isn’t run by a whole team of little April Ludgates, that’s fine and I respect your opinion, but it’s wrong.

She Beat Power, Money And Nastiness With Big Smiles

Indi was Sophie Mirabella’s to lose: she had a 9% margin and the means to hold it, the Liberals were due to get up nationwide, and she was promised a place on the frontbench of a new Abbott government. She had just as much going for her as Leslie’s rival Bobby Newport – he had his dad’s Sweetums money and influence, a crazy-good campaign manager from DC and an irritatingly handsome face. What neither of them had was presence; even if she never checked out of the campaign to chill in Spain like Bobby did, Tony Windsor’s calling Mirabella a “fly-in-fly-out” representative resonated with a lot of people who felt they were being taken for granted.

When they realised how much they’d underestimated their opponents, both the Coalition and Bobby Newport went full-douchebag. The Liberals flew in campaigners from out of town, and started talking smack about being “under assault from an extremely well organised Labor, union, Green, GetUp! campaign”. When the Pawnee race was getting tight, Newport threatened to move the Sweetums factory to Mexico and bankrupt the town. Serious dick move, Bobby.

Leslie, being the cheeriest person on earth, wanted to run a positive campaign, and mostly got her way. The few times she went negative – like her epic Bobby smackdown in her closing debate speech – it came from the heart, and was so impressive she even convinced her opponent that she was in the right.

Cathy McGowan, meanwhile, never stopped with the sweetness and light; even after it looked like she was finally going to come out on top, she was urging people to remain respectful and focus on the electorate rather than the election.

Power and patronage < awesome ladies.

The Result, And Also Just Everything. All Of It.

After the polls closed and Jerry forgot to vote, both campaigns retired to watch the numbers trickle in on TV and celebrate — even though it looked like the best they could hope for was a noble defeat.

The recount in Indi took days and was heart-wrenching to watch: the McGowan campaign was quietly getting ready to say its thankyous and concede, as the postal vote looked set to swing the contest Mirabella’s way by a whisker. No one counted on the Magic Election Fairy, though, who found another 1,003 Cathy votes which someone had, unbelievably, misplaced, giving Cathy the buffer she needed to hold her lead and take the win.

In Pawnee, the first results showed Leslie losing by 21 votes before Ben demanded a recount, and hours later it turned out the Knope campaign had won – by the same amount. Victory and justice for all! The moral? Recounts solve everything.

The icing on this wonderful, wonderful cake? At the height of the #Indivotes saga, McGowan took to Twitter with this:


Alex McKinnon is a Sydney-based writer and journalist who will finish his Arts degree one day, swear to God. He is currently the editor of the Star Observer, Australia’s longest-running LGBTI weekly newspaper.