What the rise of community independents tells us about philanthropy

Thu, 13 Oct 2022

Politics and philanthropy are not natural confederates. At its core, there is a tight ethical tension between the two, where money, influence and consequence sometimes sit in uncomfortable proximity.

But perhaps the 2022 Australian Federal election eased that tension. And maybe the reason is the community independents’ movement that helped put 11 independents in to the Australian Parliament. Central to the community independents – or Teals as they became known – is Climate 200, a community crowd-funded initiative that supports political candidates who have a scientific response to climate change, want to restore integrity in public life and promote gender equity.  And at the heart of the organisation is its founder and convenor Simon Holmes à Court, who is also a director of the Smart Energy Council and the Australian Environmental Grantmakers Network.

The story behind the crowdfunding that underpinned many of the community independents’ election campaigns reveals just how powerful the themes of climate, integrity and women’s safety were in changing the Federal government. Not only did the issues resonate with voters, but they resonated with donors too.

Now, Simon has turned his hand to explaining what happened in the election, with a book called The Big Teal that sheds light on how a movement that emerged outside the conventional battle between the Coalition and the Labor Party shook up the national political landscape.

 On the evidence, the extent of Australians willingness to support community independents is significant: 11,200 donors, with donations from each of the 151 federal electorates, adding up to a $13.2 million campaign fund.

Simon explains to Philanthropy Weekly that two thirds of those donors were from rural and regional areas. There were people who gave $3 a week on their credit cards, others who gave $500,000. Some of the donors were those Australians who returned home from overseas because of COVID-19 and were motivated to give by what they saw as the poor state of Australian politics. There were interest groups and NGOs. And then there were the philanthropists, some of whom are well-known across the sector, and became engaged with Climate 200 when one generation of a family convinced their elders to get behind the group’s agenda.

“Often, it’s the third generation [philanthropists] who are 100 per cent on board with climate action and the values we espouse on integrity and women’s safety and then they lobby the second generation,’’ Simon explains. “The third generation said to Mum and Dad: ‘This is the kind of the thing that we’ve got to do.’’’

Something else had shifted too – there was now a willingness among some philanthropists to leverage their political capital. The consequence for Climate 200 and the community independents not only boosted their resources but helped their credibility too.

“A few of the philanthropists we spoke to, had through their advisor circles reached the point where they realized their political capital was a valuable contribution,’’ Simon says. “They were very happy to have their names out there. I think 20 years ago we would have got the donations secretly… They recognized that by sticking their head above the parapet they had a multiplier effect upon the money. It helped legitimize what we were doing to have that political capital lent and it helped bring in other people who may not have stuck their head above the parapet if they had been first.’’

Next month when the Australia Electoral Commission releases the details of the campaign donations, there will be about 65 donors to Climate 200 who gave more than the $14,500 limit. Those donors’ names will then become public. Simon believes that there is some safety in numbers for any donors who feel nervous about being named, but political donations are often sensitive and loaded with anxiety about the repercussions that come from supporting a political party or individual.

“There were people involved in significant charities who didn’t want the charity to be impacted…they were worried about what downstream effect there would be on relationships,’’ Simons explains. “I was pleasantly surprised at how many were prepared to put their head above the parapet, but I think everyone who did had to think for a little bit am I going to do this? Am I prepared for this? And a significant number did.’’

Perhaps the difference this time was the nature of the cause, and the community candidates themselves, building on the success of independents Zali Steggall, Helen Haines, Andrew Wilkie and Rebekha Sharkie in the previous parliament.

“It’s a pretty wholesome campaign – we’re fighting for climate, integrity and women’s safety. We’re supporting a community-led democracy movement – who’s not in favour of climate, integrity and women?’’ Simon asks.

The Holmes à Court name is well-known in Australia: from Simon’s late father Robert’s renowned business acumen, to his mother Janet’s deep commitment to a range of causes, from agriculture to the arts. Robert was a big supporter of Telethon, a Perth charity that raised millions for profoundly disabled children. Janet Holmes à Court AC is just about to step down as Chair of the Australian Children’s Television Foundation after 36 years, just one of many roles she’s had during a long period of public service. Simon and his wife Katrina have their own foundation called the Trimtab Foundation. As Simon writes in The Big Teal: “We don’t mind going first or taking reasonable risks with our philanthropy but we’re always looking for ways in which our giving might catalyse change in orders of magnitude greater than we could ever achieve on our own.’’

It is this impulse to create change at scale that in many ways sits behind Climate 200.

And the philosophy that connects democracy, climate and philanthropy is summed up in a pithy sentence Simon heard during a ‘phone hook up a few years ago. “It was that democracy is a climate strategy…and that really resonated, in much fewer words than what I’d been banging on about – that you can only go so far without a healthy democracy,’’ he says.

“If our democracies are not working, you’re banging your head against a brick wall. You take good policy put together by the smartest people, you have the evidence base for it and you take it up to Canberra and it just disappears into a vacuum. Or if the system has been captured by the vested interests that aren’t interested in those matters, or if they’re too distracted in factional battles or party politics. So, the idea that encouraging people to invest some of their capacity in the democratic process is I think a very prudent thing to do.’’

But you still have to find the best way to support those people – particularly donors – to feel that their commitment is not going to be risky.

“A big part of Climate 200 for me was that people who want change – not just the big end of town but all the way through our community, was firstly to make it safe to donate to politics,’’ he says. “I think most of us – myself included – have felt that it’s dirty to direct money at politics. So, [we wanted to] create a safe way of doing so.’’

One of the safe ways was to make the donation unconditional: donating did not give access to the MP or anyone else for that matter. It was, simply, a donation without strings attached, and an expression of support – for climate action, for public integrity, for women’s safety and ultimately, for the independent candidate.

“None of our donors, and not me or anyone else, is getting any kind of that access, or quid pro quo,’’ Simon says. “So, it’s not transactional. We aren’t in the business of starting campaigns or choosing candidates – so we wait until the community steps up and has gone out and found its own candidate.’’

Inevitably, the contradiction that emerges is that to take on the problems of the existing system of political donations necessitates raising money to support the candidates who will improve the system. “Ultimately, I would like to see less money in politics in order to level the playing field so that we can get the kind of candidates who can do that,’’ he says. “There’s an irony that we have to bring some money into politics [to do it].’’

What now seems likely is that the success of the community independents at the 2019 election and this year will inspire an expansion of the work of Climate 200. Simon estimates there could be as many as 50 community independents at the 2025 Federal poll.

In the meantime, he has a Victorian state election next month and a NSW state election in March. Each state has different electoral funding laws, so the challenge in the nation’s two most populous states is different.

“Our job is to convince people to donate to these campaigns and we can then provide limited assistance, in help and advisory to campaigns and there are limits to that too,’’ Simon says. “States are important – a lot of the environmental decisions that really make a difference happen at a state level…[and] it’s the same people who are working on the campaigns. The more experience they have and the more success they have not only does it help build the movement’s appeal and help build the movement’s skills for the next federal election, it’s keeping the movement match fit.’’

There was one other indispensable element to all of the community independents’ campaigns – the time given by volunteers. In the seat of Kooyong, formerly held by Treasurer Josh Frydenberg and won by independent Dr Monique Ryan, every household had a visit from a Ryan volunteer. In addition, her campaign had 3000 separate donors, outside of the Climate 200 support.

Simon recalls a phrase a volunteer and donor in the Sydney seat of Mackellar – won by independent Dr Sophie Scamps. “She said that the movement was “active hope’’ – you can sit at home and complain, and you can be grumpy about all sorts of things but getting out there and being an active part of the movement, gave her hope and people loved it,’’ Simon says.

“By election day, there were 20,000 volunteers around the country.’’

It’s a powerful indicator of how far Australian politics has shifted on its traditional axis.

The Big Teal (Monash University Publishing) by Simon Holmes à Court.

Philanthropy Australia is a non-partisan organisation and does not support or endorse any political candidates.