Climate 200 has rubbished Liberal party claims that Simon Holmes à Court and four teal candidates have engaged in “criminal” conduct by acting as a party ahead of the Victorian state election, describing the allegations as “baseless” and “vexatious”.
A formal complaint was lodged by the Liberals with the Victorian Electoral Commission over the teal campaigns’ fundraising and operations, accusing them of effectively operating as a party.
Climate 200 was founded by Holmes à Court. Its executive director, Byron Fay, accused the Liberals of distracting from the campaign by attacking the movement and leaking the complaint to the media weeks after it was first made.
“We saw similar vexatious behaviour from the Liberal party at the recent federal election – a string of baseless complaints, manufactured for the media, amounting to nothing,” Fay said.
“It’s a campaign tactic designed to waste everyone’s time.”
Fay said Climate 200 had not been contacted by the VEC in the weeks since the letter was sent by the Liberals.
In the letter sent on behalf of the Victorian Liberal party last month and seen by Guardian Australia, its lawyers requested an investigation into Holmes à Court, Climate 200 and three other companies the lawyers described as “Teal Party group entities” – the groups behind the campaigns in Kew, Hawthorn and Mornington.
The letter also named Sophie Torney, Kate Lardner, Melissa Lowe and Nomi Kaltmann, who are respectively running in Kew, Mornington, Hawthorn and Caulfield.
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It alleges that they all “appear to be carrying out a scheme with the intention of circumventing the general cap on political donations” by portraying themselves as third party campaigners and independents “rather than as part of the same political party”.
A spokesperson for the VEC said it was looking into the claims.
“The VEC’s inquiries into the complaint … are ongoing,” the spokesperson said. “We will not provide any commentary in respect to complaints, but we can say that our inquiries into this complaint will not be completed before election day.”
Fay said the claims were “utterly unfounded” and Climate 200 was “nothing like a party”, noting it had no members, branches, policies nor candidates.
“Climate 200 merely supports community-led independent campaigns that share a basic set of values with our 11,500 donors,” he said.
Lardner said the letter was a “campaign tactic” designed to delegitimise her independence.
“The claims made by the Liberal party in this document are completely unfounded. It’s clear that the party is concerned with the growing popularity of independent candidates,” she told Guardian Australia.
Kaltmann, meanwhile, said she was glad to be “taking up Liberal headspace”.
“The unfortunate reality for the Liberal party is that these sorts of tactics didn’t work for them at the federal election and it’s not going to work now,” Kaltmann said.
“Instead, they’re promoting the profile and community name recognition of independents, which is really important during an election campaign. So on some level, we’re grateful.”
The candidates on Thursday scored a victory against the VEC on an unrelated matter, with Victoria’s civil and administrative tribunal overturning its rejection of their how-to-vote cards.
The ruling means the cards can continue to feature the number “1” beside their names while keeping preference boxes next to other candidates’ names blank.
On Wednesday, Lowe, Torney and Kaltmann, as well as the Brighton independent candidate Felicity Frederico were issued with cease and desist notices preventing them from handing out the cards and warned failure to comply could lead to six months’ jail time or an $11,000 fine.
Torney said she welcomed Vcat’s ruling.
“It’s unfortunate that we had to invest campaign resources into this challenge during the important prepoll period, but in the interest of fairness and the integrity of the electoral process we had no choice,” she said.
“We look forward to handing out our original how-to-vote cards at prepoll and on election day without further interference from the VEC.”