A science-based climate policy. An integrity body with teeth. Gender equity and justice. Ideas that are hardly the stuff of revolution — yet Liberal government members couldn’t be more shrill denouncing the movement which espouses them.
“They can’t work us out. They can’t work out this movement,” said Simon Holmes à Court, whose Climate 200 organisation is central to promoting a growing band of independent candidates.
“What it is is an attack from the centre,” he said of the unfolding phenomenon of “Voices of” independents targeting moderate inner-city Liberal seats.
Holmes à Court, son of the late billionaire businessman Robert Holmes à Court and a long-term climate philanthropist, has really done it this time. He’s certainly got up the nose of Liberal MP Jason Falinski.
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During a frothing-at-the-mouth parliamentary tirade earlier this month, Falinski depicted Holmes à Court as the evil puppetmaster of a subversive, if not criminal, organisation.
“The Australian people are not fools,” he began, “[They] know that all these independents are all part of a coordinated group headed by Simon Holmes à Court and funded through different trusts, funds and front groups. No one knows where Climate 200 got its $3.3 million from.”
The “Voices of” candidates, Falinski claimed, was a “RICO, or racketeer and corrupt organisation, case in the making”.
“The tentacles run everywhere.” he said. “Apparently it’s all uncoordinated but the major thing about it is that it is all about hiding who they are.”
And according to Falinski, “they” were all one-time members of the Greens.
Almost none of this is correct.
A political party by another name?
The dark mutterings from the Liberals are that the Holmes à Court grouping is or should be registered as a political party and that by not being registered it avoids the regulations major parties are subject to. Liberal sources allege that the body has only one reason for being and that is to win campaigns.
So is Climate 200 — along with the nine (so far) “Voices of” candidates — really a political party?
On the face of it there are similarities. It provides funds for candidates who have the same policies on climate, an integrity commission and gender. It also offers a form of centralised support by way of capacity building, communications and the data and research needed to run campaigns.
And Holmes à Court has made his guiding principle clear (borrowing Paul Keating’s words): “When you change the government, you change the country.”
“The shortest and surest path to good governance is a minority government with a quality crossbench,” he has said. “If just three ‘blue’ seats flip to the crossbench, we’re there.”
Holmes à Court said those making the attack believe — mistakenly — that “Voices of” is a federated entity which runs candidates. In fact it is a series of grassroots campaigns following the “Voices of Indi” model developed by independent MP Cathy McGowan who toppled Victorian Liberal MP Sophie Mirabella in 2013.
Holmes à Court says Climate 200 acts as a donor to campaigns — not individuals — and the campaigns must go through a qualification process.
“The campaigns need to be established,” he said. “They have to have a constitution. They have to have a team. They have to have codes of conduct which govern the candidate and the volunteers. The values need to be aligned with Climate 200 on climate, integrity and gender.
“We don’t direct the policy and there’s no contract [between Climate 200 and a Voices campaign],” he said.
He compared the approach with a “series A” venture capital firm: “We want to see that the venture is off the ground and that it needs funding for scale.”
The aim was to “level the playing field” in seats where the Liberal Party was able to spend millions of dollars on its candidate.
Central to the government’s most recent attack on Climate 200 is what it alleges is a lack of transparency about who funds it — a bad case of double standards given the amount of dark money that backs the Liberal Party, as Crikey‘s Bernard Keane has pointed out.
Special Minister of State Ben Morton, a close ally of Prime Minister Scott Morrison, claimed in a leaked email to Liberal MPs this week that organisations like Climate 200 would now be forced to “open their books, just like other significant political participants” as a result of new laws which would “shine a light on these groups that have been hiding in the dark”.
Earlier this month the government introduced changes to the Electoral Act which force entities to register as “significant third parties” if they spend more than $250,000 on electoral expenditure a year (down from a previous $500,000) or $14,500 if that is more than a third of their revenue.
Morton also called on his colleagues to dob in independents to the Electoral Commission.
Holmes à Court told Crikey: “We have been scratching our heads to see how it affects us. It basically doesn’t.
“We set up our compliance system [for the 2019 election] as though we were a significant third party.”
He says Climate 200 already has a list of 4000 donors on its site and all donors who met the requirements would be disclosed.
A nest of greenies?
Is this personal? You bet.
The personalities that make up Climate 200 are a lip-curling collection for the Coalition. First is Holmes à Court himself. He was once a member of Treasurer Josh Frydenberg’s election funding body, Kooyong 200 — hence the name Climate 200.
But it has built up an advisory council which includes:
- Former Nationals MP turned independent Rob Oakeshott and former independent Tony Windsor, both of whom supported Julia Gillard’s minority government in 2010
- Former Australian Democrats senator and party leader, Meg Lees
- Tech entrepreneur and climate philanthropist Anna Josephson and political strategist Anthony Reed, both of whom played key roles in Zali Steggall’s campaign to oust Tony Abbott from Warringah
- Kerryn Phelps, who was briefly victorious over Dave Sharma in the Liberal crown jewel seat of Wentworth
- Julia Banks, the former Liberal MP who has become a post factum whistleblower on the Liberal Party’s blokey culture
- Kiera Peacock, a partner at Marque Lawyers with expertise in electoral and climate law. Marque Lawyers has taken a leading role in the Let Her Speak campaign associated with Australian of the Year Grace Tame. The firm’s founder and managing partner, Michael Bradley, was the lawyer for “Kate”, who accused Christian Porter of raping her three decades ago. (Porter has vehemently denied the claims.) Bradley is also Crikey’s legal correspondent.
And all that before you get to the collection of high-powered female “Voices of” candidates — a group which is a clear challenge to the grey male status quo of the Morrison government.