October 2010


Exclamation politics

By Kathy Marks
Exclamation politics

It’s 72 hours since the polls closed in the oddest Australian federal election this side of world war and scores of beautiful young things are gathered in a loft-style apartment in one of the hippest enclaves of Sydney’s inner-city Surry Hills. The wine is flowing, the music is pumping and the mood among guests standing on the polished-timber deck of the two-storey penthouse, overlooking the railway line and southern CBD, is euphoric. Australia has a hung parliament and no one, possibly, is more pleased than the national activist group GetUp!, which has thrown this post-election party for its staff, volunteers and supporters.

Midway through the evening, a short video is projected onto the living-room wall, featuring clips from GetUp!’s election advertisements and plaudits from television personalities such as David Koch (“exactly what we need to keep the so-and-sos honest”). There is a great deal of whooping and cheering, then the organisation’s national director, 24-year-old Simon Sheikh, gets up to speak. “I don’t know how we did it,” he tells the crowd. “The scale of what we achieved is truly incredible.” He adds: “Something really amazing is going on out there. I really believe that this movement has been created for moments like this.” Now, I may be misconstruing his words – I’ve already downed a glass or two of GetUp!’s excellent cabernet sauvignon – but I could swear that Sheikh is actually claiming credit for the election result. And, although GetUp! has achieved much in its short life, amassing over 380,000 members (more than all the political parties put together) along with considerable clout, that seems a little over the top. Sure, this is the group that got an extra 58,000 people on the electoral roll, and raised $100,000 in a day for an ad nailing Tony Abbott’s views on climate change and abortion. But convincing nearly one in five Australians to snub the ALP and the Coalition – just how influential is this upstart organisation?

Let’s rewind, for a moment, to late 2004: John Howard has just won his fourth successive election and anti-conservative forces – not to mention the federal Opposition – are in disarray. As some despairing Labor voters threaten to leave the country, two clean-cut Australian Harvard graduates are travelling in the opposite direction. Fresh from the 2004 American presidential race, where they witnessed the power of online fundraising and organisation, Jeremy Heimans and David Madden are planning to test-drive the same tactics on Australian turf. In 2005, with start-up funds from trade unions, refugee rights campaigners and technology millionaires such as Evan Thornley, they launch GetUp!, an “independent, grassroots, community advocacy organisation”.

It’s funny how quickly the new seems old, but five years ago the idea of a political movement based on the internet’s capacity to facilitate mass communication was positively revolutionary – in Australia, at least. Rather than join a political party and sit through interminable branch meetings, or brave the elements to take part in a chilly street march, would-be activists – particularly the ‘time poor’ – could simply visit the GetUp! website. It took one click to become a member, one click to sign a petition, and just moments to donate money (all major credit cards accepted). And hey-presto: another person had become politically engaged, without even having left their lounge room.

GetUp! (how people detest that little exclamation mark) grew slowly at first. From its initial campaign – warning Coalition senators that ordinary Australians would hold them to account after the Howard government gained control of both houses – it moved on to voluntary student unionism, media ownership laws, the abortion drug RU486 and ancient Pilbara rock art. A crusade to boost ABC funding saw the membership triple to 70,000 within a week, but it was the drive to repatriate David Hicks, then languishing in Guantanamo Bay, that really put the group on the radar. Today even GetUp!’s detractors recognise the decisive role it played in reigniting interest in Hicks’s case and, against the odds, turning public opinion around.

That campaign was run by a staff of three, operating out of a windowless room in the Sydney Mechanics’ School of Arts. “I’d been through this incredibly arduous interview process,” recalls Brett Solomon, GetUp!’s first executive director, “then I found myself in a room with a few desks and some old pizza boxes lying around. And I said, ‘What, this is the thing that’s going to change the country?’”

Serious-minded and driven, Solomon – formerly of Oxfam and Amnesty International – worked punishing hours and expected the same of his staff; it was a high-octane, pressure-cooker environment. One of the original team, Nick Moraitis, quit as online director after 14 months. “It became too much,” he says. “It was like a permanent election campaign and we were setting ourselves expectations beyond what was absolutely necessary. We were not running the country; we were just running an organisation. Sometimes you can lose sight of how much influence you really have.”

From the start, GetUp! – which moved to a derelict room above a pub in the CBD before taking up residence in Surry Hills – drew claims of political bias. The group was modelled on MoveOn, an American organisation Heimans and Madden had worked with in 2004 but, while MoveOn was aligned with the Democrats, GetUp! was conceived as a non-partisan movement that would unite progressives across the political spectrum. The original board included Bill Shorten, then national secretary of the Australian Workers’ Union, and John Hewson, the former Liberal Party leader; this did not prevent the prominent Liberal backbencher Andrew Robb from denouncing GetUp! as “a front for the Labor Party”. Already, however, Solomon was quietly meeting with Liberal moderates – Malcolm Turnbull, Petro Georgiou, Bruce Baird – as well as Labor, Greens and Democrat politicians.

Meanwhile, membership numbers were climbing. Denise Wilton, an independent councillor on Sydney’s north shore, was an early recruit. “I just love GetUp!,” she says. “I like the fact that they’re really proactive. It absolutely is people power at the grassroots.” Gillian Green, an academic researcher who lives in the eastern suburbs of Sydney, is equally keen. “The thing about GetUp! – and I might sound really old-fashioned here – is that they’re not ferals. With something like the Wilderness Society, a lot of people get put off because it seems to be full of young anarchists. But these are very pleasant, polite, well-spoken people whom no one could be scared by.”

Female, well-educated, relatively affluent, city dwelling – Wilton and Green are typical GetUp! members. They are also representative of the age demographic, which – notwithstanding the group’s youthful image, its Chaser-style humour and its penchant for stunts such as skywriting over Parliament House – is skewed towards over-fifties. What these two women have embraced is a new politics: broad ranging, pluralistic and opt-in, with participants able to cherrypick issues of concern and the act of donating itself becoming a form of political expression. Fuelled by disillusionment with the traditional parties and the trade unions, this politics had manifested itself in arenas such as the anti-Iraq War marches and the Sydney Harbour Bridge walk for reconciliation, but it had not found a natural home – until now.

GetUp! stayed largely online until 2007. That year, the federal election presented it with an existential conundrum: what was more important – to help topple an ultra-conservative government or to maintain its own impartiality? Solomon has revealed to me that serious consideration was given to “turning the power of GetUp! into a Labor campaigning machine … I mean, if the big way to help Australia is to put in a Labor government, why the hell are we not just doing that? We could have got hundreds of thousands of people, and their friends, to vote Labor.” While that course of action was ultimately rejected, the mobilisation of thousands of orange T-shirt clad volunteers was a compelling demonstration of GetUp!’s grassroots power. It also signalled the organisation’s transition from cyberspace to the street; the web was to remain the principal sphere but offline activities, such as marches, candlelight vigils and “GetTogethers” in members’ homes, became increasingly common.

The shift from the virtual to the actual has accelerated under Sheikh, whose appointment in 2008 – after Solomon left to take up a post with Avaaz, a global web-based advocacy movement – raised a few eyebrows. During a wobbly start, some questioned whether he was up to the job; however, the formidably bright Sheikh, an economics graduate with a stint at the New South Wales treasury behind him, grew into the role. One of his main challenges was to prove that the group, which had been widely predicted to fade into irrelevancy under a progressive government, could still make a difference. It helped, of course, that Kevin Rudd’s government wasn’t terribly progressive – “so in many ways the need [for GetUp!] became even greater,” says Ed Coper, campaigns director until last year. With its demands for action on climate change, its aggressive attacks on the proposed internet filter and its very funny spoof on Fuel-Watch, the petrol price monitoring scheme, GetUp! was a mosquito buzzing in the government’s ear, an irritating reminder of its progressive ideals and promises.

The allegation that GetUp!’s staff and supporters were Labor fellow travellers persisted – and still persists. “No one is under any illusion that they’re anything but Labor Party hacks,” one former senior ALP staffer assured me. Yet evidence of close links is difficult to find, beyond the coincidental (Rudd’s chief media adviser, Lachlan Harris, had a consulting role with GetUp! early on); the anecdotal (Sheikh was spotted in lengthy conversation with one of Rudd’s speechwriters, Tim Dixon, at a party recently); and the tangential (trade unions donated more than $1 million to GetUp!’s 2010 election campaign chest). The causes the movement espouses undoubtedly strike more of a chord with left-wingers, but some resonate quite loudly in socially progressive Liberal circles, and issues such as RU486 and internet censorship – the latter attracted 45,000 new members – transcend party-political boundaries. Rather than advising and nurturing GetUp!, some in the ALP appear positively hostile. Harris observes: “As far as I’m aware, there’s no relationship, formal or informal, between the people involved in GetUp! and the Labor Party. If anything, there’s probably a bit of defensiveness and competitiveness.”

What about the Greens, though? GetUp! might not be in bed with the ALP, but some rusted-on Labor voters believe its relationship with Bob Brown is overly intimate. Climate change and asylum seekers were high on their respective 2010 election agendas. GetUp!’s “scorecard”, which assessed the parties on 14 “key questions”, gave the Greens 14 ticks. (The ALP got eight and the Coalition five.) In at least one Sydney polling booth, the same volunteers handed out Greens how-to-vote cards and GetUp! scorecards, sometimes simultaneously. And while others grumble about GetUp!, Lee Rhiannon, the veteran Greens parliamentarian, is exceedingly complimentary. “They put all the political parties to shame,” she says. “And if you look at the history of progressive change in our society – defeat of slavery, winning the vote, job safety, environment protection – all those great campaigns are not about a politician having a good idea one day, but about people’s movements that start off small.”

The Greens aside, it is not only the political parties whose feathers are occasionally ruffled by GetUp!. Some single-issue advocacy organisations resent the way it “charges out there, all guns blazing”, then claims all the glory. Last month, GetUp! trumpeted that “we’ve finally convinced Gunns to get out of the business of native forest logging” – with scant reference to the Tasmanian-based groups that had been slogging away for years. The movement is also periodically accused of not collaborating adequately; some Indigenous organisations, for instance, were infuriated by its “Sorry” campaign in 2007. According to David Cooper, then national director of Australians for Native Title and Reconciliation: “They didn’t consult well around that campaign, particularly with stolen generations’ organisations. They even got the message wrong: they presented it as an apology to all Indigenous Australians.”

Sheikh acknowledges that members feed off “the energy that comes from a win”, which means feel-good sentiments must be continually stoked and pragmatism – not to mention the need for a message pithy enough to fit into an email subject line – drives the choice of issues. The thirst for successive “wins” also means GetUp! flits from one campaign to the next, inviting the criticism that it’s short on substance and is failing to weave a coherent agenda for policy reform.

The big question is: how influential is GetUp!, really? Which brings us back to Sheikh’s speech at the post-election party. Was he claiming credit for the result, I ask him, when we meet three days later at the organisation’s rather spartan offices, in a narrow foyer clogged with cardboard boxes, several water fountains, a surfboard and a bedraggled pot plant. “Sure, sure,” responds Sheikh, an articulate and engaging character who looks exhausted but barely draws breath during a two-hour interview. “We set out to create a mood for a change in values and Australians seem to have stood up and demanded those values in their politicians. The fact that neither of the major parties was offering what progressives were calling for, and people walked away from those parties, clearly suggests GetUp! is in touch with Australians.”

There may be something in that; more concretely, an extra 98,000 Australians – including over 40,000 who received extra time to update their address details – were able to vote thanks to GetUp! challenging the enrolment rules in the High Court. It’s noteworthy that in 12 marginal seats the number of new voters exceeded the number of votes separating Labor and the Coalition in 2007. The group also organised candidates’ forums, bought 700 television ad spots and raised the profile of mental health. Its eight videos received more than half a million views on YouTube, twice as many as Labor’s 59 videos combined.

Outside election time, GetUp!’s achievements are harder to gauge. Many of its campaigns – calling, for instance, for a human rights act and tougher carbon reduction targets – have yet to produce tangible results. Miriam Lyons, executive director of the left-leaning Centre for Policy Development, considers the group “an important counterbalance to the dominance of well-funded vested interests in Australian public life” – while pointing out that the Minerals Council of Australia can easily out-spend it. Harris remarks: “These big national debates have a real impact on policy-making in Canberra, and when you’re trying to win the debates, it’s a numbers game. What GetUp! does is aggregate and amplify progressive voices and make sure they’re heard.”

Advertising practitioners, however, say that in order to change people’s thinking, you need a sustained, year-long campaign – and, on a national scale, that costs about $5 million, more than three times GetUp!’s total income for 2008–09. Then there is the charge that the organisation preaches only to the converted, rather than transform attitudes within the broader community. As one critic puts it: “GetUp! is a massive circle jerk … a middle-class movement talking to other middle-class people about middle-class issues.” Greg Barns, barrister and commentator, who advised the group early on, says: “The challenge for them now is to reach out to disengaged communities, to influence the debate in the middle-income seats in south-east Queensland and western Sydney, because some of the most toxic policies come from focus groups in those seats. When GetUp! has blocs of members in those areas, then it will have serious credibility.”

To the notion that GetUp! is dominated by “left-wing, inner-city elites”, Sheikh counters that one-third of members live in rural and regional Australia, and a substantial number are Liberal voters. (This does not tally with a survey – admittedly conducted in 2006 – that found that 2% are Liberals, while 73% are ALP or Greens voters.) As for engaging with the suburbs, the group has more than 2000 members in the marginal outer-western Sydney seat of Lindsay.

For Sheikh, Julia Gillard’s minority Labor government is a refreshing step away from “a two-party system that revolves around insider politics” – offering GetUp! a chance to “match it with the lobbyists and corporations, because the independents are not beholden to them”. He sees the organisation as a torchbearer for democratic reform; during the post-election negotiations, it convened a meeting of policy and governance experts, and it agitated for an overhaul of the political donations system. GetUp! even claimed it would welcome restrictions on its own fundraising, as well as promising to name the six unions that had bankrolled its election effort.

This had not yet happened at the time of writing; however, according to the Australian Electoral Commission, one of the group’s past backers was the white-collar Community and Public Sector Union, which contributed $50,000 in 2007–08. Other major donors have included the Lonely Planet founders Tony and Maureen Wheeler ($82,500), the technology entrepreneur Steve Killelea ($70,000) and the Austar executive Deanne Weir ($40,000).

GetUp!’s impact is visible beyond Australian shores. American-based Avaaz was modelled on it; 38 Degrees, launched in the UK last year, was partly inspired by it; and plans are afoot to found a similar organisation in Canada. At home, unions and political parties are trying to emulate its campaigning techniques – none of them, so far, with particular success. Nearly one in 35 voters belongs to GetUp!, which is an astonishing statistic. Heimans believes the membership could reach one million, and Ariadne Vromen, a University of Sydney academic who studies new forms of political participation, regards the group as “probably our most important civil society actor”. Most tellingly, GetUp! no longer has to explain itself; it has become part of the political furniture. And in time, perhaps, we could even learn to love that exclamation mark.

Kathy Marks
Kathy Marks is the Sydney-based Asia–Pacific correspondent for the Independent. She is the author of Lost Paradise: From Mutiny on the Bounty to a Modern-Day Legacy of Sexual Mayhem, the Dark Secrets of Pitcairn Island Revealed. @kathymarksoz

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