Vivienne Kane is part of a group of 70 volunteers writing letters to the editor in order to unseat the federal treasurer.
The 64-year-old lives in Kooyong, the electorate held by Josh Frydenberg since 2010. She is volunteering for Prof Monique Ryan, the head of neurology at the Royal Children’s Hospital Melbourne, who was endorsed by the community advocacy group Voices of Kooyong to stand in the seat.
“I feel as though the independent movement actually has a genuine opportunity to attract the centre, and they’re the people that swing elections,” Kane says.
Ryan is one of 21 “Voices of” candidates to have announced their run for a lower house seat for the 2022 federal election, and more are expected to follow. In five Liberal-held seats – Wentworth, North Sydney, Kooyong, Goldstein and Curtin – they have emerged as the main opposition.
The grassroots campaigns have attracted tens of thousands of people across Australia, many of whom have never volunteered for a political cause before.
At least 13 lower house candidates and three in the Senate have received donations from Climate 200, founded by the Melbourne philanthropist Simon Holmes à Court, which has raised $7m to support independents who align with its key policy priorities – supporting evidence-based action on climate change, an integrity commission and donation reforms, and gender equality.
Government MPs are feeling the pressure.
In the Melbourne bayside seat of Goldstein, where the former ABC foreign correspondent Zoe Daniel has amassed thousands of supporters, the Liberal MP Tim Wilson complained to the local council that residents were prematurely displaying signs in support of his opponent, and also encouraged people to dob in neighbours with signs to receive a $1,000 fine.
The Queensland senator Matt Canavan has described the independents’ movement as “not authentic” and “not true locals”.
And in Sydney, Wentworth MP Dave Sharma, who is facing a challenge from independent Allegra Spender, claimed that Climate 200 was “outspending anyone” on political advertising.
Guardian Australia spoke to volunteers and candidates from “Voices of” campaigns across three states. The groups had different organisational structures and different funding rules. Some held public votes on independent candidates, some conducted an unofficial nomination process, and some decided not to endorse a candidate at all. At least two groups have split and are fielding competing independent candidates.
But all said they were motivated to act because they were disillusioned with the current political system and frustrated above all by lack of action on climate change.
The Zali Steggall effect
In most cases, the path to political action went something like this. They saw Zali Steggall handily defeat Tony Abbott in the northern Sydney seat of Warringah at the 2019 election. The 2019-20 bushfires dialled their concern about the climate emergency up to 11. They heard a talk by the former Indi MP Cathy McGowan, or listened to the interview she did with the ABC’s Richard Fidler. And then they went online and started looking for opportunities to act.
McGowan says the bushfires were a turning point in the willingness of communities to put up with what they saw as poor representation.
“Before then the whole debate had been polarised, and in the regions people were really reluctant to get involved in a climate debate. But it totally changed after those bushfires … I really think the community tolerance of climate inaction bubbled over in 2020.”
The ABC’s election analyst, Antony Green, says those caught by surprise by the wave of progressive independents have usually erred in viewing the climate emergency as an issue of the left, rather than one that concerns voters on all sides.
“There are a series of issues that Liberal voters will be interested in like individual liberty, human rights, climate change,” Green says. “They don’t sit on the left-right spectrum in the same way that other issues do, like the economy or union membership or wages and conditions or interest rates.”
McGowan agrees. “In the country you used to get accused of being a greenie, and that was a bad thing. A lot of that’s actually changed over the last couple of years, and being a greenie is not the derisive political cutting line that it used to be.”
Kane is a swinging voter. She owns a small printing business with her husband, and might be expected to vote Liberal. But she says she despairs at Australia’s failure to grasp the economic opportunities that could come from transitioning to a carbon-neutral economy.
“There are huge economic possibilities and we are missing out on all of those, and we’ll end up living in a much poorer country if we don’t do something about it,” she says.
“Climate change is the thing that worries me the most because everything else becomes redundant if we all fry and burn.”
She decided to volunteer on the night of the 2019 election, when high-profile campaigns by two progressive challengers – independent Oliver Yates and the barrister Julian Burnside, who ran for the Greens – halved Frydenberg’s margin to just 6.7%.
“It felt like: oh, this electorate is changing and maybe it’s not going to put up with bullshit permanently,” Kane says. “I looked at the Zali Steggall thing and I thought, gee, you know, if you actually get a genuine community movement, if there was a candidate who came up in Kooyong, I actually think I might do something about it. Because I think the situation in our country has just got so dire, that I just don’t feel like I can just sit back and do nothing about it.”
Jane Hearn volunteers for Kylea Tink’s campaign for North Sydney. She is retired, but spent much of her working life as a public servant at Parliament House in Canberra.
Before the “Voices of” movement, she says, there was no candidate or party in North Sydney that she felt like supporting. “Every year I used to think ‘it just can’t get any worse’ and I think it’s really absolute rock bottom now, and it’s destructive,” she says. “It’s kind of like a low-level depression, where you feel dispirited and depressed about political culture.”
She joined Voices of North Sydney and started attending discussion groups, called kitchen table conversations.
“I have actually met neighbours that I just wouldn’t have met otherwise,” she says. “Yesterday three of us went in our pink Tink T-shirts to a local cafe, and one person lives in the same apartment building as me and another lives two buildings along, but we’d never met each other. I think that’s what gives it more a feeling of connection … you’re meeting people who are in your local neighbourhood.”
It has mobilised people who were voting Liberal out of habit as well as Labor and Greens voters who had become resigned to never getting their party elected, Hearn says.
“Whoever the Liberal party trots out and puts up gets in by default because it’s so deeply ingrained in the thinking of people in this area,” she says. “It’s a bridge too far for them to vote Labor, and in fact they may not want to vote Labor.”
Kane describes the same pattern in Kooyong. “A lot of the issues of the major parties apply to Labor as well,” she says.
‘The LNP thinks it’s a hereditary fiefdom’
Some in the Queensland seat of Groom do vote Labor, but only at a state election. Groom, which takes in Toowoomba, west of Brisbane, is the second-safest Liberal National party seat in Queensland, with a margin of 20.5%.
“We’re so safe that we couldn’t even get a car park,” says Jen Patrick, a volunteer for Suzi Holt’s campaign.
Holt is campaigning to win the seat, but it’s a steep ask. A victory, in the first instance, will be to make whoever does win government pay attention to them.
“When you’re in a situation where the LNP thinks it’s a hereditary fiefdom, Labor doesn’t seem to be putting its hand up, and you’ve got a smattering of minor parties, I think an independent is the way to go,” Patrick says.
Holt, a social worker, is the only candidate endorsed by a “Voices of” group in Queensland so far. She has refused donations from anyone outside the electorate, including Climate 200.
The advent of Holmes à Court’s group has drawn claims from some Coalition MPs that it is more than a funding vehicle for independents.
“If it looks like a political party, if it acts like a political party, if it feels like a political party, I would suggest it is a political party” the Wentworth MP Dave Sharma told Sky News.
That has been rejected by both Holmes à Court and the independents supported by Climate 200, including Sharma’s opponent, Allegra Spender. The most high-profile independent, Steggall, has not taken funding from Climate 200, although she publicly supports the organisation. She raised enough on her own to turn down funding in 2019, and expects to do so again this year.
“In no way are we a party,” Holmes à Court told the National Press Club last month. “We don’t start campaigns, we don’t select candidates … We don’t have a policy platform. We have values, and we will only fund those who also have those values, but we don’t specify in any degree of specificity how those are to be achieved.”
Rob Priestly, the independent candidate for Nicholls in northern Victoria, and Linda Seymour, the “Voices of” candidate in Craig Kelly’s southern Sydney seat of Hughes, also said they would not take money from Climate 200. Seymour told supporters she pulled out of talks with Climate 200 because she did not support their funding criteria, which require community campaigns to have raised a certain amount of money before they apply.
In her campaign newsletter, she wrote: “Their determinate of a good candidate was how much money had they raised, they were not interested in my character, the validity of my community connections nor did they show interest in the Hughes community in general.”
The lobby group has donated to Georgia Steele, another independent running in Hughes, and Despi O’Connor, an independent candidate in Greg Hunt’s seat of Flinders in Victoria, who is running against Dr Sarah Russell, the candidate endorsed by the Voices of Mornington Peninsula.
Nineteen of the 21 candidates nominated so far by “Voices of” groups are women, as were many of the volunteers who contacted Guardian Australia.
McGowan, whose 2013 win in the previously safe Liberal seat of Indi sprang from the first “Voices of” campaign, says the high number of women could be because communities want to reset the balance, or that they know women to be good organisers and leaders who may not nominate themselves.
“I think in the past lots of blokes put their hand up because they think they can do it,” she says. “Whereas this has been because the community have gone looking for somebody who would represent them and they’ve gone to good women who they know are competent and able and have got integrity.”
A climatic shift
Dr Sophie Scamps, a GP and the independent candidate for Mackellar on Sydney’s northern beaches, was initially looking for someone else to run. She co-founded Voices of Mackellar and then another group, Mackellar Rising, with a view to fielding an independent candidate modelled on the success of Steggall’s campaign in neighbouring Warringah.
“Very much the message [from the community consultation conducted by Voices of Mackellar] was coming across: we’re not being heard, we’re not being listened to and we’re not being represented. What we need is an independent like Zali next door,” she says.
Scamps ticks a lot of boxes for an independent candidate: as a local GP she was well known and reasonably well-off, so she had the ability to put paid work on hold, and she was already heavily involved in the campaign.
She stopped working as a doctor and has been campaigning full-time since November. Her campaign was able to raise enough money to hire Populares, the campaign specialists who assisted on Steggall’s 2019 bid, and has also received $100,000 from Climate 200.
Scamps says that funding was given without prejudice, and she has never had a conversation with the group about policy.
“I think that the LNP is driving a particular narrative because they’re feeling threatened, and to try and paint it as a party helps their own narrative,” she says. “For Climate 200 to come in over the top and say ‘you’ve got to do this’ would go against everything we stand for.”
The sitting Liberal MP, Jason Falinski, refers to Scamps’s campaign as “the Climate 200 campaign” and has accused her of misrepresenting his position on climate change.
Scamps says she was motivated to start Voices of Mackellar after receiving a letter from Falinski in February 2020. It was a tick-a-box survey asking constituents to mark what issues, from a list of about 20, were of concern to them.
“Climate change wasn’t on that list,” Scamps says. “We were still breathing in the smoke from the fires.”
Later that month, she says, she met Falinski at a mobile electorate office event and, when she asked him to speak up on climate change as a moderate voice in the Liberal party, he replied: “The problem is, you can’t mention the words climate change in the party room because the Queensland MPs jump up and down.”
Falinski denies Scamps’s characterisation of both events. He says while the survey did not list climate change, it did list environmental issues, and that he had no memory of meeting Scamps at that event, and had “never thought, much less said” what she claimed he said.
“As the last five years of my time in parliament have demonstrated, I have had no problem arguing for climate change action and policy including net zero and upgrading our 2030 targets.” Falinski says. “Unlike some, I did not suddenly discover global warming when I decided I wanted to be a member of parliament.”
If Falinski has done his job as a local member as well as he says he has, he will not need to worry. According to the ABC’s Antony Green, for a safe seat to turn independent requires organisation, money, a well-known name, and a general sense from the electorate that they have been neglected.
That makes the national trend impossible to detect: it will be determined seat by seat. People might vote for parties out of habit, but an independent must secure personal support.
“For every Zali Steggall or Cathy McGowan there’s another independent who didn’t get up,” Green says.
The independent campaigns in the New South Wales seats of North Sydney and Wentworth, Victoria’s Kooyong and Goldstein, and Curtin in Western Australia, all have money, a name that is well-known locally and organisation, Green says. But there is one more element they need to have a realistic shot at winning the seat.
“The thing that works in favour of independents is if there is a perception that the sitting member is not good enough,” he says. It will be up to sitting members to convince the electorate that the final piece of the puzzle is missing, and they need to focus on their record rather than being distracted by the challenger.
McGowan, for her part, plans to spend the next three months on the road, helping independent campaigns wherever she can.
“I am absolutely committed to seeing more independents in parliament,” she says. “I’m basically accepting any and every invitation I can get to campaign.”
She offers a final piece of advice.
“If they are looking for the answer in me, I am probably not the answer,” she says. “The answer will lie in their community.
“You need to get your communities organised, get your volunteer base organised, and set up mechanisms where you respond to your local community … the campaign is the process of setting up a foundation for being an effective member of parliament.”
• This article was amended on 13 March 2022 because an earlier version misnamed Populares, the campaign specialists, as “Popularis.”