Climate 200: man behind teal MPs warns Labor not to hobble independents with electoral spending cap

by Paul Karp
Byron Fay says he supports government plan if it doesn’t benefit major parties while hindering political newcomers

The head of fundraising group Climate 200 has endorsed a cap on electoral spending proposed by Labor, but warned it must not be set at a level that helps incumbents and disadvantages new political players.

Byron Fay, the executive director of Climate 200, made the comments on Wednesday in response to the special minister of state, Don Farrell, revealing the government would aim to legislate a cap as part of reforms, including truth in political advertising and improving adherence to the one-vote one-value principle.

In an address to the National Press Club in Canberra, Fay also outlined that the fundraising body would not go into “hibernation” after its success getting six independent MPs and one senator elected in May, and might target state seats in Victoria and New South Wales.

Climate 200 helped raise $13m from 11,200 donors, supporting a slew of successful candidates in the former Liberal-held seats of Wentworth, North Sydney, Mackellar, Goldstein, Kooyong and Curtin; and David Pocock’s Senate campaign in the Australian Capital Territory.

On Sunday, Farrell told Guardian Australia that Labor would seek to legislate spending caps after an inquiry into the 2022 election. Labor was concerned about the tens of millions in electoral spending racked up by the United Australia Party at the past two elections.

Asked his view on the proposed reform, Fay said the spending cap needed to be considered “in the context of a root-and-branch review of all the incumbency benefits the major parties have given themselves”.

Those included “pork-barrelling” aimed at winning votes and $750,000 every three years for MPs’ office expenses, including electoral communications, which Fay said were “often used for campaigning”.

Fay said he was “very open-minded to the idea of caps” but it had to be legislated to “make sure we are not disadvantaging future community groups that want to put up community leaders”.

“We should think very carefully about any reform in that space so it doesn’t entrench the advantages the major parties have given themselves.”

Fay ruled out providing support to independents, after the Albanese government cut their staffing allocation from eight staff each to five.

“Not a single independent MP we supported has asked us for support to help them deal with their staffing and is not our mandate.”

Unlike after the 2019 election, Climate 200 would not go into hibernation but would be guided by donors and supporters about how it engage in future campaigns, he said.

The model was “demand driven” and Climate 200 might be willing to help state candidates if “people get mobilised and start to speak to their friends and colleagues get and start to have a different type of community leadership”, he said.

“There is some momentum building in Victoria but it is a long way away from being the type of campaign we will be supporting at this time.”

Fay said the “stranglehold” of the two major parties had been “shattered” at the 2022 election, which had shown “well-organised communities with the right support can take on the party machines and win against former and would-be future prime ministers”.

“The result was a launchpad for the community independence movement, not a landing zone. Now, the real work begins.”

Fay warned that Australia was still “miles away” from a science-based response to global heating, as the Coalition’s targets were consistent with three degrees of heating and Labor’s two degrees.

Asked how parliamentarians should respond to Labor’s take-it or leave-it approach to its proposed 43% emissions cut by 2030, Fay noted that target “enshrined in our nationally determined contribution is that it is a step in the right direction” and that voters “want to see parliamentary action”.

“We would see that as a stepping stone to greater ambitions and in terms of what the now elected [MPs] and senators want to do, that is entirely up to them.”

On Wednesday the Greens leader, Adam Bandt, said that while his minor party in the Senate balance of power was “willing to negotiate on climate … it seems Labor isn’t”.

“This ‘my way or the highway’ approach from Labor is setting Australia up for a very long three years. The government should choose cooperation over confrontation.”

Bandt warned that Labor’s weak climate targets would be “blown” if it proceeded with new gas projects such as the Northern Territory’s Beetaloo Basin, which he said would lift greenhouse pollution by up to 13%.