Opinion

Simon Holmes à Court
Lessons from the teal seats

The phrase was coined by a volunteer for Sophie Scamps in Mackellar, but it was just as fitting in Kooyong or Goldstein or anywhere else that people were experiencing the optimism and satisfaction of engaging for the first time in a political campaign. The phrase was “active hope”.

By 7.30 on election night, 1200 locals dressed in teal T-shirts had already assembled at the Auburn Hotel in Hawthorn, where Dr Monique Ryan was running against Josh Frydenberg. They were there for the culmination of months of active hope.

By 8pm, Antony Green was cautiously suggesting that Mackellar, North Sydney, Wentworth and Goldstein would sit with independents by night’s end. Mackellar fell first. At 8.45pm, Liberal strategist Tony Barry was calling it a “tealbath”. Green giggled: “This is more complicated than I expected.”

It certainly was. Young volunteers with open laptops yelled out as booth results came in for Kooyong. A 7.5 per cent swing against Frydenberg from the Balwyn booth and a 6.6 per cent swing from Deepdene. On hearing those figures, Ryan’s campaign director, Ann Capling, let out a squeal of excitement. “Deepdene! Balwyn!” she repeated three times. This move in Ryan’s “tiger country” – a term strategists use for “unwinnable” territory – signalled that a win was within reach.

By the end of the night, the Liberals, the party of government more often than not in the decades since World War II, had lost seven additional seats to independents – six of them to “teals”, the grassroots community efforts following some version of the “Voices of” model developed in the Victorian border electorate of Indi a decade ago.

The model that elected and re-elected Cathy McGowan, who then passed the mantle to Helen Haines, was translated by residents of Warringah for the election of Zali Steggall in 2019.

McGowan has the ability to energise groups of citizens across the country, aghast at what the two-party system has become, to flex what she calls their “courage muscle”. In February last year her Community Independents Project (CIP) ran an online conference entitled “Getting Elected”. It attracted 300 attendees across 72 electorates. Throughout 2021 McGowan’s CIP, and a constellation of veterans from the successful Indi and Warringah campaigns, helped dozens of communities find their feet.

Once the campaigns had formed their teams, selected candidates and had runs on the board with fundraising, volunteers and events, they were ready to engage with Climate 200.

This group, which I founded, methodically evaluated campaigns’ strengths and employed state-of-the-art research methods to ensure that our crowdfunded financial resources were focused on winnable seats. Climate 200 provided funding and expert advice, but always to boost and never as the bedrock. If a community campaign can’t assemble the social capital and wherewithal to attract hundreds of donations and volunteers, it’s ultimately unlikely to secure the 30,000 or so votes required to win the seat.

The entry into the community independents ecosystem of CIP’s inspiration, training and mentorship, and Climate 200’s unique support model, came just as the vacuum left by the Coalition’s abandonment of the centre became too great for our political system to bear.

Tens of thousands of Australians, locked down for long periods of 2021, spent evenings organising online, tapping into a groundswell of dissatisfaction and disenchantment among voters across the nation, people no longer satisfied merely to sit on the couch and shout at what they saw on the television news.

You don’t get 1400 volunteers out on the streets from some of the most comfortable bayside suburbs of Melbourne, or 2000 in nearby Kooyong knocking on 55,000 doors, unless there’s a movement itching to be mobilised – a “new” democracy movement. It was very much the same story from the northern beaches and eastern suburbs of Sydney to Perth’s leafy western suburbs.

Mike Cannon-Brookes talks of lighthouse projects: projects that most of us can’t imagine until we see them. The Big Battery in South Australia is one such lighthouse project. Before Elon Musk delivered the battery in 2017, energy market reports suggested that one megawatt was about the natural size limit for grid batteries. Once the 100MW battery was installed, batteries of that scale were no longer seen as fanciful.

Extending this notion, Zali Steggall and Helen Haines have been lighthouses for the community independents movement. Prior to the last term of government, it was received wisdom that independents could not have an impact without the balance of power. This is not true. Helen Haines, with her advocacy of a federal anti-corruption commission, and Zali Steggall’s Climate Act caught public attention and ensured that the issues remained a problem for Scott Morrison.

After this election, the question is not whether independents can be effective, but whether what just happened was a moment or a watershed.

The Liberal Party is at a crossroads, having lost six lower house seats to community independents. It won’t get them back unless it fundamentally changes its ways and understands why it lost the centre.

If the Liberals want to remain the “nattering nabobs of negativism”, to purloin a phrase from another context and another era, good luck to them. Morrison’s great gamble of abandoning the “federation seats” in the hope of picking up votes in the suburbs failed.

Centrist voters, the forgotten people of early 21st century politics, may have won this battle, but they have yet to win the war. And that’s a test for Anthony Albanese, especially his promise of inclusivity, because there are risks for him and Labor, too, should they not heed what we’ve just seen. The success of Dai Le in Fowler, and the Green wave in Brisbane, shows that both major parties are susceptible to community campaigns. Independents or Greens could threaten Labor in Sydney, for example, when Tanya Plibersek retires. They could also impact the seats of Adelaide and Perth, as well as in the increasingly gentrifying inner suburbs of Melbourne.

Australian politics might have had its presidential intonations for a couple of decades, but the tide turns and once again it is local. Community counts. Voters, especially women and the young, showed they were sick of the vacuous high-vis visits and the three-word slogans.

Gough Whitlam’s win in 1972 saw the shift of the baby boomers and the emerging middle class to Labor. In 1996, a “tradie” wave moved to John Howard. That was then; this is now.

Professional women are now a bigger cohort than tradesmen, and in this election they decided to vote in their own interests. As Kylea Tink, the new community independent member for North Sydney and formerly lifelong Coalition voter, put it: “I no longer recognise the Liberal Party and they don’t recognise me.” She was not alone. Kate Chaney in Curtin and Allegra Spender in Wentworth, for example, might well have been at home in the Liberal Party as it was before Howard.

McGowan ensured the muscle and the sinews for these community campaigns. Climate 200 ensured that the advantages the major parties enjoyed were closer to level, financially and technically. But make no mistake: Climate 200 remains a small player compared with the obscene advantages the majors have ensured for themselves, both in taxpayers’ money and resources.

It is a matter of pride that more than 11,000 donors from around the country saw fit to dip into their pockets and give more than $12 million to Climate 200. It’s more than small change, for sure, but it’s a drop in the bucket compared with Coalition spending of $181 million in 2019, $126 million for Labor, Clive Palmer’s $84 million. It’s less even than the $20 million spent by the Greens. All of that is without mentioning the significant publicly funded benefits – tens of millions of taxpayer dollars – harnessed for electioneering by the incumbents. Few realise, or would approve of the fact, that many people working on campaigns are staffers, drawing a publicly funded salary.

Still, voters saw the interchangeable caps and Sharks regalia and the “How good is…” bonhomie for what it was: artifice that insulted their intelligence. No more so than on climate change. Liberals have to face up to the fact that they took Australia backwards on climate. They fudged the numbers, told the same lies so often that they talked themselves into believing them. They were all sucked in to the Morrison pathology.

Every conman believes that what he is spruiking is the absolute truth however close or distant it is to reality. He said it: they had to believe it. We often heard the claim that we could be proud emissions had fallen by 20 per cent since 2005, yet the truth is that real emissions fell by less than 1 per cent from the time Tony Abbott took office in 2013 through to the end of 2020.

Under the Coalition’s own projections, emissions outside the electricity sector are set to increase, albeit slightly, over the 2030s. Any honest look at the numbers shows that most comparable countries are doing a lot better than Australia. No surprise given we’ve had no credible climate policy over the past three terms of government.

The Coalition deluded itself into believing that agreeing to net zero by 2050 – 10 parliaments from today – was a major achievement. It deserves credit for this target in the same way a toddler deserves cheers for their first successful night’s sleep without wetting the bed. Still, it has had amazing success in convincing at least some Australians that its abject failures and lack of planning are a success and a viable road map.

A clear message for all politicians from this election is that you simply can’t get away with ignoring the climate crisis anymore. It is 36 years since “greenhouse gas” was mentioned for the first time in parliament, by Labor veteran Barry Jones, who is now a Climate 200 adviser. Those long years are full of toil, often thankless, that made this, finally, Australia’s climate election. From climate scientists to non-profits, from journalists and filmmakers to community activists, and every single Australian who put their time, their energy or their donations into this cause: bravo.

For Climate 200, this is a moment for reflection rather than celebration – to keep faith with the thousands of people who trusted us with their donations in the expectation that they were contributing to a better future for Australia. It is a time for the community independents to shine, to ensure that they succeed, contribute to better government and better policy, and to encourage voters to add more of them to the next parliament.

As Zoe Daniel, the incoming member for the newly marginal seat of Goldstein, puts it: “In this term of parliament, we will have succeeded if we get the major parties to understand that the community is yearning for discussion rather than division, education rather than evasion. We must keep faith with the communities which elected us, keep our promises to consult, and bring them with us.”

This new community independents movement is restoring hope. Active hope.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 28, 2022 as "Lessons from the teal seats".

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Simon Holmes à Court is an energy analyst, investor and convenor of Climate 200.

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