“Active hope”: Holmes à Court pushes for a values-based Australia
14 November 2022 at 8:49 pm
In an exclusive interview with Pro Bono News, Simon Holmes à Court talks politics, the environment and the role of billionaires in a hopeful society, including on Twitter.
Six months after a tumultuous federal election, Australia’s parliamentary chamber looks very different.
It’s now populated by more politicians who support integrity in politics, action on the climate crisis, and gender equity.
Many of those independents were backed by Climate200, a crowdfunding organisation that rose to prominence during the campaign for its support of many of the independents — and for the man said to be behind it all, Simon Holmes à Court.
Holmes à Court recently gave his own view of what happened during the lead up to the federal election in a new short book called The Big Teal. It was written about six weeks after the federal election, giving Holmes à Court an opportunity to reflect on the role of Climate200 in supporting the so-called Teal independents to political offices around the country.
It allowed him to pull together the threads that led to that historic moment on May 21.
“That movement was already up and going and had achieved a lot long before I got involved. But there were a whole lot of factors that came together that for me personally, put me in the right place at the right time for it,” he said of his role in the community independents movement.
“Power without purpose”
The backbone of the Teals was the rigorous pursuit of climate action, an area in which Australia had long lagged behind under the previous federal government.
Holmes à Court’s involvement in climate activism goes back years, along with his interest in politics. As The Big Teal details, he found a nexus between these in founding Climate200.
With years of observing politics under his belt, Holmes à Court makes a withering assessment of the current state of politics: “the political system is so far from democracy as it was intended.”
Transparency from the major parties on how they choose candidates is missing; diversity of choice in who to vote for is also often nowhere to be seen, he lamented.
“Parties become like sports teams that people just… have loyalty to… but don’t really have much say over how they work,” Holmes à Court told Pro Bono News.
He feels the Climate200 model, with its local and independent focus, is about “restoring democracy”.
“The movements start locally. They choose people from across that community. They make decisions in a consultative manner. They’re deeply connected with their voters and aren’t answerable to anyone else,” he explained.
“I think that contrasts [with] these really opaque systems that have… become power without purpose.”
Watching the new community independents from the sidelines since the election, and observing how they represent their constituents and bring their own views and votes into play, Holmes à Court said he believes the movement is “working out very well”, adding complexity to Parliament without bringing about the chaos and dysfunction foretold by some in the media and in politics.
“It’s actually a really complex movement because it’s different in every electorate. People have organised themselves in slightly different ways. There’s no central rulebook of how to do it.
“But there’s commonality and… every one of [the independents] has got a different origin story. They don’t always agree. They don’t always vote on the same things but [have] nuanced and different opinions.”
Would the community independents movement work elsewhere?
The US is perhaps the world’s strongest current example of toxic politics — yet the red wave predicted in last week’s midterms failed to eventuate.
Asked whether the success of the Australian community independents movement could be replicated overseas, Holmes à Court admitted that while philanthropists and community organisers from the US, UK and Canada are reaching out to Climate200, it will be difficult to replicate the same kind of success seen here in Australia without preferential voting.
In the US in particular, Holmes à Court said there seemed to be many democracy organisations working to strengthen the system, focusing on encouraging people to vote, ending gerrymandering, encouraging integrity in politics and amending the voting system.
In Australia, we already have compulsory voting; gerrymandering is “just not on in Australia”; and the AEC maintains the strength and integrity of Australia’s voting system.
“We start with a much healthier system, whereas in the US, philanthropy has been engaged for longer and more deeply with improving democracy but it’s starting from such a fundamentally broken position that they dream of achieving the kind of system we have,” Holmes à Court said.
Nevertheless, he said talks are continuing between Climate200 and some groups overseas.
More than just a billionaire playing politics
Criticisms of the Climate200 model often focused on Holmes à Court’s own involvement, with some in the press likening him to a ‘puppet master’ pulling the strings of the independents.
But Holmes à Court said the community independents movement, and Climate200’s involvement, was fundamentally different to that of Clive Palmer’s United Australia Party in that it did not represent the interests of a single billionaire.
“Clive started a party to put himself in the driver’s seat and in parliament… [with] no discernible ideology or belief or higher goal other than his own interest,” he said.
“This was a single donor and nearly $200 million, whereas Climate200 was 11,200 donors. The media wants to look at who the biggest donors are, but there were 11,200 donors, probably the most diverse donor group to any political cause at Australian elections, with donors from every one of the 151 seats.
“[Around] a third of our donors were from rural and regional electorates, so a very diverse donor group. People gave what they could, so it’s not surprising that some billionaires gave significant donorations, but they’re far from the biggest donations made in Australian political history.”
Referring to the donations received by the major parties and the Greens, Holmes à Court added that large political donations are not new in Australian politics.
“What’s new is the depth and breadth of the donor pool that we assembled.”
But as he details in The Big Teal, Holmes à Court believes that the community independents movement, and Climate200, can reshape the face of Australian politics.
The movement proved that there was a different way of finding politicians, rather than the well-trod path from university law degree to political party junior and eventually, MP.
The community independents model showed that people who are deeply connected to and respected by their community, who are loyal only to that community and have no other allegiances, can also garner enough support to make it.
And the movement chose quality MPs, Holmes à Court told Pro Bono News.
“We end up with a much bigger pool that people are selected from, and it’s people at a very different stage in their career and with very different motivations. And it ends up with a wonderful kind of politician, or really, a representative,” he said.
The climate election
This election was also a referendum on climate, with climate-focused MPs sweeping seats around the nation.
And yet, climate denialism continues in Australia’s parliament and in some areas of the community.
But Holmes à Court, a long-time climate philanthropist at the forefront of climate action since his involvement with Hepburn Community Wind Park Co-operative, believes that deniers “understand where history is going on this”.
He regards the election as a fundamental shift in Australia’s mindset, and said philanthropists and social enterprises could play a larger role in fighting the climate crisis.
“A lot of what’s held us back on climate change has been fear,” he said.
But the proliferation of community-level renewable energy projects, often led by social capital and linked by a common purpose, can “take the fear away”, he added.
These movements can help people to engage in an issue and become more optimistic about the future they can help build, whether that’s through renewables or through grassroots democracy as in the community independents movement.
He said this ties in with a mantra seen throughout the community movement, called ‘active hope’.
Active hope involves actively working towards a goal, whether by giving time, talent or treasure, or a combination of all three.
“You do that with a bunch of people under the right circumstances and you can win, and you can bring about change,” Holmes à Court said.
Australia’s newly legislated 43 per cent cut in emissions doesn’t explain how we’ll get there, he said, but it does provide a starting point for others to set their own goals and targets, including state governments and investors.
But while Australia continues to expand its fossil fuel sector, Holmes à Court said, any federal emissions reduction target won’t be enough.
“It shows you that we’re not yet at the stage where politicians, where major party politicians, will say,’yeah, we accept the science’,” he said.
“So our work is far from done.”
Asked whether he would ever consider going into politics, Holmes à Court is emphatic: “if there was a 10 per cent chance before I got involved in [the community independents movement], there’s a zero per cent chance now.”
“I’ve seen what it takes to be a good candidate, and I know that that’s not me. I think you have to be an extrovert to do the job well.”
Billionaires and the media
The online world seems transfixed by the antics and actions of billionaire Elon Musk, who recently purchased Twitter.
The platform has lost staff, users and advertisers as the world comes to grips with its new ownership.
Holmes à Court, an active user of Twitter, said he had some concerns about Musk’s purchase.
“I think it is very scary when individuals have control over… influential media. Elon Musk, Rupert Murdoch, to an extent Jeff Bezos. In all those cases, you’ve got some people with very strong political views who have leadership [of the media]. A critical part of democracy is an open media, and I think open social media is part of that.
“If [Musk] does everything he says he’s going to do, it’s quite possible that the platform will change its nature significantly and change and affect the quality of conversation and debate.
“I think if you’re going to have control of the media, altruism is important. And I think too few media barons come to that responsibility with altruism,” he added.
A movement, not a moment
Holmes à Court is proud of his involvement in Climate200, even as the organisation buckles down on its next challenge: the Victorian election.
“I am shameless in supporting those values [of climate action, integrity and gender equity]. I think we can be a better country if we advance on any of those. And I’m not not afraid and not embarrassed to push those through,” he said.
“There’s nothing I’ve ever done that’s been more effective or impactful than bringing about an Australia that’s pulling its weight, and that is a good place to live in, and that Australians want to live in.
“I’m just a small part of Climate200, one of 11,200 donors, and then it’s part of this community independents movement. And so it’s really something like 30,000 people that made this happen. I’m proud of that.”
As the movement bears on, Climate200 is supporting some community independents at the upcoming Victorian election. There are also discussions happening with communities in New South Wales, Holmes à Court said — meaning Australia hasn’t seen the last of Climate200.
“I’m confident that there’s a lot of momentum in this movement. This is a movement, not just a moment that happened in May,” he said.