AS I CONSIDER how to contribute at the next federal election, I thought I’d republish, with permission, a chapter I wrote for the Fremantle Press anthology Women of a Certain Rage, in January 2020 after the failed 2019 ‘Climate Election’, amid the worst bushfires Australia had ever seen, before COVID changed everything.
#AustraliaBurns: Rage, A Climate for Change
‘Participation is the antidote to cynicism, as is action to rage.’ − Lesley Howard joined Twitter to track Sophie Mirabella’s re-election prospects in Indi in 2013 and became an indispensable No Fibs writer and a trusted Voices for Indi boundary rider.
It’s the middle of January 2020 and I’m with Mum in the lounge at her home on the Gold Coast, watching Australia at war with fire, crying and sending and receiving texts from friends in the war zones and exploding with rage at Scott Morrison on Twitter.
My mother is dying of leukaemia, and she takes a bird’s-eye view.
‘Don’t waste your time by demeaning yourself on him. He’s diminished, he doesn’t matter any more. More important things to do now.’
I had excuses.
I was one of so many active citizens of all political colours – red, green, blue, yellow – who’d switched off Australian politics in despair after a May 2019 election that full-stopped our efforts for a climate change breakthrough. It was too painful not to.
But I had to look again when Australia’s apocalypse, long predicted, long urged to prepare for, began in Queensland in early spring – spring!
So, yeah, despair had well and truly become rage that a snake-oil salesman had evaded our bullshit detectors and was showing us exactly what that meant amid an actual and existential national crisis.
There’s guilt behind the rage – personal and collective guilt that we have failed, all of us who tried hard to get serious Australian action on climate change and aggression on the world stage to speed up action before it was too late for us. We failed humanity because we couldn’t find a way to overcome the forces against us.
Australian economist Ross Garnaut, the man who more than a decade ago warned in a major climate change report of catastrophic fires due to climate change by 2020, said it out loud after the fires. Asked how he felt now, he said, ‘Sadness … that I was ineffective in persuading Australians that it was in our national interest to play a positive role in a global effort to mitigate the effects of climate change.’
Bottom line: Morrison is nothing now, except empty talking points and old dog whistles on climate change as he avoids discussing the Coalition’s failure to prepare national adaptation plans as a frontline climate change nation. Because you can’t discuss it if you won’t admit that climate change is a very big deal.
As for his #ScottyFromMarketing behaviour amid raw, real life at its most vulnerable and inspiring, the man is unfit to lead. I mean, we can now see him playing politics to save his job title as Australia burns. A hollow man leading a hollow government.
So here we are, unled, as Australia flashes her red lights to the world. We dragged the chain on national action. We subverted international action. Now we burn so hot and hard we’re harming the world’s climate and destroying our beautiful country and wrecking our economy. And as Australians pull together, love each other, die fighting to save life and land, and as people around the world donate time and money to help us survive the war, our politics remains stuck. Even as we burn.
Mum, my rage at Morrison is a projection of personal guilt and despair.
And anyway, he’s just a front. He’s the ‘leader’ left holding the rotten fruit of a party with a decades-long chronic climate change denial disease. For the 1990 election, moderate liberal Andrew Peacock and his environment spokesman Chris Puplick published Australia’s first big party policy to combat climate change, with a target (and a photo of a koala ) and John Hewson took the same commitment to the 1993 election.
But when John Howard became prime minister three years later (true liberals debilitated, hard right triumphant) he abolished modest Labor initiatives and cremated climate change as an issue.
The Liberal Party sacked Malcolm Turnbull twice as leader because he tried to find a bipartisan climate change energy policy to set us up for a carbon-neutral future. And under Tony Abbott, it repealed historic carbon pricing legislation negotiated between Labor, the Greens and two regional independents who’d left the National Party.
And yet, the fires have shaken the snow dome. Politics can never be the same, can it? We’re in a chaos phase where anything can happen, aren’t we?
The shocking dissonance, daily, hourly, can’t go on, can it? Apocalyptic scenes interspersed with acts of sacrifice and love and community spirit are rammed against the smirking ‘leader’ holidaying in Hawaii, washing his hands of doing anything – at least until public disgust saw him pivot with a social media ad: ‘Hi, I’m Scott, and here’s my ad showing how great I am. Look at me, taking charge!’
When the snow dome shakes, when political certainties suddenly become uncertain, when a broken national politics is exposed to the light for all Australians to see, what next? My Twitter take on January 3:
‘Everyone I know has a personal connection to Australia’s horror. The political fallout will be profound. Australians are deciding now who is fit to lead us during a decade of existential crisis. We are a different nation now. We will mourn, rage and despair. And we will act.’
My last gig as a mainstream political journalist took place before Twitter and Facebook, as founding editor of The Sydney Morning Herald’s Webdiary, Australia’s first mainstream media blog. It became a space for interactive reporting by me, and for people of all political stripes to write and debate in a civilised way. (It was my response to reporting the 1998 Pauline Hanson re-election campaign, and seeing the disconnect between two Australias and between political journalism and the people.)
When the SMH tried to take Webdiary away from me after publication of my book Not Happy John! Defending our Democracy, launched by Queensland’s corrruption commissioner Tony Fitzgerald QC, I took it independent with my readers and retired hurt in December 2005, physically, financially and emotionally broken (the SMH Webdiary is archived here – Fairfax deleted Webdiary from its website). Supporters kept it going until 2008, after it turned 12.
Suffering depression and chronic back pain, I eschewed politics for seven years apart from updating the book for the 2007 election.
At the 2013 election I put into practice what I had urged my bosses to do for years after my Hanson experience. On-the-bus election journalism was way past its use-by date, no more than a play between leaders and their courtiers, with the odd drop-in to marginal seats to speak to on-the-ground operatives. I thought a solution was for media to embed journalists in marginal seats to tell the daily story of the national election from the outside in, from the people’s perspective.
So in 2013 I asked my Twitter followers to volunteer to report the seat where they lived – safe or marginal. One messaged me that the seat of Indi was worth a look – independent candidate Cathy McGowan was taking on hard-right shadow cabinet minister Sophie Mirabella in her safe Liberal seat.
No Fibs, through local photographer Wayne Jansson, who has since become a cornerstone No Fibs volunteer, and Tweeps, via the #IndiVotes hashtag, reported every move from the ground. A group of community leaders had formed Voices for Indi to collect voter concerns and call for nominations to stand against Mirabella. Fascinating.
Apart from local media, we alone reported the battle for Indi until a few journos dropped in during the last week, just in case. We have an extraordinary archive of that campaign, the blueprint for how to create and harness support across the political spectrum, coordinated on Twitter through the #IndiVotes hashtag. It’s all there, folks, and Cathy McGowan’s sister Ruth last year published Get Elected, a step-by-step guide for independents seeking public office.
So here’s the Indi template for winning a safe Coalition seat. A genuinely cross-political community group finds a candidate who can pull together a coalition of red, green, blue and yellow voters to ensure she finishes second on first preferences and wins on the second preferences of other candidates. She does not recommend preferences to preserve the alliance. She runs a genuinely grassroots campaign empowering locals to do what they want to do to help.
McGowan was the only sliver of light for the political left at the 2013 federal election, and Tweeps invaded the hashtag for the week of counting before McGowan won with rhetoric so harsh and horrible (‘the witch is dead’, ffs) that locals fled.
Five years later the hard right killed Turnbull. How many climate change energy policies did he float? How many allies did he use to convince his party? Among them the Chief Scientist and, in the end, the two top Coalition-aligned business groups, the Business Council of Australia and the National Farmers’ Federation, both of which which directly presented the case for the National Energy Guarantee to the party room and won support from eighty per cent of MPs.
The hard-right heavies threatened to cross the floor, Turnbull folded, Morrison played his game of getting the spill for Dutton then beating him in the contest. Climate change energy policy disappeared.
Rage begets action. Turnbull’s resignation from parliament gave climate change believers a chance to flip the Libs the bird. Wentworth is a ‘Turnbull’ liberal seat: socially progressive, economically dry, environmentally green. If there was a chance for the moderate liberals – true liberals, I call them – to step up, this was it.
Kerryn Phelps – Wentworth celebrity doctor, former chief of the Australian Medical Association, City of Sydney councillor, Turnbull liberal – stepped up. And promptly blew it. Asked who she’d preference at her announcement press conference, she said if voters wanted to send a message to Canberra, they should put Liberal last.
It was over. Let me explain.
As in Indi, for a true liberal independent to beat the Liberal in a safe Liberal seat, she needs to come second on first preferences to the Liberal, and then harvest the second preferences of other candidates, because if she finishes third, the Liberal is elected on protesting Liberal voter preferences. To finish second, she needs first preferences of disaffected Libs, and Labor and Green voters. So she does not recommend preferences. She says she trusts voters to decide for themselves.
By effectively recommending preferencing Labor, Phelps triggered the killer Liberal Party play. Fellow City of Sydney councillor Christine Forster, Abbott’s sister, attacked quickly on Twitter, suggesting that Phelps was a Labor front.
As delighted lefties donated and felt excited to vote 1 Kerryn, enough Liberal Party voters fled to end her campaign.
Then she broke leftie hearts – she said she’d preference Liberal above Labor.
Prominent, supposedly intelligent lefties like Phillip Adams and Mike Carlton said they’d put Kerryn last. I know of at least one rich leftie who got a very big donation refunded.
I wrote a piece in The Sydney Morning Herald, Voters of Wentworth can present the nation with a gift arguing the case to true liberals to vote for Kerryn and spent fifteen hours a day, seven days a week on Twitter arguing the case to the left vote 1 Kerryn.
I soon realised it was hard, maybe too hard, to explain the intricacies of preferential voting, and why Kerryn was not a Liberal front – think climate change and Nauru for a start.
On the ground in Wentworth, the Greens preferenced Labor because she’d preferenced the Libs. Hopeless.
At the request of a local community information hub being bombarded with contradictory preferencing arguments I wrote The #auspol preference trap at #WentworthVotes, a post Kerryn promoted on Twitter, explaining how a ridiculous Libs–Green conspiracy would only serve to elect the Lib and why the left, centre left, centre and centre right needed to form an alliance to get her up. How hard is that to do for the greater good? Hard.
Several Tweeps spontaneously helped me argue the case – especially when I blocked people in frustration (my bad) – including Dr Daya Sharma, a Wentworth true liberal ophthalmologist; Isabel McIntosh, a Sydney inner-west Greens voter; Sean Bradbery, ACT Labor voter; and my man in Indi, Wayne Jansson. Wayne, an old leftie, also wrote a wonderful explainer about how he learned to love having an independent liberal MP.
Meanwhile, John Hewson, former Liberal leader and MP for Wentworth, wrote Kerryn’s radical climate change policy and doorknocked against Adani. Volunteers swarmed, mostly Liberal voters working on a political campaign for the very first time.
And at the end of the last, desperate week, the unprecedented happened: Bob Brown and Richard Di Natale published tweets urging Green voters to ignore the Greens preference card and preference Kerryn.
I nearly didn’t go to Sydney for Kerryn Phelps’ election-night party because I thought she’d lose and it would be a damn shame that a rookie error killed her.
She won, despite a million-dollar campaign by the Liberal, who’d been picked because he could bring in the big bucks even though he didn’t live in the seat.
Protesting Liberal voters and a huge number of Labor and Green voters who gave her their first preference got Kerryn an easy second place, and the win after preferences.
I experienced joy.
And so did Australians watching her dance her way to the stage victory entrance, stopped several times by jubilant volunteers dancing with her – and her inadvertent (?) punchline: ‘Thank you to the people of Warringah … ah, Wentworth.’
Oh, that very rich seat on the other side of Sydney Harbour owned by Abbott. Warringah local Louise Hislop, who had learned from Voices for Indi how they did it, and who had begun Voices of Warringah to try to expel Abbott, tweeted that night:
‘Look, we don’t want to get too cocky over this side of the harbour, but srsly, if you refuse to listen to the voices of the people, especially in regard to climate change, you will be punished. Wentworth one day, Warringah the next.’
Cue a piece in the Australian Financial Review. Tweet victory: How Libs lost Wentworth, which marvelled at the brilliant, but dark, very dark, ‘tactical-voting message’ of Phelps’ campaign, led by her ‘trolls’, including Simon Holmes à Court and me.
Ridiculous. Phelps had run a pop-up, grassroots campaign of spontaneous passion fuelled with money and support across Australia. For example, I was Kerryn’s Twitter campaign manager. Never asked or was asked. Became.
I’m an old retired journo: when the 2019 federal election came round, I wondered whether there was anything worthwhile I could do to bring people together on climate change to force government action.
How about this, I asked my No Fibs volunteers in No Fibs’ #IndependentsDay Twitter mission at #ausvotes. We run our own little campaign to help quality climate change independents in safe Coalition seats who demand honest politics through a federal ICAC. Help put climate change on the agenda on the ground. Focus on a second front, ’cause Labor can deal with marginal seats (stupid me).
It was gonna be hard work; my volunteers work for a living and I ain’t rich, so I needed funds to pay them a little bit. I breathed deep, tried to pretend I was a salesperson, and rang Simon Holmes à Court, whom I’d never met or spoken to. He suggested I start a Chuffed crowdfunding site; he said he’d make a donation and spread the word to friends.
Shit. Techie stuff is not my thing. Luckily I’d fallen in love on Wentworth by-election night with a woman (lifelong Liberal voter, first-time politics volunteer) who got the thing up quick.
And so No Fibs began its #IndependentsDay campaign by asking Tweeps to nominate quality climate change indies in safe Coalition seats who demanded a #federalicac to back and report on. As our election took shape we chose Zali Steggall in Warringah, Alice Thompson in Mackellar, Rob Oakeshott in Cowper, Huw Kingston in Hume, Jeremy Miller in Lyne, Adam Blakester in New England, Kevin Mack in Farrer, Helen Haines in Indi, Ray Kingston in Mallee, Oliver Yates in Kooyong, Anthony Pesec for the Senate in the ACT, and the sitting independent MPs Kerryn Phelps in Wentworth and Rebecca Sharkie in Mayo. I interviewed each for the No Fibs podcast produced by a new No Fibs volunteer Charlie Caruso at the start and end of their campaigns.
Sydney filmmaker Squig (@squig_), a Twitter friend, did three on the ground cost-price video ads in Indi for Helen Haines, in Cowper for Rob Oakeshott and in Hume for Huw Kingston (again, no relation).
Later – Simon kept forcing me to think bigger – I asked my Twitter followers to fund an #IndependentsDay climate change video featuring our candidates and Andrew Wilkie, the independent in the Tasmanian Labor seat of Clark. Charlie Caruso, who produced my podcast interviews with our candidates at the beginning and end of the campaign, mediated an impossible-till-it-wasn’t agreement on the video script.
The 7.30 Report, via Laura Tingle, reported on our video!
Kerryn lost in 2019, just, a magnificent performance given a Labor election victory was predicted and Liberal voter angst at Turnbull’s assassination had abated. Wentworth is now a marginal seat. (I recently published her campaign team’s dinner party debrief).
Zali Steggall, Olympic medallist and barrister, was inspired by Kerryn Phelps’s by-election win to step up in Warringah, and with overwshelming grassroots volunteer support trounced climate policy wrecker Abbott.
The big victory was Helen Haines in Indi. Written off, she was, as the Liberals poured in big bucks, Indi had no Sophie Mirabella to inspire protest votes and the perfect Indi independent had retired – Cathy McGowan was a fourth-generation local farmer, a founder of Australian Women in Agriculture, had worked for a Liberal MP and was close to National Party types. No seat had ever voted for an independent to succeed an independent. But Voices for Indi was a grassroots movement, and the movement selected Helen Haines. No Fibs helped her in a very tight race, I reckon, just like we’d helped Cathy in 2013. Honoured.
But for me, the biggest victory was in Mallee, the Coalition’s safest seat, an enormous Victorian rural electorate that had suffered the indignity of the married-with-children National MP resigning after being exposed trying to bed an escort in Hong Kong.
A semi-retired ABC sports journo, Dave Lennon, suggested No Fibs back his friend Ray Kingston (no relation) in Mallee and he reported the campaign from the ground. Kingston – farmer, local councillor, Ned Kelly beard, ultra laid-back. Yep.
Mallee got its first ever climate change candidates forum and its first ever serious Nationals advertising campaign. A travelling troupe of candidates held forums in settlements and towns across the seat; Ray slept in his swag. The big paper in the region, the Sunraysia Daily, hit the road, used Twitter’s #MalleeVotes hashtag to keep Twitter informed, and did videos on how preferencing worked.
The Nat won Mallee, but it was the last seat in the nation to be called, weeks after election day.
Climate Change Election lost.
Cue turning my back on Oz politics. Cue getting off Twitter. Cue trying to let it go.
So giving up on Australia, then.
Realising that meant, for me, becoming a bitter old alcoholic. Cue a book. First one in sixteen years.
I thought, hey, I can visit the #IndependentsDay candidates where they live, have dinner at their places with some of their supporters, write up their experiences and suggest bipartisan community groups get together now to find great candidates who can win and work hard to get them there. Tune out despair, tune in to meeting people who had cared enough to step up. Spiritual comfort. Hope.
Squig and I did the big road trip in July and I began transcribing my tapes.
Then Mum got leukaemia.
I’ve lived with my mother since my retirement. She’s looked after her eldest child and it was my turn to look after her.
The book would be useless anyway. Australia had decided who she was on federal election day, 18 May, 2019. Stop pissing against the wind, okay?
I see with clarity as I watch the Sydney Harbour Bridge fireworks on 2019’s apocalyptic New Year’s Eve that those who rule us are fiddling while Rome burns. The snow dome image pops up in my head.
Okay, we were unled. But we were now leading so strong the un-leader was forced to follow because he realised he’d lose his job if he didn’t.
Okay, it’s still essential for quality climate change independents in safe Coalition seats to be nominated by their communities to stand in these safe true liberal seats.
But political action is critical now. Cross-political alliances must be made now. We don’t have a real government, so we have to form an alternative one.
So I ask on No Fibs, how about the climate change independents and Labor and the Greens form a climate change policy roundtable? Easy to agree on the problem and the goal, much harder on the policy (the climate change indies and the Greens want to stop Adani; Labor won’t, for now at least).
So start with what they can agree on. The National Energy Guarantee, for example. Put agreed bills up now and keep talking. Dare the feeble moderate Liberals who say they want strong action on climate change but who, unlike the hard right, won’t cross the floor to get it. Tell ’em to act in Australia’s interest now or face mega campaigns for independents or Labor to beat them, depending on the realities of each seat.
Does the political class have anything to offer us at a time of existential crisis? Prove it.
For mine, Zali Steggall is the natural leader of our alternative unity government on climate change. She’s a true liberal representing a wealthy Liberal Party seat that expelled climate denier Abbott in emphatic terms. My guess is she’s advised by Turnbull and Hewson.
She’s drafting a ‘national climate change framework’ to put to parliament, which would set legislated goals to transition a decarbonised economy, like the UK, Ireland and New Zealand have done.
She has the support of climate change true liberal independents in traditionally Liberal seats: Helen Haines in Indi and Rebekha Sharkie in Mayo. I know Labor and the Greens are at loggerheads on climate change policy, but they need to work together, and with the liberal independents and Labor seat independent Andrew Wilkie now, for Australia’s sake. Agree on the goal, dare weak-as-piss moderates in safe seats to cross the floor or face a hell of a contest from a community-backed independent. Set the stage for the war on deniers, nihilists and careerists to come.
And, of course, Australians need to mobilise in their communities to support them (as I write, Australia’s Catholic bishops have backed Zali’s bill in principle).
Come on. Aussie, come on.
So that’s where I’m at now. Channelling the rage. Back on Twitter, suggesting and engaging, chatting to people behind the scenes, asking for on-the-ground essays about what’s happening where it counts.