Simon Holmes à Court, the man behind Climate 200

By David Hardaker

May 25, 2022

Simon Holmes a Court
Climate 200 founder Simon Holmes à Court. (AAP Image/Lukas Coch)

There are many benefits to being raised the son of Australia’s first billionaire: private schools; posh homes; networks. But the one you’d least expect is being exposed at an early age to a full-scale media assault.

As Simon Holmes à Court reflects, watching his father Robert Holmes à Court take a daily shellacking from the media for what he did as Australia’s original corporate raider stood him in good stead when it came to taking on the combined force of the Morrison government and the Murdochs.

“I was at boarding school with the sons and daughters of the establishment with my father on the front page of the newspaper every day for a few years,” he says. “So I long ago learnt how to have a thick skin from the media and literally not feel a thing seeing my picture on the front page of the paper.

“And then 15 years ago I was building a community wind farm at a time when News Corp had a jihad against wind farms and were trying to tell people they would give you cancer and herpes and kill goats. All three of those did appear in print. And it was vitriolic, and it was so nasty.

“So really, I haven’t felt like I’ve had my head blown off. I felt that they’re a caricature of themselves, doing what they do.”

In the months leading up to the election, Holmes à Court and the Climate 200 group he set up became the subject of increasingly nasty attacks by the Murdoch media, in step with the escalating threat independent candidates posed to the Coalition government.

Holmes à Court, a long-term cleantech investor and climate philanthropist, was one of many who helped undergird the rise of the teal independents. Cathy McGowan, the former independent member for the seat of Indi, established the Community Independents Project, a veritable college for would-be independents. Former mainstream journalist Margot Kingston helped build citizen journalism and grassroots action. Zali Steggall’s 2019 win over Tony Abbott was a bolt of lightning. Former Liberal, Labor and independent politicians became advisers to Climate 200.

Yet it was Holmes à Court, the 49-year-old one-time supporter of former treasurer Josh Frydenberg, who was singled out by the Murdoch machine.

So, what has the experience taught him about the state of Australian democracy?

“The whole Climate 200 is first and foremost a democracy project,” he says. “The community independence movement is built on the premise that our democracy is broken. So it’s no surprise to me that our democracy is broken, but I have learnt so much about how broken it is.

“I’ve heard people say this before but now I absolutely see how the Murdoch media is the PR arm of the Liberal party. There were stories that were definitely fed to them by [senator] Andrew Bragg and [MP] Jason Falinski that they would magnify with innuendo and bullshit. Then it would be printed and within seconds the MPs would tweet the articles out again and that would be turned into a derivative story on Sky, but stripped of any of the context that was mainly missing.

“I was just seeing this sort of machine where the party machine, including sitting MPs, were very much part of this News Corp machine. Not even a blurred line. No line.

“I guess the extent to which the Murdoch media and the Liberal party work together, while I’ve heard people claim it, it’s never been as stark to me as it is right now.”

Crikey has compiled a far-from-exhaustive list of the attacks on Holmes à Court. He was savagely misrepresented by Sky favourite Falinski, who declared in parliament that Climate 200 was “a RICO [racketeer-influenced and corrupt organisations] case in the making”.

“The tentacles run everywhere,” he charged. “It’s all coordinated … It’s always about hiding who they are, what they stand for and where the money is coming from.”

Holmes à Court says he could withstand the attacks but was pushed to bring in the lawyers after comments from Liberal senator Jane Hume. So how do others cope with the onslaught? And what’s the impact?

“The number of people who have told me they would love to help but can’t because it’s a vindictive government, or they have contracts or board appointments that preclude them,” he says. “I’m horrified by the lack of political freedom, that we don’t have full freedom of association in Australia.

“People genuinely fear for their livelihoods and their social capital if they challenge the government.”

He says assaults by News Corp outlets had an unintended consequence: there was a spike in donations to Climate 200.

News Corp aside, the Climate 200 model also befuddled a media that had trouble accepting the idea that independents could choose to emerge in an electorate rather than being placed there by a governing organisation.

So, was it worth it?

In the days before Saturday’s election, Crikey asked Holmes à court what his measure of success is.

“Success means that there’s a whole lot of campaigns that have taken seats marginal, that there are a whole lot of people who are energised and ready to do it next time,” he says. “To a certain extent, I’d say we’ve already had success in that we’re having people talk about climate when neither Labor nor Coalition wants to talk about climate — or integrity for that matter.”

So much for a two-stage strategy. The result dramatically trumped even Holmes à Court’s expectations with wins to five new independents and a fundamental shift in political alignment.

This article is republished from our sister publication Crikey.


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