How a Pair of Mining Fortunes Will Shape the Australian Election

Two wealthy men with opposing political views are riding a wave of discontent with the major parties.

By , a journalist based in Sydney and the Australian correspondent for Agence France-Presse.
Clive Palmer, chairman of the United Australia Party, prepares to speak at the National Press Club in Canberra, Australia, on April 7.
Clive Palmer, chairman of the United Australia Party, prepares to speak at the National Press Club in Canberra, Australia, on April 7.
Clive Palmer, chairman of the United Australia Party, prepares to speak at the National Press Club in Canberra, Australia, on April 7. Rohan Thomson/Getty Images

Hugging Sydney’s iconic harbor, Wentworth is the wealthiest electorate in Australia, awash with sprawling mansions and tree-lined streets, a seemingly endless flotilla of yachts dotted along its shoreline. This should be the easiest seat in the country for the country’s conservative Liberal government to hold in the forthcoming May 21 election. Traditionally, it’s been the party’s heartland. But something is shifting in Australian politics.

As Election Day closes in, many homes and businesses across Wentworth proudly display posters supporting the woman mounting a serious challenge for the seat against the Liberals: Allegra Spender. She isn’t a member of any political party but Spender is part of a fierce network of independent candidates—almost all of them women—backed by the enigmatic and wealthy Simon Holmes a Court.

Holmes a Court, whose father was Australia’s first mining billionaire, is the mastermind of Climate 200, a fundraising group aiming to “strike at the root” of Australia’s political stasis. The group has pooled donations from over 8,000 people totaling more than $7 million Australian dollars (around $5 million), including AU$200,000 of Holmes a Court’s own money. At this election, the group has chosen to back Spender and 21 other independent candidates across the country, most of whom are running in seats traditionally considered conservative bastions.

Hugging Sydney’s iconic harbor, Wentworth is the wealthiest electorate in Australia, awash with sprawling mansions and tree-lined streets, a seemingly endless flotilla of yachts dotted along its shoreline. This should be the easiest seat in the country for the country’s conservative Liberal government to hold in the forthcoming May 21 election. Traditionally, it’s been the party’s heartland. But something is shifting in Australian politics.

As Election Day closes in, many homes and businesses across Wentworth proudly display posters supporting the woman mounting a serious challenge for the seat against the Liberals: Allegra Spender. She isn’t a member of any political party but Spender is part of a fierce network of independent candidates—almost all of them women—backed by the enigmatic and wealthy Simon Holmes a Court.

Holmes a Court, whose father was Australia’s first mining billionaire, is the mastermind of Climate 200, a fundraising group aiming to “strike at the root” of Australia’s political stasis. The group has pooled donations from over 8,000 people totaling more than $7 million Australian dollars (around $5 million), including AU$200,000 of Holmes a Court’s own money. At this election, the group has chosen to back Spender and 21 other independent candidates across the country, most of whom are running in seats traditionally considered conservative bastions.

Mining magnate Clive Palmer, Australia’s seventh-richest person, also hopes to shape this election and is pouring tens of millions of dollars into bankrolling his own party, the United Australia Party, and ads that are highly critical of the government’s COVID-19 response—from lockdowns to vaccine mandates and the debt racked up trying to keep the economy afloat.

While the bombastic Palmer and the measured Holmes a Court could hardly be more different characters—in terms of politics and disposition—both clearly hope that spending big will rattle Australia’s political establishment.

For Climate 200, the goal is twofold: more ambitious action on climate change, and the creation of a powerful corruption watchdog for the federal government amid a series of scandals for the Liberal government.

The candidates Climate 200 has backed are, for the most part, like Spender—women who have found success outside politics and are competing for seats long held by the Liberals or their minor coalition partner, the National Party. This has led Australia’s prime minister, Scott Morrison, to characterize Climate 200 as an “anti-Liberal party.” (The group has also faced criticism because all of the candidates it is supporting are white.)

Holmes a Court says he does not expect Climate 200’s funding will turn all 22 seats in favor of “teal independents,” as its candidates are known. But if just three of these races go their way, and four independent incumbents can hold on, “we wake up on the morning after the election to a potentially very different Australia,” he has said.

If the vote is close, it could hand these independents the power to decide which of the major parties—the Liberals or its Labor opposition—forms government. The latest polling has Labor’s primary vote sitting at 39 percent, while the Liberal-National Coalition trails at 35 percent.

Palmer, by his own estimate, will spend at least AU$70 million on his campaign—a slightly more modest bill compared to the AU$83 million he poured into the 2019 election, when his United Australia Party failed to win a single seat. Such a resounding defeat would have dissuaded most political hopefuls—if the price tag didn’t bankrupt them. But Palmer saw his personal wealth increase nearly double between 2021 and 2022 thanks to his iron ore mine in Western Australia, according to the Australian, which estimated his worth earlier this year at AU$18.35 billion.

Palmer’s big election spending is capped only by his own ambitions. Australia’s campaign finance laws are light-touch, with no limit on donations or party expenditure, and there’s been little in the way of reckoning about the growing political influence of the wealthy. Palmer’s obsession of late has been on COVID-19. He has spread misleading information about vaccines, criticized lockdowns, and even taken Western Australia to court over the closure of its border to the rest of the country. (He lost.)

Palmer’s anti-science views on COVID-19 prompted the national broadcaster ABC to delay screening a speech he made to the National Press Club by 90 minutes—a buffer in case he used the platform to spread misinformation.

Unsurprisingly, he opened by informing the audience that he wasn’t vaccinated for COVID-19. He said that during a recent bout with the virus he was “fortunate to be able to participate in an existing trial for an effective treatment.” Within 48 hours, Palmer claimed, he “felt greatly improved”—although when asked by a journalist what drugs he was given, he said he didn’t know.

From there, the speech veered wildly between policy and conspiracy, prompting repeated fact-checks from the moderator. When the floor was opened to questions, some in the crowd took to yelling out to challenge Palmer’s responses while his supporters clapped loudly.

It was a very different scene when Holmes a Court made his own address to the National Press Club, which was characteristically careful and buttressed by figures and detail. But he too expressed a sense of frustration, even anger with how Australia’s long-held political duopoly had served the country.

“Australian politics is broken. That’s the problem. That’s why we’re here today,” he said. “We are frustrated that so often our government is found to be either lying or incompetent—sometimes both.”

Palmer’s target this election appears to be a loose constellation of people and online communities who feel deep resentment about Australia’s response to COVID-19. The ads he has spent the most on concern the pandemic—questioning the government’s actions, its vaccine program, and the government debt accrued by trying to keep the economy afloat during lockdowns. At least four of Palmer’s United Australia Party ads have already been pulled from YouTube for violating Google’s ad policy.

Both Holmes a Court and Palmer have sensed and sought to tap into growing voter dissatisfaction with the two major parties, which has seen about 10 percent of their vote eroded since the 2007 election. The last time Australians went to the polls, three years ago, almost 25 percent gave their first preference to a minor party or an independent.

In Holmes a Court’s own electorate—Kooyong, a blue-ribbon Liberal seat that’s almost as wealthy as Wentworth—this frustration has built to such a level insiders think Climate 200-backed independent Monique Ryan has a chance of unseating Australia’s Treasurer Josh Frydenberg. The two faced off in a fiery local town hall last week, with climate policy a dominant topic.

It’s hard to overstate what a feat it would be for Ryan to topple Frydenberg, who has long been considered a prime-minister-in-waiting. Even Holmes a Court was once a supporter, applying to join Frydenberg’s fundraising group before the 2019 election. But climate policy latterly opened a schism between them that couldn’t be closed.

Veteran political journalist Paul Bongiorno, who has covered federal politics for more than three decades, said the climate issue is “on steroids” this election because of the catastrophic weather events Australia has faced since the last poll, from the 2019 Black Summer bushfires to recent biblical flooding along the country’s east coast.

“We have had three horrific summers with catastrophic weather, fire, and floods and storms—unprecedented—which the scientists say, without a doubt, climate change has been a major factor in all of this,” Bongiorno said.

He said the prospects of the Climate 200 independents must be kept in perspective, though. “I know, talking to Liberals, they are somewhat comforted by the fact they can afford to withstand the swing in some of those seats up around 8, 9, 10 percent and still hold onto the seat,” he said. “And we may well see that.”

But Climate 200 has “certainly put the Liberal and the National parties … off balance,” he said, forcing them to spend money campaigning in seats that would have been traditionally considered safe. The opportunity cost is clear: Every dollar spent in one of these races can’t be diverted to holding or flipping a marginal electorate.

By comparison, Palmer’s strategy seems far more scattershot, “a plague on all their houses,” as Bongiorno put it. According to Google’s Transparency Report, Palmer has already spent more than AU$15 million on YouTube ads since November last year—accounting for 85.5 percent of the total ad spend of all Australian political parties.

While the billionaire mine owner won’t swipe any of the Liberals’ blue-ribbon seats, he may prove a thorn in its side—and Labor’s—in northern state of Queensland, where he has spent more than AU$250,000 on Facebook ads since the start of the year, according to the University of Queensland’s Election Ad Data Dashboard.

Meanwhile, most Climate 200-backed independents have held off confirming whether they would back the Liberals or Labor should the election result in a hung parliament, saying they would talk to both parties. Also in the mix are a swirl of other independents and minor parties, which could nab a lower house seat or a Senate spot here and there.

The prime minister has warned against voting for independents, calling it a recipe for “chaos and instability.” The upshot is certainly a complicated picture, a politics requiring far more compromise. But for many voters lured away from the major parties, it seems shaking up the system is the point.

Maddison Connaughton is a journalist based in Sydney and the Australian correspondent for Agence France-Presse.

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs. Comments are closed automatically seven days after articles are published.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

A propaganda poster from the 1960s shows Chinese leader Mao Zedong.
A propaganda poster from the 1960s shows Chinese leader Mao Zedong.

Xi’s Great Leap Backward

Beijing is running out of recipes for its looming jobs crisis—and reviving Mao-era policies.

A textile worker at the Maxport factory in Hanoi on Sept. 21, 2021.
A textile worker at the Maxport factory in Hanoi on Sept. 21, 2021.

Companies Are Fleeing China for Friendlier Shores

“Friendshoring” is the new trend as geopolitics bites.

German children stand atop building rubble in Berlin in 1948.
German children stand atop building rubble in Berlin in 1948.

Why Superpower Crises Are a Good Thing

A new era of tensions will focus minds and break logjams, as Cold War history shows.

Vacationers sit on a beach in Greece.
Vacationers sit on a beach in Greece.

The Mediterranean as We Know It Is Vanishing

From Saint-Tropez to Amalfi, the region’s most attractive tourist destinations are also its most vulnerable.