Campaigner behind teal victory reveals his stunning next move

Simon Holmes à Court, who ran a crowd-funding campaign backing ‘teal’ independents’ stunning showing at May’s federal election, is making the bold prediction they could pull off a feat of the same size at the next.

Seven independents supported by Climate 200 were unexpected victors on an election night seen as a rebuke to the political status quo three years after another, Zali Steggall, toppled Tony Abbott.

Mr Holmes à Court told The New Daily at least as many seats again could be in play at the next election.

“There were six electorates where the independent came second and we expect most will go again,” he said.

And after people from 100 electorates attended a recent training program for climate and community independents he believes more could be joining the next crossbench than were in the recent recet parliamentary class.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if we see another 10,” he said.

The big teal

Speaking about his new book on the recent campaign Mr Holmes à Court describes becoming disillusioned with the political mainstream after attempts to bring climate science to the Liberal Party platform failed.

After he wrote a piece describing the end of coal as ‘inevitable’ relations became strained with the very former energy minister he had been advising: Josh Frydenberg.

By the 2019 campaign he alleges he was booted out of a Hawthorn pub playing host to a local candidate forum, the Auburn, on the orders of the then-Treasurer. One election cycle later he was again in the Auburn dancing to Whitney Houston’s ‘I’m Every Woman’ with the new MP for Kooyong: Monique Ryan.

The book often reflects on how politicians and journalists were surprised by the election and then confounded by the workings of what he describes as a decentralised campaign, which backed candidates on their values but was not controlled by a boss.

“In the hurly burly of the newsroom, it was much easier just to say: ‘Oh, you’re this Clive Palmer of the left’,” he said.

The Climate 200 style of fundraising sought to gain momentum as it spread through social networks; Twitter users contributed $2 million.

A family donation accounted for about two per cent of the organisation’s total campaign budget of about $13 million, spread across 11,000 donors.

The Big Teal combines bits of personal history and political commentary with the story of the Climate 200 campaign and its place in a movement whose momentum had been building steadily.

He credits Cathy McGowan, whose community campaign for the Liberal seat of Indi in 2013, as changing perceptions of independents as a worthy protest vote option.

Her colour may be salmon rather than teal, but Kylea Tink was one of the first victories for a new wave of independent candidates.
Kylea Tink was one of the first victories for a new wave of independent candidates. Photo: Zac Crellin

Climate 200 launched the year she resigned, during the 2019 campaign and a fraction of the budget; it supported the campaigns of Helen Haines and Rebekha Sharkie.

But Mr Holmes à Court recalls being troubled by Kerryn Phelps’ narrow loss in Wentworth and the need to focus his efforts.

His philosophy on big picture change was inspired by a dramatic depiction of the American inventor Buckminster Fuller, who was fascinated by the way a small tab of metal, when applied perfectly to the rudder of a ship, could harness the energy rushing past it and redirect a trans-Atlantic liner.

A key role

Mr Holmes à Court was not himself an unobtrusive presence on the campaign.

Sky News and the News Corp tabloids had him front and centre. He was depicted often as brash (see: Twitter) with politics driven by hidden motives such as profiting from soaring demand for renewable energy if the Coalition lost, or gratuitous suggestions of anti-Semitism.

“I was instrumental in being the punching bag,” he said.

(News Corp’s election campaign interventions, often attributed mythical power, repeatedly backfired this year, the book says, and attacks would bring increased donations or volunteers).

Mr Holmes à Court’s father, Robert, was Australia’s first billionaire and he is portrayed as an enigmatic figure who smoked cigars and played computer chess while thinking about business matters.

He casts his young self up as an introverted nerd whose contrarian streak developed while being bullied at boarding school and on electronic bulletin boards and an emerging digital counterculture.

He later worked in Silicon Valley and then renewable energy.

It is an unconventional background that proved a rich source of innuendo for opponents who had less success trying to turn voters off highly accomplished women without previous affiliations with party politics.

As MPs he says the teals have applied soft power to show politics can be more than arithmetic.

It’s a status that comes with a certain moral authority in Canberra that comes with not having been drawn from a professional political class that became so closely linked to the scandals hanging over the previous Parliament.

Now a more frequent criticism of the independents and the funding movement is how the MPs can possibly deliver on the wave of public expectation that brought them to office.

That’s not obvious when a wave of support has not overturned the arithmetic of politics.

Power list

Independent Senator David Pocock does wield a crucial vote in the Senate but the broader resurgence of the crossbench is also being led by other independents such as Andrew Wilkie and another party who emerged stronger in May, the Greens.

But Mr Holmes à Court says the climate independents have not only delivered on their mandate but political observers have told him the influence began before the campaign was called.

“Scott Morrison taking net zero to Glasgow was because he was feeling intense feeling the heat in a number of states,” he said.

More recently independents presented key amendments on critical bills, such as the climate targets and the federal integrity commission, as Prime Minister Anthony Albanese expresses a desire to change the conduct of politics.

“There’s such a big mandate on these issues and Labor’s heard it and they are running with it,” he said.

As the new Parliament convened on that promise the Australian Financial Review carried a news piece about new MPs’ first speeches: “Though they are irrelevant because Labor has a majority in the lower house, the teals have demanded they participate…”

On Friday the same newspaper released a frisson of excitement through Canberra and its annual political power list.

The teal independents (six seats) came in at No.4; Opposition Leader Peter Dutton (90 seats) was 10th.

It might be some small sign of a change in the culture around politics but he says has plans to keep going a while yet, until a level playing field.

The Big Teal is published by Monash University Publishing.