Teal independent Allegra Spender triggered a serious political uproar when she won the traditionally Liberal seat of Wentworth in Sydney’s eastern suburbs in a landslide in the 2022 federal election. A Cambridge-educated businesswoman descended from Liberal Party royalty, Spender joined the ranks of a record number of teal independents across the nation fighting for effective climate and environmental policy that still appeals to the affluent constituents of her electorate. Ahead of her appearance at Antidote Festival on Sunday, September 11 at the Sydney Opera House, Spender chats with us about the actionable climate policies she'll be championing, the plight of young Aussies in our current system, and how she reckons we can all move forward into a brighter, cleaner, less divided future.
What ignited your decision to run for the seat of Wentworth? Why is being in politics important to you?
The nail in the coffin was the inaction on climate change. I just felt like I couldn't just stand by and watch someone in my seat continue to support policies that are not going to do anywhere near enough and are actually incredibly obstructionist. Then, at the same time, part of it was also women. I feel very strongly that Parliament should reflect the diversity of our country more broadly, in terms of ethnicity, religion, sexuality, age: but it hasn't even got the basics right in terms of gender. So, I stood for that, because I want women to be able to stand up and I want young women to believe they have a role in public life.
What actionable climate policies will you be pushing for?
My first key focus is to work with the government to make the policies deliver more than 43% (by 2030). I think one of the easiest ways to do this is transport because the government went into the election with a weak transport policy. And I think fuel efficiency standards are actually a huge opportunity for Australia to accelerate the uptake of EVs (electric vehicles) and reduce emissions in the transport sector. My second piece is fuel efficiency standards in the electric vehicle sector. The third is fossil fuel subsidies. We spend, on various estimates, between seven and ten billion dollars a year on fossil fuel subsidies. That is a terrible waste of public money, which can be spent in so many better ways. Lastly, I think it's about igniting the opportunities for Australia, economically and environmentally. We are the sunniest, windiest place around, we actually have the opportunity to be a clean energy superpower.
How likely is it, in your opinion, that Sydney, along with the rest of Australia, will be able to pull itself back from the brink of climate disaster?
I think it's an international problem, but I do believe that we have the technology and the skills we need to build the coordination and the political will [in Australia]. I'm an optimistic person, but I think it has to happen through people taking action personally and demanding action politically. I know some people have been very disaffected with politics. But the truth is, if we don't like what we're seeing in politics, we all have to collectively stand up and do something about that, whether that be lobbying your local member, starting a political group, running for parliament; it’s up to all of us to take action. We're one of the biggest exporters of fossil fuels in the world, but we're also one of the countries that is most critical to a clean energy future. We have so many of the world's rare earth metals and lithium, and we're a stable democracy that people can trade with, and I think that makes us very attractive and absolutely crucial to this next phase.
Many young Sydneysiders are worried about a future rife with rapidly rising costs, a housing crisis and climate uncertainty. What would be your advice to them?
I think this election has shown that if you stand up things can change. And I think that young people need to continue to stand up. So, keep on talking and keep on taking action both personally with your friends and family, but also publically. While it's really hard to be empowered and to feel that what you do makes a difference, if you don't, you can guarantee that you won't like the outcome, so I think it’s continuing to stand up and holding people to account. You can do that by writing to your MP and through volunteering for organisations that you care about. It’s also about being an entrepreneur in this space. There’s a start-up from people in Wentworth called MicroTAU, and it has basically learned from how sharks move through water, and it's taken the same technology, because they're so hydrodynamic, and applied it to planes, so putting a film on planes so that planes can move more aerodynamically through air, which means that they reduce their fuel costs and carbon output. I think this is a time for innovation in climate and I think it's a really exciting time to be an entrepreneur.
Finally: if you had to describe your dream day off in Sydney, what would it look like?
I would go for a walk with some friends around the Bondi and Bronte cliff walks, and then I would jump in the sea. I'd probably come back and go for breakfast with my family. Maybe do a cycle around Centennial Park, or sometimes we go kayaking on the harbour. We're quite outdoorsy, so going kayaking or one of those things would be fun. Then, going to see a movie with your kids is really nice (laughs). And then going out for dinner. We went to the play last night at the Belvoir, it's really exciting that things are opening up so much more. My husband and I love going to a play or going to see live music. This is the best of Sydney, that you can both be outdoorsy but you can also have so much culture as well, and you can do that with your family. It's such a wonderful city to live in.
Allegra Spender will appear in person at the Sydney Opera House’s Antidote Festival on Sunday 11 September in The World Turned Upside Down alongside leader of the Australian Greens Adam Bandt and former politician and first female Independent to sit on the parliamentary crossbench Cathy McGowan AO. The panel will discuss the record number of Independents and Greens elected in the May federal election, and what it means for the future of politics.