Concerns about climate change, misinformation, injustices facing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and other public health threats are behind the rise of independent political candidates, reports Linda Doherty in the special investigation below.
Linda Doherty writes:
The lack of national action on climate change is the lightning rod for an unprecedented political push to elect independents at the federal election due within six months.
More than 40 community groups across the country are searching for or have endorsed independent candidates to contest Australia’s 151 House of Representatives seats, most spurred on by the Federal Government’s reluctance to take decisive and legislative action to address the climate emergency.
Health professionals, students, farmers, grandparents, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and usually non-political citizens are campaigning in tandem on the public health emergency of climate change – and for the future of their children and grandchildren.
As Prime Minister Scott Morrison arrived at the UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, international media labelled Australia “the rich world’s weakest link at COP26”.
Morrison’s Coalition Government is paralysed on climate change, riven with division and harbours climate change sceptics. But the Labor Opposition, apparently hiding its light under a bushel, will not announce its full climate policy until after COP26 concludes.
This political void on climate change has opened the door to what’s been called independents’ Day and the emergence of politically savvy philanthropists such as Simon Holmes a Court whose Climate 200 website bluntly states: “Australia’s political system is too broken to tackle climate change, and big polluters are determined to keep it that way.”
Climate 200 has already raised more than $2 million from 2,000 donors and will provide financial support and strategic advice to up to a dozen independent candidates committed to following the science on climate change and restoring integrity to politics.
Holmes a Court says “just three more strong independents” in the Australian Parliament would potentially give the balance of power to the cross-bench and see the introduction of legislation for zero emissions’ targets and a federal integrity commission, both proposed by independents Zali Stegall (Warringah) and Helen Haines (Indi) but blocked by the Government.
A Government of ‘stale, old white men’
The lack of representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in leadership positions across Australian society – especially in politics – has galvanised Indigenous young people to demand a seat at the table.
Angel Owen, Organising Director for Seed, says her non-partisan organisation will keep the pressure on politicians to take action on climate change and heed the knowledge and advice of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
“We looked after country sustainably for tens of thousands of years. We are the longest continuing culture on the planet and that doesn’t happen by coincidence. We hold the answers,” Owen told Croakey.
“But it’s almost like Mob has to beg to have our voices heard. Personally, I think we have turned a corner; we’re sick of begging and we’re just demanding seats at the table now.”
The government system, she says, “doesn’t really work for Mob”.
“We have a government of stale, old white men calling the shots for people they have no idea about – the depths of our culture, our lore, our Dreamtime, all these aspects that are so interconnected for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.”
In the lead-up to the federal election Seed is putting pressure on leaders and potential leaders to listen to Indigenous communities about climate change – not just “wear a big shiny badge” and offer platitudes but to convert political rhetoric into public commitments “so we can hold them accountable”.
Angel Owen was just 15 and at high school when she joined Amelia Telford to form the Seed Indigenous Youth Climate Network in 2014 to address the lack of representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people in the environmental movement.
Telford is now National Director of Seed and Owen the Organising Director of Australia’s first Indigenous youth climate network. Seed has around 30,000 members and more than 2,500 trained volunteers who campaign for action on the climate emergency and an end to fossil fuel extraction.
Seed’s vision is “a just and sustainable future with strong cultures and communities, powered by renewable energy”. It also amplifies the voices of Indigenous communities, such as through its ‘Don’t Frack the NT’ campaign – to stop Origin Energy shale gas fracking in the Northern Territory – where Seed has been working alongside Traditional Owners for the past six years.
Climate change is personal and emotional for Owen, 22, and she admits to getting angry “when people talk about the polar bears and melting ice caps” because it makes the climate emergency seem remote and distant when she has seen the impact on her family firsthand.
Growing up in the pristine Queensland town of Agnes Waters, at the southern end of the Great Barrier Reef, Owens is a descendant of the Butchulla and Woppaburra peoples. “I’m a saltwater woman and the sea is so sacred to me,” she says.
Her family – mum and dad and seven children – was hit by fire and floods “a few times” and she saw coastal erosion changing her Country.
“When I see the impact on the Country I grew up on, I know climate change is more than an environmental issue,” she says. “I’m passionate about the impacts it has on people.
“People in Parliament calling the shots on climate change have never had to rebuild from the ground up after a flood, and then fires burn your cars and your water sources and all your toys when you’re a kid. How can you represent people in Australia, let alone Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, if you don’t understand these complexities?”
The climate crisis is also a key concern for Supporting Women in Marginal Seats (SWIMS), which will campaign for women standing for the Labor Party in marginal seats to progress the national conversation on climate change, ratify the Uluru Statement from the Heart, introduce a national anti-corruption commission and increase diversity in politics.
‘Wow, this guy is really dangerous’
Emergency Department doctor Jennifer Tobin had never been particularly political until her Federal MP, Craig Kelly, started spruiking the benefits of the anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine for COVID-19 treatment against the advice of the Therapeutic Goods Administration and the US Food and Drug Administration.
“I vaguely knew Craig Kelly was someone I didn’t agree with but when he started encouraging people to ask their doctor for hydroxychloroquine, I thought ‘Wow this guy is really dangerous’,” Tobin told Croakey.
“This medication can be quite dangerous to a proportion of the population with Long QT [a heart rhythm condition that can cause fast, chaotic heartbeats] and you generally would need an ECG to check before prescribing as it can be potentially fatal.”
Kelly, the Member for Hughes in Sydney’s south, has since resigned from the Liberal Party and is now the leader of billionaire Clive Palmer’s United Australia Party, campaigning on COVID-19 misinformation, including anti-vaccination claims, and climate change denialism.
Tobin repeatedly and respectfully tried to challenge Kelly with her medical concerns – on his Facebook page, by Twitter and emails – but he blocked her from his social media accounts, as he did to many other constituents trying to engage with their local MP. She then joined a Facebook group called Craig Kelly Must Go and became an active member of We Are Hughes when it formed a year ago as a grassroots movement to support an independent candidate to challenge the incumbent MP.
The irony of Kelly’s anti-vaccination stance is that 93.5 per cent of the Sutherland Shire local government area – which takes in large parts of Hughes – is now double vaccinated.
“I got involved in We Are Hughes because it’s really about representing the people of Hughes and we need someone who cares about our community and doesn’t spread dangerous misinformation,” Tobin says.
We Are Hughes, formed in October 2020, now has 1,300 subscribers, hundreds of registered volunteers and has canvassed the views of more than 400 constituents to tap into the issues important to Hughes voters.
Convenor Linda Seymour says the election of current and former community-based independents, Cathy McGowan and Helen Haines in Indi, Zali Stegall in Warringah and Kerryn Phelps in Wentworth, had encouraged Hughes locals “it was do-able” to run an independent candidate against Kelly. Many voters were simply fed up and embarrassed to be represented by one of Australia’s leading climate change deniers.
“For years Craig Kelly has spent his time mocking science, posting prolific climate change denial, and more recently promoting unproven COVID-19 treatments,” Seymour told Croakey.
“We Are Hughes is about people coming together to say enough is enough. We can have good policy, representation, and respect. We are creating the change ourselves, reaching across the political divide and uniting.”
We Are Hughes does not have the buckets of cash Clive Palmer will throw at the election but Seymour says it has a community commitment for “politics done differently”.
Taking action on climate change is a key issue for We Are Hughes supporters, as well as integrity in politics and local issues such as housing density and mining proposed under water catchments. We Are Hughes is expected to announce an independent candidate in the next few weeks.
The growth of community shared democracy
Around Australia about 40 community groups have been established in the past year to support independent candidates to do democracy differently. Many follow the shared democracy playbook of the ‘Voices for’ grassroots movement pioneered in Indi by Cathy McGowan and her community team – strong local and proactive engagement to elevate issues of concern.
Coalition seats with established ‘Voices’ groups include Kooyong (held by Treasurer Josh Frydenberg), Hume (Angus Taylor), Flinders (Greg Hunt), Wannon (Dan Tehan), Riverina (Michael McCormack), North Sydney (Trent Zimmerman), Wentworth (Dave Sharma), Mackellar (Jason Falinski), Goldstein (Tim Wilson), Groom (Garth Hamilton), Forrest (Nola Marino), and Ryan (Julian Simmons).
Denis Ginnivan, a founding member and former president of Voices for Indi and Director of the ‘Voices For’ Australia project, says he, McGowan, Haines and other independents are networking informally to provide advice and support to the growing number of ‘Voices for’ or ‘Voices of’ groups.
But he emphasises that every group is different, there is no formal connection or political party and most of the groups are “pro-community, not anti-somebody”.
“We didn’t know how it would go,” Ginnivan says of McGowan’s first run at the rural Victorian seat of Indi in 2013. “There was just a feeling that surely politics could be better than this, and a growing sense that democracy isn’t working.”
Now onto his fourth campaign for Indi – two for McGowan and his second for Haines – Ginnivan says action on climate change is a leading issue, followed by integrity in public life. Health is a key concern in rural areas – the provision of regional health services, including mental health, and “a sense of abandonment” with the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines.
“Climate change, health and the environment are all connected and now overlap with natural disasters. We want our kids and our grandkids to know we care about their future world,” Ginnivan told Croakey.
Farmers are also organised and vocal about climate change inaction. Anika Molesworth, author of Our Sunburnt Country and Deputy Chair of Farmers for Climate Action recently tweeted: “Rural Australians are not the backwards-looking, climate denying hicks our political ‘representatives make us out to be. Rural people I know are honest, hard-working, business-savvy, climate-concerned people with integrity & heart who want climate action.”
Moral obligation to act
Cairns GP Nicole Sleeman is working part-time so she can campaign for Doctors for the Environment Australia (DEA) on the harmful health effects of climate change in the lead-up to the federal election.
“Climate change is an issue of justice. Climate change doesn’t create new diseases, it makes existing health and health inequities worse. As a health professional, I feel a moral obligation to do something,” she told Croakey.
Sleeman, who works for an Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation, sees the impact of the climate emergency on her patients and how it compounds disadvantage and health inequities.
“We’re seeing more heat-related illness, impacts from air pollution, longer pollen seasons and subsequent increases in asthma and allergy presentations. And here in the Tropics, an increase in climate-sensitive infectious diseases such as dengue, particularly affecting the Torres Strait,” she says.
“Climate change affects everyone, but it hits vulnerable communities the hardest. In Far North Queensland, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are on the front line – many living in overcrowded housing which may not have functioning air-conditioning; and Torres Strait Islanders are being forced off their islands as sea levels rise.”
Sleeman, the convenor of DEA’s campaign committee, says the message is clear: “Doctors are calling for urgent action on climate change and want governments to listen to the science.”
DEA will campaign across the country to make climate change and health key issues in electorates in NSW, Western Australia, Victoria and Queensland – calling for climate change legislation, a national plan to cut climate pollution this decade to protect health, and a national sustainable healthcare unit to support environmentally sustainable practice in healthcare and reduce the sector’s own significant emissions.
One of the seats targeted by DEA is Cairns-based Leichhardt held by the Liberal National Party’s Warren Entsch, whom Sleeman is lobbying to take climate change seriously for the health of his electorate. Sleeman and nine Cairns-based medical colleagues have requested a meeting to discuss concerns on climate change inaction. Entsch, who is also Special Envoy for the Great Barrier Reef where coral reefs and maritime life is endangered from climate change-induced bleaching and pollution, is yet to accept the request.
But like many activists trying to convince politicians to act now on climate change, campaigners like Sleeman find that even when MPs support action they are bound by political party lines and nothing changes. Entsch, for example, recently voted against debating independent Zali Stegall’s Climate Act to legislate zero emissions’ targets, along with his Coalition colleagues.
“Warren’s actions don’t match his speech. He claims to be concerned about climate change and tells his electorate that he is doing all that he can to address it, yet repeatedly fails to follow that up with actions required,” Sleeman says. “It’s nothing short of negligent.”
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This article is part of Croakey’s contribution to the Covering Climate Now initiative, an unprecedented global media collaboration launched last year to put the spotlight on the climate crisis. Croakey Health Media is a member of the collaboration, which was co-founded by The Nation and the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR), in partnership with The Guardian.