Climate 200 challenge major political players by supporting independents taking action on climate, integrity and gender equity. Their fundraising efforts help level the playing field.

When Simon Holmes à Court addressed the National Press Club on 16 February, he made one thing clear: our government had their chance to address climate change and they squandered it.

“Australian politics is broken,” he began, in a speech titled ‘Independents and climate – the hope to end the lost decade’.

Simon, an Australian entrepreneur, cleantech investor, philanthropist, and convenor of the organisation, Climate 200, spoke of a nation at the end of their tether. “We are frustrated that so often our government is found to be either lying or incompetent. And sometimes both. We have a government more interested in winning elections than improving our great nation. We have a government that seeks power without purpose.”

But what Simon also spoke of was a route out; a path to progress based on a different approach in this forthcoming election.

And what is the fundraising story here? Well, it’s a fascinating one. It’s one of a need for donation transparency, it’s a story about securing funding for advocacy at a time when it is actively discouraged and hindered by our government, and it is a movement of people so invested in change they are willing to spread the message, put themselves on a public platform, and forego any tax benefit for their generosity.

In telling this story, we will begin with the crux of the issue.

A catalogue of frustrations

Simon believes there are three main issues that have worn away the morale of Australians during the current leadership.

Those are a frustration about climate inaction, about corruption in politics, and about the treatment and safety of women.

Climate

In February 2019, just three months before the last federal election, “the Coalition’s lack of climate policy was an embarrassment,” says Simon. Desperate not to go into the election empty-handed, the Coalition announced a $3.5 billion Climate Solutions Package. Whilst this sounds like a large chunk of funding, $1.4 billion of that allocation was already earmarked for Snowy 2.0, announced two years earlier. The remaining $2 billion was essentially Tony Abbott’s Emissions Reduction Fund rebranded. Initially, the government said it would invest that $2 billion over 10 years: $200 million a year in emissions reduction. But when the budget was announced, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg stretched that decade to 15 years, with only $189 million allocated over the four years 2019 – 2023.

“The government’s plan to reduce emissions is a joke that nobody finds funny.”

More than three quarters of the annual spend evaporated in an instant. Weeks later, in the midst of the election campaign, the treasurer announced $260 million for a level-crossing removal project in his electorate.

It is worth digressing to mention that several years ago, Simon had faith in Josh Frydenberg’s efforts, even joining the Kooyong 200 Club (Frydenberg’s personal fundraising group) on the basis that the now-treasurer was going to do something about climate change. This support took a sharp U-turn when Simon ‘got booted’ for writing an article criticising Mr Frydenberg and his Coalition colleagues for trying to extend the life of the Liddell coal-fired power station in NSW.

“It gets worse,” says Simon. “Here we are, three years on, and not one cent of the Climate Solutions Fund has been spent, not one cent. Yet right now our government is spending millions, something like $7 million a month at the moment, on the Positive Energy greenwashing campaign, telling us that Australia is doing great on emissions reduction, a bold-faced lie. This is taxpayer funded election advertising disguised as information.

“The truth, by the government’s own numbers [is that] real emissions have fallen by less than 1% between 2013 and 2020. And outside of the electricity sector and the government’s plans, emissions are flatlining, not falling, through to the end of this decade.

“The government’s plan to reduce emissions is a joke that nobody finds funny. And nor should they, because it is consistent with the destruction of the Great Barrier Reef and the 64,000 full-time jobs that it supports — which is more than are employed in the coal mining sector.”

We are missing in action on the largest economic and business boon of this century, argues Simon, dismayed about the loss of potential earnings related to opportunities such as the electric vehicle revolution. Deloitte estimates that 250,000 jobs and $680 billion economic boost are ours for the taking if we truly embrace policies that rapidly take us to net zero emissions.

But ‘embracing’ these forward-thinking policies is a point we are nowhere near, Simon laments. And, he continues, how can we get there if we’re not even honest with the Australian public?

Integrity, or lack thereof

Simon lists a litany of questionable decisions made by the Coalition. Watergate, the government’s $80 million buy-back water deal from Cayman Islands company, Eastern Australia Irrigation, co-founded by, (now) Energy Minister, Angus Taylor. Grassgate, an attempt to quietly delist an endangered grass species on that same minister’s property.

And Simon goes on: “We’ve seen the trashing of Freedom of Information… the defunding of the Australian National Audit Office… but most of all, the failure to legislate a national anti-corruption commission is yet another broken promise from a government full of broken promises,” he continues.

Just last month, Australia recorded its worst ever score in the annual Transparency International Corruption Perception Index.

And in 2021, Australia dropped to 50th place on the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap index.

“Women around the country are red hot with anger”

Regardless of whether you agree with Simon’s beliefs, it is fact that women continue to be under-represented in parliament, accounting for just 20% of Coalition members in the lower house. 25 years ago, it was 21%.

“You have to wonder whether the poor representation of women in parliament isn’t partly to blame for the culture that we find ourselves in,” says Simon, “they’re furious that we have made so little progress over recent decades, and that the current leadership team treats women as if they are some political problem to be managed.”

But the tide is turning. Monique Ryan, the independent candidate for Kooyong, was recently quoted as saying “When a woman in her fifties sees a problem, she says to herself, just give it to me, I’ll fix it.” Monique is part of an uprising, one of several women, and men, standing as community-backed independent candidates in the next election.

Enter Climate 200.

Climate 200’s strategy: striking at the root with community-backed independent representatives

“There are many ways we hack at the branches for change in our society,” suggests Simon.

“You can write letters to the paper. You can complain on social media. Go and join millions signing petitions online or march in the streets. You can meet regularly with your local member, as I did for many years with Josh Frydenberg – I even joined his personal fundraising group. Some choose to join the parties and attempt to change from within.”

Many donate to charities. Environmental philanthropists donate over $250 million each year to charities in an attempt to stave off climate change and ecological degradation. But this funding is futile if the environment sector’s science-based recommendations are rejected by our government.

“The sad reality is, in many ways Australia is going backwards,” Simon states.

“Hacking at the branches hasn’t been working, we have to strike at the root. And I say that striking at the root means getting people into parliament who are strong, independent and ready to hold government accountable.”

Climate 200, its name a tongue-in-cheek play on Josh Frydenberg’s aforementioned Kooyong 200, was established in 2019. Its purpose? To raise at least $15 – 20 million (before the election) for 10 to 12 ‘high quality, values-aligned candidates’ across the country committed to climate, integrity and gender equality. Climate 200 will provide these independents with direct funding, strategic communications, analytics and engagement, and capacity building and tactical support.

“There’s nothing so wrong with our parliament that we can’t fix it with the right people,” says Simon.

“We bemoan the takeover of parliament by careerists who started in student politics, worked as staffers and have never had a real job. We often lament that accomplished Australians rarely step up and run for parliament. Well, here are the independents that you asked for. Here are the real Australians that you wanted. Like most Australians, these candidates are not warriors of the left or the right. They speak from the heart of their communities about the issues that really matter.”

Climate 200’s vision? “A Federal Parliament where a clear majority of MPs back decisive, science-based climate action, and have the courage and vision to seize the incredible economic opportunity decarbonisation presents to Australia.”

The organisation is clear that they are not a political party and do not select candidates. “We don’t start campaigns, we don’t select candidates, we wait for these campaigns to come up through the grassroots and demonstrate strong community support, demonstrate capable campaign teams, and demonstrate the ability to fundraise within their community,” says Simon.

That’s not to say that the neutrality of the group has not been called into question by some, and that they have not received their own unwelcome media coverage – see the controversial donation to independent, Zali Stegall, which was overseen by Damien Hodgkinson, now Climate 200’s financial controller.

So, $15 – 20 million. It’s not an inconsequential amount is it? How do Climate 200 intend to raise this money, and how will they do so without falling prey to the lack of transparency they so vehemently accuse the major parties of?

Fundraising approach

Back in 2019, Climate 200 was kickstarted by around 30 investors, who shared a common concern about climate. That list of concerns has grown to include transparency, corruption and the treatment of women. These high-net-worth individuals (HNWI) continue to play a key role – not just with their monetary clout, but with their influence.

The organisation has expanded its approach, building a fundraising team headed by former Guardian Australia’s Head of Philanthropy and Partnerships, Susie Bayes, who works within a team of three to nurture HNWI relationships (regular online briefings include updates on emerging independent candidates) and to expand into the crowdfunding model.

They have found that after every media opportunity donations flow in (Simon’s Press Club address reaped more than 700 new donors). A newsletter has secured many donations and a Raisely donation form on Climate 200’s website has delivered a raft of regular givers.

The independent candidates must prove their financial viability through their own fundraising efforts.

“If we can support a campaign, we will only ever support it with a maximum of 50% of their campaign costs,” explains Susie. In addition to coordinating their own fundraising activity, independent candidates must also mobilise volunteer support.

“You need volunteers who are happy to the trample the streets for weeks at a time,” says Susie. Those volunteers help spread the word, and many of you will have seem them in your own neighbourhoods wearing the campaign t-shirt, or proudly displaying a corflute on their fence.

This sounds similar to the standard charity fundraising model, doesn’t it? Which reinforces the messages that there are tried and true methods that work across the board: a loyal group of high-net-worth supporters who are stewarded effectively, making the most of media opportunities, telling your story in regular and engaging newsletters, , reporting back to your donors, and effectively engaging volunteers to spread the word.

What is different from the charity model is DGR status, or lack thereof, and this is where it gets interesting.

No tax deduction? No worries

Climate 200 is not a charity and so does not have DGR status. Susie points out that even if it were a charity, it would be shut down at the first post because “It’s not in the interest of the government to allow charities to advocate politically.” She is referring to recent bills aimed at silencing charities on issues of national importance, including regulations introduced in 2021 that would have given the ACNC sweeping powers to deregister charities for speaking out on behalf of the communities they serve.

“It’s the number one question from high-net-worth individuals and family foundations,” says Susie on the topic of whether a donation will be tax-deductible.

It comes up so often that it is mentioned as a standard inclusion in any donor briefings. Climate 200 have experienced a slowing or shutdown of the donation conversation when it becomes clear they don’t hold DGR1 status – particularly when talking to advisors acting on a donor’s behalf. But talk to the individual directly, Susie says, and explain that they have the power to contribute to systemic change, and they’ll often be prepared to make an exception and donate from outside their family foundation.

So, who are these donors willing to pledge their support without a tax benefit in sight?

9000 and counting

In February, Climate 200 received their 12,000th donation from a pool of 9000 donors who hail from a broad cross-section of society, mainly solicited from media events and a small amount of paid advertising. Those donations take the fundraising tally to $7.6 million – just over halfway to target.

In Simon’s Press Club address, he spoke of diverse representation amongst donors. He spoke of Ben Jowett, a 55-year old electrical fitter from a small rural town in New South Wales, a Navy veteran and member of a local Rural Fire Service. Ben has been donating $15 a month since 2019 because he wants climate action and a national anti-corruption commission.

Then there’s the major donors. Simon’s one of them, contributing $200,000 of his wealth, amassed from inheritance connected to the Holmes à Court dynasty, a career as a software engineer in Silicon Valley during the first dotcom wave and more than a decade in precision farm water management. Simon was also a driving force behind the country’s first community-owned wind farm, Hepburn Wind.

As well as philanthropy, Simon is no stranger to a spot of fundraising. In 2018 he tweeted about the #kidsoffnauru movement and accidentally created a social media moment, raising $118,000 in crowdfunding to support Kerryn Phelps’ Medevac bill and a dozen other projects raising awareness of human rights abuses at the hands of the Australian government.


Joining Simon in the high-net-worth pool of Climate 200 donors are the likes of the Milgrom Family, donating $500,000, Nick and Sandra Fairfax, donating $100,000, and Anna and Simon Hackett, also giving $100,000. All their gifts have been used to deliver highly successful matching campaigns.

These campaigns are publicised on the website, with a major donor pledging a set donation which then doubles community gifts until the matcher amount runs out. It’s not just HNWI stepping up to the matching plate. A group of passionate Canberran citizens, self-titled ‘Canberra for Climate 200’ were the organisation’s most recent pledgers, matching $48,381 of donations.

Susie explains that the team are currently going through a period of analysis with respect to matching campaigns. The leverage has undoubtedly raised both the number of gifts and the average gift, but will the impact lessen if the campaigns become the norm? A dilemma many fundraisers face in the rising tide of giving days and matcher campaigns.

Thousands of the organisation’s donors, big and small, are listed for all to see on a dedicated web page. What this speaks to is the importance Climate 200 places on transparency.

David and Goliath – a fight for transparency

“Over the last decade, the major parties have received $1.8 billion in funding, $180 million a year, and much of it from undisclosed sources,” says Simon. “In 2019 alone, the Coalition received $65 million in undisclosed donations. Josh Frydenberg’s Kooyong 200 Club [has] received $2.8 million over the last five years without disclosing a single donor, not one.”

Climate 200 state that they go above and beyond the legal disclosure requirement for donations (donations of $14,500 and above must be disclosed), encouraging all donors to share their names on the website. The list is updated weekly. Simon points out that this is something that neither major party comes close to doing.

The group has long advocated for reform of electoral funding laws, lower disclosure thresholds (currently the disclosure of donations under $14,500 is only voluntary) and real time disclosure. But the major parties have repeatedly blocked attempts by independents such as Andrew Wilkie and others to legislate these reforms.

On this note, Simon threw out a challenge in his Press Club address: “If the major parties agree to [introduce a mandatory] disclosure limit [of] $1000 and require real time disclosure, we will rapidly congratulate them and immediately follow suit for all donations received from that point onwards. And we have already taken the first step with our voluntary disclosure. So let’s see a real commitment to reform and let’s see it implemented in time for this election.”

Why aren’t Climate 200 already applying this reduced disclosure limit to their own donations you may ask? Two reasons. Firstly, the organisation has heard from several of their donors that they have received, let’s say ‘unpleasant’, calls from the major parties, aimed at casting doubt on their support of Climate 200. Secondly, the group believe that if they apply the new mandatory limit to themselves without the major parties following the same rules, they will simply get played out of the game for this election. When questioned on this point at the Press Club, Simon said: “[Applying these rules to Climate 200 and not the major parties would be like] asking David to tie his hands behind his back and put his slingshot down while Goliath is standing there with a bazooka and heavy artillery.”

Simon’s hope is that if independents get into parliament, they will be instrumental to introducing new integrity measures. “I wish it were possible for great candidates like Zoe Daniel, Dr Monique Ryan, Allegra Spender, Kylea Tink, and Dr Sophie Scamps [some of the independent candidates supported by Climate 200] to get elected with evidence-based policy and people power alone, as democracy should be,” he says.

“But if an innocent independent citizen is brave enough to stand up against the party machines, even if they can raise a million dollars, they’re very likely to be outspent two to one, as Zali Steggall was in 2019. The political parties are Goliaths, and they have rigged the game. But you know what? Sometimes in David and Goliath battles, David wins. The communities of Indi, Warringah, Mayo and Clark have all set a shining example for others to follow.”

If they come, will we follow?

As Simon neared the end of his Press Club speech, he shared some recent insights.

“Today I’d like to share two observations from our latest polling of nearly 9000 voters across 11 electorates where independents are running. Firstly, Scott Morrison is very much on the nose wherever you look. His net approval rating in these electorates is negative 11 points. Secondly, it shows why; in these electorates, voters rank climate change the number one voting issue in a majority of these electorates, and integrity in politics is usually second.

“The incumbent MPs say that they support climate action as their constituents want, but they never vote for it when it really counts… Voters are becoming increasingly aware that their representatives vote with the coal-loving climate science deniers like Barnaby Joyce; every single time they talk the talk, but voters know that they don’t walk the walk.

“So let’s fix Australia. Let’s fix our democracy by getting more ordinary, extraordinary and honest people in there. More women, more people with life experiences formed outside the halls of politics. We’ve lost a decade on climate action, on integrity, on gender equity. But this next election will be a chance for voters to press the reset button on Australia’s broken politics, and change is within reach. We have, at most, 94 days to grab it.”

There you have it, Climate 200 have thrown down the gauntlet. They have challenged our government to take climate change seriously and to communicate their campaign funding in an honest and transparent way. And to us, the community, they ask us to put our money and our vote where our mouth is. Will they raise the $20 million they anticipate they’ll need before May? And will the independent candidates they support make it into parliament? Watch this space.

 

To watch Simon Holmes à Court’s National Press Club address in full, click here.

To find out more about Climate 200, click here, and to speak with Head of Community, Susie Bayes, you can email her at [email protected]

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