With Climate 200, Political Action Committees Have Arrived to Australia

A group of independent candidates purporting to break with Australia’s broken political system is contesting several conservative seats in next week’s federal election. Their claims to independence are mooted by backing from the PAC Climate 200.

Independent candidate Monique Ryan is one of twenty-two backed by Climate 200 in the federal elections. (WILLIAM WEST/AFP via Getty Images)

As the 2022 Australian federal election rapidly approaches, a wave of blue-green independent candidates standing in upper-middle-class electorates has Coalition MPs hot under the collar. According to Liberal polling, this “teal tsunami” looks likely to claim the blue-ribbon seats of Kooyong and Goldstein from treasurer Josh Frydenberg and assistant minister Tim Wilson, respectively.

The most recent YouGov poll, published in the Australian, backs up this estimate. Teal independents are mounting serious challenges elsewhere, including in the Australian Capital Territory, Queensland and New South Wales. Unlike other independents, the teal ones derive their hue from Climate 200, a group whose mission is to fund candidates who align with its values on the environment, government integrity, and gender equity.

Politicians and pundits across the spectrum are entranced. Former Liberal prime minister John Howard has derided the teal independents as “anti-Liberal groupies.” Deputy PM Barnaby Joyce has warned of “chaos” if teal independents win. Meanwhile, patrician small-L liberal outlets have celebrated the Climate 200 independents as a grassroots-led reinvigoration of democracy. The skeptical have accused the organization of being a party in all but name, or of entrenching the power of “dark money” over politics.

Climate 200 may be a relative novelty in Australian politics, but not so in America. In essence, it’s a political action committee (PAC), an organization that pools donations to fund campaigns and candidates. Progressive or not, by their nature, PACs are political organizations that maintain and reinforce elite control over politics. Far from repairing democracy, PACs are part of the problem.

The Teal Tsunami

Son of Australia’s first billionaire, Simon Holmes à Court established Climate 200 after being expelled from Kooyong 200, a Liberal Party fundraising group from the electorate of the same name. Before becoming a green-energy entrepreneur, Holmes à Court spent time in Silicon Valley helping to develop the gone-but-not-forgotten internet browser Netscape. Upon returning to Australia, he went to work digitally automating the water irrigation systems on his father’s eight Northern Territory cattle stations.

This election is not Climate 200’s first rodeo. In 2019, it attracted support from thirty-five investors, including Mike Cannon-Brookes. It backed twelve independents, including Helen Haines, who kept the North East Victorian seat of Indi in teal hands. This time around, Climate 200 lists twenty-two supported candidates.

Climate 200 rightly argues that corporate donations are a major factor behind the major parties’ dogged commitment to fossil fuels. The Liberals, Nationals, and the Australian Labor Party receive hundreds of thousands in donations from fossil fuel companies. Indeed, in 2021, the coal, oil, and gas industry paid over $1.7 million in donations, an increase of 30 percent compared to 2020. This sum is dwarfed by the $60 to $70 million that mining billionaire Clive Palmer will spend to promote the United Australia Party, which recently announced it will preference the Liberals in a number of key marginal seats.

Climate 200 raises funds to counter this influence. Holmes à Court acknowledges that this “spending to influence” ethos is like fighting fire with fire. The sentiment echoes the views of Harvard professor Lawrence Lessig, founder of Creative Commons, who Holmes à Court credits as one of his “favorite contemporary thinkers.” In 2013, Lessig founded the Democratic Party–aligned Mayday PAC which spent $10 million in an attempt to elect congressional candidates committed to passing campaign-finance reform. As Evan Osnos wrote in the New Yorker, “It was a super PAC designed to drive its own species into extinction.” As Lessig commented at the time, “Yes, we want to spend big money to end the influence of big money. . . . Ironic, I get it. But embrace the irony.”

The Mayday PAC was not successful; all the candidates it funded lost. Climate 200, however, seems set for better results. So far, they have built a war chest of just over $7 million, with a target of $15 to $20 million, allowing it to give its candidates much more than the major parties spend on most of theirs.

In the blue-ribbon seats of Wentworth, Mackellar, North Sydney, Kooyong, Goldstein, Warringah, and Curtin, Climate 200–backed independents have already outspent their Liberal counterparts by a fair measure. According to Facebook and Google transparency reports, the independent candidate and neurologist Dr Monique Ryan has spent more than $170,000 on digital advertising to try and unseat treasurer and deputy PM Josh Frydenberg. For his part, Frydenberg has spent $140,000 so far, including $25,000 worth of targeted digital content designed to associate Ryan’s campaign with uncertainty.

Elite Ecopolitics

Climate 200 is also a response to political realities. As the Liberal and National parties lurch to the right, they have alienated the well-off, socially and culturally progressive small-L-liberal voters who formed much of their historic base. In previous years, the Greens sometimes fought for these voters beyond Labor’s reach in electorates like Kooyong, in Melbourne’s genteel, leafy inner east.

Under Adam Bandt’s lead, the Greens have shifted in a more social democratic direction, taking the space once occupied by Labor’s left. Their most hopeful campaigns are built on patiently recruiting, organizing, and training hundreds of new members and volunteers. This shift has created an opening for Climate 200 candidates, who are now busily cornering the “tree Tory” market. Even former Liberal prime minister and investment banker Malcolm Turnbull has thrown his support behind the teal independents, as a way to “thwart” the hard-right factions that now dominate his party. In sum, Climate 200 is pitching to the kind of educated, wealthy, metropolitan voters who would previously have been represented by the Liberal Party’s moderate “wet” faction.

This is reflected in its list of candidates. Out of twenty-two candidates, six have been executives, directors, or CEOs of either large businesses or NGOs, usually with an environmental connection. Three are current or former small-business owners. Ten are from senior professional backgrounds, including lawyers, senior academics, a film and theater producer, an ABC journalist, a former Wallabies player, and a doctor. Three are sitting MPs. They are standing in some of the most privileged seats in the nation, including in well-above-average-income parts of Melbourne, Sydney, Perth, the Adelaide Hills, and Hobart. The few regional seats with teal challengers are also comparatively well-off — for example, the North Coast of New South Wales or Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula.

The majority of Climate 200’s candidates are women, reflecting widespread disgust at the Coalition’s ingrained culture of misogyny. While these candidates identify as feminists, there are no candidates representing or advocating for predominantly female industries such as eldercare, nursing, and education, whose low rates of pay underly the gender pay gap.

Climate 200’s candidates are also overwhelmingly white. This stands in stark contrast to the Greens’ Victorian Senate ticket, for example, which is the first in the state’s history to be made up entirely of First Nations candidates. Labor, too, is fielding a considerably more diverse array of candidates, reflecting the breadth of electorates that the major party needs to contest.

In short, Climate 200 is a home away from home for Liberals who like their lawns green, their representatives cultured, and their corporations woke. Holmes à Court summed it up well in his February speech to the National Press Club:

These candidates don’t need to go into politics to be successful; they are already successful. They are business owners, doctors, lawyers, journalists and athletes. They’re in it for the right reasons.

The First Australian Super PAC

Both the Australian and the Australian Financial Review have argued that Climate 200 is a rehash of the now defunct Australian Democrats. Others in the Coalition have argued that it’s an undeclared “secret party.” Responding to these arguments, Holmes à Court has insisted that Climate 200 is not a party because its backing is given “with no strings attached,” and that it only advises its candidates. As he explained to the National Press Club,

Many people are having a hard time wrapping their heads around the community independents movement. They cannot see it through anything other than a party lens. The movement is nothing like a party . . . there is no hierarchy, no leader, no head office. No coordinated policy platforms. . . . It’s a spontaneous, autonomous and entirely individual set of responses across the country to community dissatisfaction with “politics as usual.”

It’s true that Climate 200 reflects and reinforces a groundswell of sentiment that has attracted many volunteers and many donors. More importantly, it’s also true that Climate 200 is not a party.

Ideally, political parties maintain a mass membership that agrees with the party’s program, attends branch meetings, pay dues, and volunteers during elections or other campaigns. In return — again, ideally — party members have a say over preselection of candidates, policy, and party leadership. With the exception of the Greens, Australia’s major parties fall far short of this ideal. But at least their structures, constitutions, and platforms retain some vestigial commitment to this far more democratic form of organized, mass politics. By contrast, Climate 200’s volunteers and donors have no say whatsoever — unless they are major donors or well-connected thanks to social networks derived from their status and class position. If a political party is the family home, Climate 200 is a pricey Airbnb in wine country.

This is why Climate 200 should be seen as a US-style PAC. PACs are formed for the purpose of raising and spending money to elect and defeat candidates in line with the PAC’s perspective and the interests of its backers. Indeed, Climate 200 is more like a super PAC, a relatively recent development on the model defined as an “independent expenditure-only political action committee.” Super PACs may raise unlimited sums of money and engage in unlimited spending to support political campaigns, include advertising. At the same time, they are not allowed to either coordinate or make contributions to candidate campaigns or party coffers. They are supposed to have no say when it comes to policy decisions.

In practice, they exert a huge influence. Bernie Sanders’s 2020 campaign in the Democratic Party primaries attracted far more volunteers and small donors than any of his rivals, and in many places drew on preexisting leftist organizing. Despite this, Bernie’s rivals vastly outspent him, in large part thanks to fundraising by establishment PACs and super PACs. This was a crucial ingredient in Joe Biden’s victory in the primaries. The dominance of PACs in US politics is a symptom of a party system designed to exclude genuine mass participation, in which campaign committees direct funding granted from above. PACs don’t sidestep the problem of political parties — they are quite compatible with the worst, least accountable parties. US political parties don’t have members, after all, only registered voters, making them more reliant on sponsorship from the ultrarich and less reliant on their base.

Climate 200 reproduces this method by approaching candidates as a financier would investment opportunities. According to Holmes à Court, the group isn’t interested in “early-stage startups.” Referring to a Western Australian candidate they interviewed, he recounted how

we said “come back to us when you’ve got a hundred grand in the bank and you’ve got a candidate.” And with our guidance they very quickly got themselves together.

The language is telling. It’s true, as Holmes à Court says, that Climate 200 doesn’t start the campaigns, choose the candidates, or dictate their policies. They simply choose the most promising ones and “give them a leg up with funding and support.” That Climate 200 treats their candidates like an elite group of protégés goes some way to revealing the investment-fund logic behind the project.

While this doesn’t preclude mass engagement, it does make it a transactional affair. Indeed, the Climate 200 model gives candidates a financial incentive to engage with the communities they wish to represent. For example, Kylea Tink, who is running in North Sydney against Liberal MP Trent Zimmerman, says Climate 200 has matched funding against independent donations from the community to the tune of around $50,000. “It evens the playing field,” says Zoe Daniel, the ex-ABC journalist now vying for Melbourne’s wealthy bayside electorate of Goldstein.

Naturally, Climate 200 candidates echo Holmes à Court’s rhetoric about grassroots participation. Daniels describes how, suddenly, “grassroots community movements” have triggered a rejection of party-aligned candidates and a surge in demand for “values-aligned” ones instead. And it’s true that they have attracted thousands of volunteers. But then, so do many elite-backed centrist and liberal political campaigns. Climate 200 is to a mass movement as GetUp! is to a general strike.

David and Goliath?

Two candidates in the Tasmanian Senate race encapsulate the gulf between a politics that can speak for the voiceless and Climate 200: Tammy Tyrell and Leanne Minshull. Tyrell is standing as part of the Jaqui Lambie Network and hoping to unseat hard-right Liberal senator Eric Abetz. Minshull is standing with the Local Party, and is one of Climate 200’s chosen.

In a campaign video depicting scenes of everyday life for working-class Tasmanians, Tyrell explains how she and her husband Tim have “worked all our lives. He works night shift in aged care. I’ve worked in paddocks, factories, and offices.”

“I’ve felt what it’s like,” she continues, “to be unemployed, to be on Centrelink.” One wonders how many Climate 200 candidates could say the same.

After stating that Abetz has voted for pay cuts and cuts to social services for decades, Tyrell argues that Tasmania needs someone

who gives a damn about a hospital system that’s broken, who gives a damn about locking a whole generation of kids out of education, who gives a damn about an aged care system that’s been cut so badly that carers have been asked to do dishes and clean floors instead of actually caring for people, because there’s not enough money to pay for staff.

Compare this with Leanne Minshull’s campaign video, set to a soft acoustic guitar, in which she explains that

when I became a lawyer, I immediately started using my skills to make real and positive change. And I haven’t stopped! I use my legal and problem-solving skills in every part of my life: to grow my small business, to fight for real and meaningful action to address climate change, to understand complex economics and legislation, and to stand up to the bullies who choose to hurt our community.

Both candidates are independent of the major parties, both are women, and both represent an alternative to the status quo. You’d expect Minshull to push for a grants program directed at diverse, sustainable small businesses. Meanwhile, you’d expect Tyrell to fight for jobs, public housing, and hospitals. Minshull would nod sympathetically while asking you to fill a shift at short notice, while Tyrell would help you find a job after being laid off for refusing.

If Climate 200 helps unseat the Coalition, of course that’s a cause for celebration. But let’s not pretend it will reinvigorate democracy. It’s a blue-ribbon movement led and funded by those who are frustrated that their historic party no longer amplifies their well-educated, well-heeled, and well-respected voices. To combat climate change, we will need to nationalize swathes of industry, rebuild social services, reinvigorate unions and dramatically boost public spending to restructure the economy. We will need to tax the rich and radically reform our political structures. One doubts that many Climate 200 candidates would vote for any of this — it might harm their ethically invested stock portfolios.

In his press club speech, Holmes à Court noted that “in David and Goliath battles, we know that David sometimes wins.” Be that as it may, Climate 200’s candidates are not David. Nor are they Goliath. But let’s not bullshit — they’d be OK with Goliath if he set a somewhat more ambitious carbon emissions reduction target.

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Daniel Lopez is a contributing editor at Jacobin magazine.

Zowie Douglas-Kinghorn is a young writer and the nonfiction editor at Voiceworks magazine. In 2018, she won the Scribe Nonfiction Prize.

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