He’s awakening the Right through a US-style grassroots rebellion

The New York Times dubbed it a ‘tempest with echoes of a tea party.’ Julia Gillard has called it the ‘Americanisation’ of Australian politics. Others say it’s just the latest iteration of the city-rural divide that saw the rise of One Nation in the 1990s, and the ‘Joh for Canberra’ revolt that thwarted John Howard’s ambitions in the 1980s.

For Tim Andrews, one of the masterminds behind the anti-carbon tax protests that have Labor’s hold on government on tenterhooks, it’s the start of something bigger: the rise of an activist centre-right with the potential to revolutionise Australian politics the same way the Tea Party has in the United States.

A former president of the Australian Liberal Students’ Federation and editor of the conservative opinion website Menzies House, Andrews, 28, is no stranger to media attention – or to attention-grabbing activism.

His personal blog Inside The Mind of Tim was plastered across Australia’s tabloid news sites when his satirical play on a PJ O’Rourke article was misread as a sincere attempt to recruit men to the Liberal Party through its ‘hot women’. Close friend and NSW Young Liberal President Scott Farlow credits him with spearheading the ‘grassroots rebellion’ that saw Malcolm Turnbull ousted from the Liberal leadership at the end of 2009. The ABC’s Hungry Beast featured him as one arm of a very corrupt and conspiratorial octopus, in a report on US billionaires David and Charles Koch earlier this year.

But Andrews’ latest project, Stop Gillard’s Carbon Tax, is his most successful yet. Part blog, part mailing list, part campaigning engine, the website is key cog in a network of conservative activist groups that have emerged in response to the government’s increasingly unpopular carbon tax.

Andrews’ email list alone has almost 25,000 subscribers – small change compared to GetUp!’s 370,000, but they are ‘very, very active’ he says. Each time Andrews sends out an email, he receives at least 300 in return, to which he responds personally to as many as possible. Besides, he adds, the Left have had decades of practice building these kinds of campaigns – through the union movement, student activism and so on.

Which is part of what makes the anti-carbon tax rallies so remarkable, he says. ‘Suddenly people with no political background or experience wanted to do something [about the tax]. It shows how concerned people are about this issue.’ Some of the community Andrews caters to are concerned because they don’t believe the science is as settled as many on the Left claim. Others are worried about the economic impact, despite Gillard’s repeated assurances that most families will be compensated more than the tax will cost them.

For Andrews himself, it’s a little from column A and a little from column B. He doesn’t dismiss that the earth is warming, or even that humans have something to do with it. But he does question the speed at which climate change is happening – what he calls ‘the alarmist thesis’ – and the likely consequences if we don’t act immediately. Moreover, he questions the consequences if we do act:

We’re not going to be living in some sort of dystopia [if Labor’s carbon tax is passed]. But there will be real economic impacts. And at what cost? Nobody seems to look at opportunity cost when it comes to the climate change debate.

Affable but fiercely ideological, with dark blond hair and the beginnings of a beard, Andrews’ carefully enunciated accent belies his private school education. But like many of the twenty-something Liberals who came of age under Howard he was not ‘born to rule’ in the mould of an Alexander Downer or Malcolm Turnbull, growing up in Sydney’s Strathfield with his mother and grandmother. The signed portrait of Margaret Thatcher that decorates his bookshelf makes more sense when you learn that his great-grandparents fled the Russian Revolution.

And for all the press his activities have attracted, he is uncomfortable when conversation turns to himself, resuming his trademark mile-a-minute enthusiasm only when we return to some policy or political issue. He is keen not to take too much credit for the climate protests, pointing to other activists such as the No Carbon Tax campaign and the group behind the Convoy of No Confidence.

A dual US and Australian citizen, Andrews relocated to Washington DC in 2008, with the explicit intention of learning from America’s well-developed network of conservative think tanks and lobby groups. Since moving, he has worked with Americans For Tax Reform and the Koch Foundation; as a student, he interned with the Washington-based libertarian Cato Institute.

That ‘Americanisation’ of Australian politics Gillard referred to in a public forum in Sydney’s inner west earlier this month? Andrews is one of the people responsible for it. But he believes it’s taking Australian politics forward, not backwards:

When people say we need a centre-right GetUp! in Australia, I tell them GetUp! is where politics in the US was in 2004. The problem with the GetUp! model is that it is very top down. And it doesn’t work. They don’t have what I think is necessary, which is a two-way communication where it’s your supporters who are driving the change and you’re providing the support for them to pursue their ideas rather than setting the agenda for them.

As for allegations that this apparently grassroots uprising has been bankrolled by big business with an interest in quashing action on climate change?

Tell me who these organisations are that are funding us? You saw this happening in the US as well. Initially when the Tea Party emerged, the Left just laughed at it. They said it was clearly astroturfed. Then it became, “They’re just extremist.” Every single step it has been discredit and mockery. Saying it is the “Convoy of No Consequence” when some people spent a week driving from Kalgoorlie to Canberra. This is going to come back to bite the Left. You can’t just dismiss and deny the debate that the debate exists.

For his fellow conservatives, Andrews is more optimistic – and he may be joining them again on their home turf soon:

I think we’re seeing an awakening on the Right, where people are going to start getting active in a way we haven’t seen before. Can you think of an equivalent conservative protest movement in Australian history?
This is very, very new.

Rachel Hills blogs at Musings of an Inappropriate Woman (rachelhills.tumblr.com)