In 2017 several members of the Liberal National Party accused GetUp of being an associated entity of the Labor Party and the Greens. It was another attack by the hard Right against its most effective political opponent. Where left-of-centre political parties have failed, this youthful digital-campaign organisation has repeatedly engaged mainstream progressive people in creative forms of action on issues as different as marriage equality and the protection of refugees. This time, however, the hard right attacks were vicious: a demand that GetUp reveal its donors led to a highly dubious Federal Police raid on the offices of the Australian Workers’ Union, one of GetUp’s early financial supporters.
Australia’s conservatives have always had a love-hate relationship with GetUp. Every few years some enterprising young conservative tries to set up a ‘right-wing GetUp’ but these consistently flop because they have none of the passion and people power that sit behind a progressive vision for Australia. But now, having failed to imitate the model, the same people are trying something more sinister: rather than contest GetUp and its position on a range of issues in the political arena, they want to eliminate GetUp altogether.
One of the tensions that GetUp negotiates is the limits of a two-party system. While we have minor parties in Australia, government is only won by a major party. And this means that in our system of representative democracy, political allegiance appears zero sum: if you are ‘against us’ you must be ‘with them’. This leads some in the Liberal Party to assume GetUp must be ‘with’ Labor when GetUp says it’s against a policy or person the Liberal Party is running. But this zero-sum analysis misconstrues the reality of political life. Your average voter thinks that most politicians are out of touch, and your average progressive voter identifies certain issues (coal) and characters (Tony Abbott) as blocks to achieving a more ‘in touch’ political climate. Very few people see themselves ‘with’ any politician, but most know what issues they are for and against. Zero-sum political analysis may live strong in Canberra, but it doesn’t in the rest of the country.
One reason the hard Right is targeting GetUp is because members of the hard Right have been the target of some of GetUp’s campaigns. It’s payback time. In 2016 GetUp took a new approach to federal politics. In the past we produced ‘scorecards’ that simply informed voters of the different candidates’ positions on key issues. Then, in the 2015 Queensland state election, GetUp developed a more engaged approach focusing on climate change and campaigning against political candidates who had a bad record on the issue. Applying that same approach, in the 2016 federal election GetUp decided to campaign against identified members of the hard Right who were seen as blocking the Liberal Party from being more progressive on issues like climate change and marriage equality. The impact of the campaign was spectacular. Politicians like Andrew Nikolic from Tasmania lost his seat and others like Peter Dutton came close.
Some in the hard Right have argued that this campaign was evidence of a pro–Labor Party stance. This is ironic. If you interview the key GetUp staff who ran the campaign, as I did, you find out that it was designed to influence the Liberal Party. At the time, a survey of GetUp membership found that 70 per cent wanted to give Malcolm Turnbull a chance. The ‘blockers’ campaign was designed to remove the party’s hard-right members who consistently opposed a more progressive agenda. Far from being a pro–Labor Party campaign, it was a campaign designed to create a more progressive Australia by creating a more progressive Liberal Party.
Not satisfied with the results from the 2016 election, GetUp has signalled its interest in continuing to engage with federal electoral politics. In light of Peter Dutton’s approach to refugee policy, in early 2017 GetUp began raising money for a campaign in his seat of Dickson. It was not long after that that others on the hard Right started calling publicly for GetUp to be called an associated entity.
* * *
GetUp is frequently misunderstood. Is it an organisation or a social movement? Is it just clicktivism or does it contribute to a more resilient kind of politics? What is its relationship with political parties?
GetUp isn’t a single-issue organisation but rather a values-based digital social movement stretching across the concerns of economic fairness, social justice and environmental sustainability. Digital tools have allowed GetUp to stay in touch with people across issues over time. Technology allows GetUp to talk to people interested in, say, refugees and then later be able to engage with them about an issue like climate change. Connecting people from one progressive issue to the next has been an important mechanism for how GetUp has sought to build a movement.
GetUp’s most defining founding purpose was to be a bridge between offline and online political activity. At its inception, this had a simple expression: GetUp would innovate and develop the most creative digital tools to allow individuals to engage in political life. It would be alert to the outrages of the day and provide a timely space for people to petition their political representatives about their concerns. It would use the speed of digital communication to enable people to support and fund specific campaign tactics, in turn creating a new financial model via which the organisation is primarily funded by small donations. Meanwhile, GetUp would also work on key longer-term progressive issues, anything from human-rights abuses to refugees, Indigenous rights and climate change—running long-term strategic campaigns to try to achieve systemic shifts that could create a more progressive Australia.
Over the years the relationship between online and offline campaigning has become more sophisticated. Predictably, the organisation found that inviting people to just click on petitions wasn’t enough. While in its first year GetUp surprised politicians with 130,000 people signing a petition to improve ABC funding, eventually this kind of activism became less powerful. GetUp was criticised as clicktivism and politicians became less sensitive to the tactic as there appeared to be little commitment behind the ‘click’. Innovation was needed. This happened in the 2007 election when GetUp ran local election campaigns in seats like Bennelong, encouraging hundreds of online members to move offline and get involved in campaigns on the ground. Over the following five years GetUp started more actively to invite its digital social movement to offline events and rallies, such as the big vigils around mental health funding, and it continued to play a role in elections, handing out scorecards on politicians.
As a community organiser I’ve always been committed to face-to-face offline organising, and while on the board of GetUp I was very supportive of this offline shift. In some ways this was an example of the organisation moving from the loose practices of a social movement to a more established organisational network. The most dramatic step towards real offline campaigning was the hiring of local organisers in the 2016 federal election for GetUp’s blockers campaign. The Bass election campaign is a great example. Dozens of local GetUp volunteers—doctors, teachers, public servants and others—joined with two paid organisers to host public events in the local shopping mall and do phone banking and some door knocking to try to remove Andrew Nikolic, the sitting conservative member. The campaign was locally based, with all the on-the-ground campaigners coming from the Launceston area. But the campaign combined the capacity of a national organisation with a locally based campaign, calling on GetUp volunteers from Sydney to make phone calls to voters in Bass. It also connected its offline campaigning with its online capacity, using tactics like sending out videos of local actions to amplify awareness of the local activities. All this worked to great effect, with the campaign being recognised, most notably by Liberal senator Eric Abetz, as helping to remove the sitting Liberal member.
But there is also an awareness that GetUp could do more in this space and it has tried to innovate in order to develop stronger offline grassroots power. Take GetUp’s 2017 invitation to hundreds of members to mass training in campaigning and community organising, and the following PowerUp! conference, with over 1000 participants talking about building local groups and offline power. There is a genuine attempt here to engage GetUp’s active online members in offline activism. Internally GetUp would be the first to admit that this is still an experiment: what does a powerful online social movement look like when it’s offline? We are still actively learning how to build powerful groups, and to imagine which activities and strategies are best done by GetUp volunteers.
In doing this, GetUp is learning how to negotiate the tension that lies at the heart of every social movement: between centralised national coordination and decentralised member-driven campaigning. This is the universal tension between top-down and bottom-up member engagement. GetUp has tended to be on the centralised side of this relationship, developing tactics and ideas from its head office and then deploying them with the support of its members. But does this need to change? Does the GetUp movement need to be more member-driven if it is to thrive offline as well as online? Bottom-up member engagement allows volunteers to be involved in decision making and can expand people’s meaningful participation. But it isn’t perfect: bottom-up participation risks being small and sometimes chaotic. National campaigns also require coordination, which necessitates some central management in decision making. GetUp is learning how to balance the bottom-up–top-down member-engagement dynamic in an offline–online world.
GetUp is not a traditional NGO, and it benefits from that status. Most NGOs are charities, and that means that their public advocacy is limited by their charitable status. For instance, charities cannot play an advocacy role in an election if that role includes speaking for or against particular political-party candidates. Unlike many NGOs, GetUp doesn’t receive any government funding, so it can’t be threatened with the withdrawal of funding if it criticises government. This gives it a degree of latitude around advocacy and electoral politics that is highly unusual. Consequently, it acts more like a free-wheeling social movement capable of acting on issues inside and outside electoral politics.
One of the things GetUp has always been clear about is that it is a social movement, not a political party. It has placed itself firmly in the space of civil society and has seen its role as moving all political parties to be more progressive. This is radically different from political parties, which seek to build their electoral constituency and then compete for political office in order to play a role in governing. And GetUp’s constituency is much larger and more diverse than that of most political parties—with over one million members, and participation that is broader and larger than for any political party in the country.
The hard Right’s attempt to label GetUp a political party is intended to damage GetUp’s reputation as an independent political entity by associating it with partisan politics. Moreover, the hard Right is hoping that if GetUp is deemed a political party or an associated entity it will be required to submit cumbersome financial disclosures after elections—like political parties do. (Like other NGOs, GetUp already submits materials to the Australian Electoral Commission.) And GetUp already has a very transparent process on donations: all donations over $10,000 are displayed on its website and most are for less than $20.
The attack on GetUp is about silencing opponents. It is about vindictive politics that will have a damaging impact on Australian democracy. If GetUp is found to be an associated entity—who won’t be? Most climate-change groups (and most right-wing media) could easily be found to practise similar kinds of political activity as GetUp. Many locally based community organisations would struggle to satisfy the resultant legal and financial requirements if they were deemed to be an associated entity, putting them out of operation. Politics and elections would move out of the hands of ordinary people and into the hands of large corporations and large political parties.
* * *
Thirteen years ago, in December 2004, in a cafe on Oxford Street, Sydney, I was part of an unforgettable brainstorming meeting. At the time I was involved in the union movement. Unions were reeling from a punishing election campaign that had seen Prime Minister John Howard win control of both houses of parliament. Howard had signalled that he wanted to introduce significant changes to Australia’s workplace laws, and unions were, frankly, in a panic about what to do in response.
I was meeting Jeremy Heimans, a friend from university days who was home visiting from the United States. He had just been through a memorable election, too: the US presidential battle between George W. Bush and John Kerry. While Bush won the election, people like Jeremy had been part of something new in that electoral cycle. It had featured an unprecedented use of digital campaign techniques, in which organisations like MoveOn.org were using mass emails and videos telling stories about key issues that were reaching millions of people and acting as an alternative political voice to traditional party politics.
We were enthusiastic to see what could be built in Australia and it didn’t take long to develop a plan. We approached Unions NSW for some initial seed funding. Forty-eight hours later we had secured a commitment to fund the beginnings of GetUp. In February 2005 Jeremy and our third co-founder, David Madden, commenced work to set up the organisation.
GetUp has transformed since those early days. It has gone from being a concept to having a million members representing every constituency and community under the Australian sun. While the topics it works on have diversified, so too have its tactics, if sometimes controversially, and it has slowly and thoughtfully built an offline-online social movement. While GetUp can be criticised for practising clicktivism, its innovations in offline organising, and the widespread support it has received in campaigns against Manus Island and in support of marriage equality, show it has grown under pressure. And one thing has become very clear: the more the hard Right fights GetUp, the stronger the resolve of the GetUp membership. We see this when ‘crises’ result in a stronger donations base and a heightened willingness of members to participate in the movement, online and offline.
In the same way that hard-right Liberals have misconstrued GetUp as a flank of the Labor Party, they may have mishandled this battle, too. Their hostility may well be creating a stronger adversary than they imagined. After all, while the last ten years have seen a revolving door of prime ministers, GetUp has been building a consistently strong voice for the people. We can be sure that GetUp will continue to experiment with how it campaigns on issues and in elections, with the goal of producing a more progressive Australia.