Climate 200-backed independent candidates want to become a bigger force in the Australian House of Representatives than the National Party. Having hobbled the Liberals at the last election, they plan to take seats directly from the traditional party of country Australia to do it.
Simon Holmes à Court, the convenor of the funding vehicle that supports communities to run grassroots independents in winnable seats, says the organisation supported 23 candidates at the 2022 federal election and “the media naturally focus on the 11 who won”.
“There is no silver medal in politics,” he says. “So it is easy to miss that many communities got a taste for independent politics and are raring to go again in 2025.”
In fact, all bar one of the successful Climate 200-backed victories in 2022 were in seats where an independent had already run in the previous election. These are at least two-cycle efforts, Holmes à Court says, which at least suggests some campaigns will mature next year.
That is, at least in part, simple mathematics. The so-called “teals” defied most expectations at the last election and performed so well in the metropolitan, blue- ribbon Liberal seats there isn’t much left to credibly target. Plus, a looming Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) redistribution in New South Wales must take a seat from the state, which is all but guaranteed to come from Sydney and likely from the well-heeled but relatively stagnant electorates north of the harbour.
Teal territory, in other words.
A source familiar with the community independent movement says “independents of the next election will look more like Helen Haines than Zali Steggall”.
Climate 200, which helped raise and spend almost $13 million on candidates in the 2022 federal election, doesn’t anoint candidates or pluck them from party ranks. It backs existing community campaigns with a mood for change. One of those seats in 2022 was Cowper, which takes in mid-north coast NSW around Kempsey and Port Macquarie and was held by then first-term Nationals member of parliament Pat Conaghan. Independent Carolyn Heise came close to removing him with a 47.7 per cent two-candidate preferred vote.
If Heise ran again – it’s not clear that she will – community organisers believe she can win.
“Obviously, [Conaghan] is in a different position because, last time around, he was part of the government and so was able to, you know, direct some of the spending programs this way – but now he can’t,” a community volunteer tells The Saturday Paper.
“It’s a different dynamic.”
The Cowper campaign ran a series of listening sessions across the electorate to take the temperature for possible support, and they have just started these again. Much of the outfit there is refreshingly not-politics-as-usual, even down to the vote to see if the community even wants to run an independent candidate again.
“I’m really curious to get going with this stuff,” the volunteer says.
“The people I talk to around the traps, some of them are really keen to get involved again. I think other people are a bit tired because a lot of the same people got involved in the referendum campaign and are a bit bruised from that.”
The Voice referendum is an interesting Rorschach test for Climate 200. The funding vehicle encouraged candidates to run campaigns for the constitutional vote, which failed nationally but won in each of the seven official teal seats.
“They all got a taste for ‘hey, if you put in the hard yards and reanimate your volunteer base’ – volunteers love it,” a Climate 200 figure says.
“And they really loved seeing the names of the electorates coming up on the board on referendum night. It was a pretty shitty result all round, but to have local wins reanimated their campaigns which had been a bit dormant.”
Not all campaigns have been dormant.
In the Sydney seat of Bradfield, once one of the safest Liberal electorates in the country and currently home to former Morrison government minister Paul Fletcher, the woman who almost dethroned him – Nicolette Boele, on 45.8 per cent – set up shop as the “shadow member” and has made noise on behalf of the electors there ever since.
“She’s fun, she’s feisty and a bit cheeky, which really got up the nose of the powers that be,” a Climate 200 source says.
Fletcher faces a potential blow later this month at the Liberal Party state council meeting, where at least one branch is agitating for a preselection to run their favoured contender, conservative and former strategic adviser to the Menzies Research Institute Paul Nettelbeck.
There is also the possibility the seat could be redistributed out of existence by the AEC, which has been hearing submissions from interested parties, and political parties, about how to redraw boundaries as NSW loses a seat. Not surprisingly, the Liberals don’t want Bradfield to go and have suggested the independent Electoral Commission delete the now two-term teal seat of Warringah and Blaxland, held for almost two decades by Labor’s education minister Jason Clare. Warringah should be subsumed into North Sydney, the party says, and Blaxland swallowed by Tony Burke’s seat of Watson.
In their place, a new seat named Bird Walton should be fashioned into the “high-growth new airport precinct” at Badgerys Creek.
NSW Labor disagrees, of course. It proposes a minor adjustment to a slew of divisions so that Hughes, a Liberal seat next to Cook and below Blaxland, can be jettisoned.
Teal MP Kylea Tink says her division of North Sydney should gobble up a little of fellow teal Zali Steggall’s seat of Warringah from the southern end at Neutral Bay, while Steggall says the opposite. And on it goes.
Until recently, the Labor Party has been largely happy to let the teals do their thing. Anthony Albanese has a two-seat majority but Scott Morrison’s loss was bigger than Labor’s win and that’s almost entirely to do with Climate 200.
“They didn’t send us any flowers,” a Climate 200 source says. “But we think they should have.”
Right now, there isn’t much of a contest for community independents against Labor MPs who, at a grassroots level, are far from perfect but also fail to motivate protest voters in quite the same way that Morrison’s government did. Peter Dutton has continued the theme.
“It’s to Labor’s advantage that they are there,” a senior Labor Party source says. “They make life so much harder for the Coalition. And it’s not just tactical – you know, in the count up to 76, and can they win without those [teal] seats – I think it’s much bigger than that.
“The bigger issue and the bigger value that the teals offer for progressive politics is that this is essentially the electorate punishing the Liberal Party for weaponising climate and holding the country back from taking action.
“And there had been this sort of pipedream, for years, going all the way back to the terrible kind of ‘doctors’ wives’ in the Howard era. And it turns out it was not so much doctors’ wives, as very eminent women who are clinicians themselves.”
Labor strategists say that the 2019 federal campaign in which then party leader Bill Shorten was punished by different electorates for “walking both sides of Adani” was potentially the last of an era – with the presence of the teals in 2022 this political wedge had less impact.
“In 2022 Morrison couldn’t buy into Barnaby Joyce’s mad scare campaigns about Labor’s climate policy and the 43 per cent target for emissions reduction by 2030, because every time they did they made life harder for Josh Frydenberg,” the Labor source says.
“So it’s like the transaction cost of attempts to wedge Labor shot right up because of the teals. I suspect Peter Dutton knows that and he’s gone, ‘Well, I’m writing off those seats. I don’t care about them. I’m going to try to win without them.’ ”
Dutton’s strategy has been to lean into a strange remark he made to the joint Coalition party room in February last year, that the Liberals and the Nationals are the “parties of the Australian working class”. Labor thinks he is willing to embrace the consequences of rejecting climate-conscious voters in favour of “building a new coalition in the outer suburbs and regions”.
Under such a strategy, Climate 200 sees opportunity. On the northern tip of Queensland’s Sunshine Coast, the sitting member for the seat of Fairfax – once held by Clive Palmer when his embryonic political stylings seemed at least potentially reasonable – is the Nationals’ Ted O’Brien, opposition spokesman for climate change and energy. In the last election, Labor won 21.9 per cent of the vote and the Greens nabbed 13.4 per cent in an otherwise safe Coalition electorate. That latter figure is especially interesting. Further south, on the Gold Coast, former Coalition minister Karen Andrews is retiring from her seat of McPherson. The Greens polled 15.4 per cent there, too.
“We held a joint event there in November with a local group – a sort of politics in the pub thing. Sophie Scamps came up for it and explained how her community did it [won] and that sort of thing,” the Climate 200 member says.
“And The Australian was there taking notes and the next week Sky News was going on saying, ‘Oh, there’s no way that teals would work on the Gold Coast’, and it was like, yeah, we totally understand that.
“We have been associated with the teals as a brand but that’s not something we’ve ever called them or expected them to be. Each community is different.”
That event sparked the interest of a few residents from Fairfax who had travelled down to attend. Over the summer, community members began talking and forming the start of a group – Fairfax Matters – that could mobilise an independent campaign.
Last Thursday, the Climate 200 network flew in its top people, and North Sydney MP Kylea Tink, to remind them change is possible. At this event, leaders shared polling the organisation had done around October last year that showed the incumbent’s support had dropped from 45 per cent at the 2022 election to about 38 per cent. As a rough guide, Coalition primary votes that fall below 40 per cent tend to spotlight potential targets.
“So, none of it is a lay-down misère but this is about looking to see what we can galvanise,” volunteer Christine Moore tells The Saturday Paper. “Even if it becomes a marginal seat, well, then the electorate wins because it becomes a far more interesting place for both the LNP and Labor to be putting some of their resources. And making this electorate marginal is certainly possible, given past experience.”
The Saturday Paper does not have access to Climate 200 polling, nor confirmation that the numbers hold today, but internal strategists believe there are about seven Liberal seats and seven Nationals seats around the country that are “vulnerable” to an independent campaign.
Voices for Farrer group spokesperson Elise Wenden told The Area News on Wednesday it wants to continue the campaign to deliver an independent to the seat, noting that residents of the regional NSW seat that takes in Griffith and Albury are “practical” and do not like having the wool pulled over their eyes.
Deputy leader of the Liberal Party Sussan Ley holds the seat with a 16.4 per cent margin. Some of those, particularly some Nationals seats, are considered “warm” after the 2022 results.
Despite considering the teals a useful element in parliament, the Australian Labor Party is gearing up for a fight over donation law reform, which has been teased for well over a year now. Climate 200 believes some proposals, such as boosting public funding for election parties and capping donations, will enshrine the power of the political duopoly.
Special Minister of State Don Farrell is working up changes and has privately told some members of parliament that the independents are an aberration.
He told The Sydney Morning Herald last week: “I want to try and limit the ability of really rich people to buy election results.”
That same piece reported the release of donations for the 2022-23 financial year. Climate 200 disclosed receipts of $4.7 million. The increasingly professional conservative outfit Advance Australia reported $5.1 million.
A Labor source says the teal crossbenchers “don’t like” Labor’s approach because they “got elected on a wave of big money – progressive money, yes, but big money”. “We’re doing tax [the stage three debate] at the moment but Don will introduce a bill that probably no one else will like,” they said.
“Is there then a negotiation between Labor and the cross bench or is there a negotiation between the major parties?”
Peter Dutton essentially lost the tax reform debate this week after agreeing to wave Albanese’s changes through the parliament. Research from The Australia Institute released on Thursday showed 62-63 per cent of voters in the wealthy teal seats of Kooyong, Mackellar and Wentworth “totally supported” the rejigged stage three tax cuts. Zoe Daniel conducted her own survey in Goldstein, which indicated similar support.
The debate’s diminuendo less than a month out from the Dunkley byelection – Labor expects a vote against the government, despite the average voter being hundreds of dollars better off each year – has cleared the way for a battle on electoral funding policy.
Political shenanigans like these are a world away from the grassroots work being started by people such as Christine Moore in Fairfax. It will all have some bearing, of course, but right now they are just looking for inspiration.
In the room in the Sunshine Coast electorate on February 1, Kylea Tink told those present that her team’s initial plan in North Sydney was to push then Liberal MP Trent Zimmerman, a party moderate, into marginal territory.
Instead, they overshot the runway and blasted him out. Tink won on a two-candidate preferred share of 52.9 per cent.
“She said, you know, ‘this isn’t what I signed up for’,” Moore laughs.
“They just wanted to bring some attention to the place! And if we can do that here, that’s just great. But as Kylea Tink said, be careful what you wish for.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 10, 2024 as "Inside Climate 200’s election plans".
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