Inside GetUp and the New Youth Politics

In recent years, political journalists have taken seriously the notion that we have entered a new era of politics in which large numbers of young people, disaffected from the old mass media, have become far more susceptible to the internet and the new social media.

We are supposedly witnessing a mass mobilisation of grassroots politics among the young. Kevin 07 and Obama 08 are said to have capitalised on this phenomenon and mastered its techniques for defining issues, generating support and raising vast sums of money. 

In Australia, the best-known version of the phenomenon has been GetUp, the so-called independent, progressive, community advocacy organisation whose antics captured the limelight in both the 2007 and 2010 federal elections. GetUp now claims a membership in excess of 400,000, mainly young people who owe no permanent allegiance to either side of politics but who are determined to change the current agenda to reflect their own interests. For their efforts, GetUp’s two founders, David Madden and Jeremy Heimans, were in 2006 named by Politics Online and the World E-Government Forum among the “Top Ten People who are Changing the World of Politics and the Internet”.

That, anyway, is what the publicity wants you to believe. The reality, as I have discovered through an investigation of the organisation over this summer, is rather different. 

GetUp was formed in August 2005 when the Howard government gained control of both the House of Representatives and the Senate. The organisation sponsored a nationally broadcast television commercial in which “ordinary” Australians warned the government that voters would hold them to account for their Senate majority since the parliament, apparently, no longer could. 

Although it claimed to be independent, GetUp was from the outset a creature of the political Left. Original board members included Australian Workers Union secretary Bill Shorten, Australian Fabian Society secretary Evan Thornley—“our mission is to remove the world’s dependence on oil”—green activist Cate Faehrmann, and left-wing trade union researcher and “community organiser” Amanda Tattersall. Lachlan Harris worked for the GetUp office before becoming an adviser to Kevin Rudd. The organisation’s very first political campaign in August 2005 was to lobby for the release from Guantanamo Bay of Islamic terrorist supporter David Hicks.

The organisation was inspired by, and modelled on, similar groups in the USA, such as MoveOn.org, formed in 1998 in response to the impeachment of President Bill Clinton by the House of Representatives, and Win Back Respect, a web-based campaign established in 2004 against former President George W. Bush. One of the founders of GetUp, David Madden, was also a co-founder of this American organisation. Much like GetUp, Win Back Respect produced ads attacking conservative politicians and, using donations from online contributors, paid for a speaking tour by Wesley Clark, a retired general turned Democrat Party activist who had nominated in the 2004 Democrat primaries. The organisation also used online donations to hire a charter plane for the Band of Sisters, a group of female relatives of US soldiers killed or serving in Iraq, to harass Vice-President Dick Cheney on the 2004 campaign trail.

Whilst studying law at Harvard University, David Madden met another Australian, Jeremy Heimans, who joined him in founding GetUp. Since they started, their campaigns have been making headlines. In 2007, they campaigned heavily against the Howard government’s WorkChoices legislation. During the 2010 election campaign, there seemed to be no end to the publicity surrounding the group, especially after their high-profile Federal and High Court challenges to electoral laws that prevented people from enrolling to vote once an election had been called. The High Court decided the laws were invalid, which meant 100,000 new voters were admitted to the electoral roll halfway through the election campaign.

Conservative politicians have scoffed at the organisation’s claims to independence, citing its constant opposition to Liberal Party policies. In August 2005, Eric Abetz, then Special Minister of State, called for the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission and the Australian Electoral Commission to investigate GetUp’s corporate structure, donations, and affiliations with political parties. In the same month, Andrew Robb, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs, described GetUp as “a front for the Labor Party”.

In the 2010 election campaign, GetUp did run several ads attacking the Gillard government, mainly over its treatment of refugees and lack of action on climate change. However, most of their campaign was targeted at Tony Abbott. In the final weeks before polling day we saw a television commercial, later revealed to have been paid for by the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union, attacking the Opposition Leader’s supposedly “archaic” views on women and social issues. This ad featured a group of women reciting quotes that Mr Abbott had made, in some cases as far back as 1979 when he was twenty-two. At the end, the ad said politicians should be judged on everything they’ve said. One might have thought that if GetUp were truly impartial they would, for the sake of balance, run an ad attacking Julia Gillard over some of the extreme leftist views that she had around the same time while in the Socialist Forum.

In order to find out for myself how truly independent GetUp is, I decided to join the organisation to see how it operates.

Joining was much easier than I had expected. All it required was submitting my e-mail address on the homepage of the group’s website. There was no joining fee or annual membership payment required. They sent me a confirmation e-mail with a password to access the members’ section of the website.

Much of the organisation’s activities are web-based. People are asked to donate online, via credit cards or PayPal, to either support the organisation as a whole or, alternatively, to support individual campaigns. GetUp says it relies solely on donations to put ads on television or in the newspapers. The page for each cause that GetUp adopts, and requires funding for, shows how much has been donated to that particular campaign.

It quickly becomes clear, however, that much of the support GetUp claims to have is exaggerated. The total membership figure advertised on its website was, at the time of writing, 432,741, which makes it appear to be a massive grassroots community organisation. But the number of people who actually support it with money, rather than simply register on the website for free, is only a fraction of this. In its most recently published annual report for 2008-09, the total number of individual donors was just 17,295 with an average donation of $96.78. Since most of the donated money came from big unions, the actual amount given by individual members must have been very small. 

Much the same is true of the organisation’s claims to base its politics on grassroots democracy.

The GetUp website contains a section called the Campaign Ideas Forum where members can make suggestions of issues to adopt. Depending on the number of votes an issue generates, the GetUp executive will look into each suggestion and decide whether or not to accept it. Each member, upon signing into the Campaign Ideas Forum for the first time, is given a total of ten “votes”. Funnily enough, these votes can be used more than once on the same issue. For instance, I was able to use three of my votes to support the suggestion about running a campaign against Victoria’s very lenient abortion laws.

I noticed that there was a rather colourful mixture of campaign suggestions, including support for the legalisation of cannabis (which has so far received thirty-five votes) and to reinvestigate the collapse of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, to expose how the official story of the events of that day was a cover-up (this issue currently has eighteen votes). A proposal to support voluntary euthanasia has received 1920 votes. 

Despite the weird system of voting, the idea of allowing all members to submit ideas for future campaigns seems, on the surface, a promising example of grassroots democracy. However, regardless of how many votes a campaign suggestion might generate, the GetUp executive maintains the power to veto any issue they don’t consider consistent with the organisation’s values. A revealing example of this occurred in late 2010 when one member proposed a campaign titled “Human Rights for Unborn Children”, which advocated the introduction of legislation to protect the rights of human foetuses and restrict late-term abortions. This campaign suggestion received a large number of votes, well over a thousand, and at one point was ranked as GetUp’s third-most popular campaign. Yet the suggestion was ultimately rejected by head office. The reasons?

First, the staff at GetUp had judged the suggestion not on what its proposer had written in the summary but on what had been written by some of those supporting the issue. In the notice of rejection, a website administrator wrote: 

If you compare this particular campaign suggestion with its supporters’ comments, the two don’t completely align in their intention. A campaign suggestion about protecting a fetus in its later stages of development has largely turned into a movement against abortion at all stages of fetal development.

The second, more surprising reason given by the administrator said the high number of votes the campaign suggestion received was the result of people creating fake profiles. The administrator, known only as “Kate” wrote: 

Just because a campaign suggestion receives a lot of votes, doesn’t mean that GetUp will take it on as a campaign. It does mean GetUp staff, volunteers and interns will look into the issue and see if it fits with GetUp’s values, fires up a movement of GetUp members, and that there is a good moment when GetUp members can help win a victory on the issue. A few people try to game the system by flooding certain campaign suggestions with votes from fake accounts, and so forth—but it’s usually pretty obvious when that’s happening.

It seems strange that a so-called grassroots democracy movement, which is rarely shy to boast about its membership base of over 400,000, would suddenly take such a dismissive attitude to many of these same members when they overwhelmingly vote in favour of an issue which a select few individuals at head office don’t approve.

It seems to be a case of grassroots democracy as long as it fits in with the agenda of those who run GetUp. It is true that many of the votes in favour of this campaign suggestion may have come from people with multiple accounts. However, on the same logic, it is equally plausible that many of the campaigns which GetUp has adopted and championed, such as the campaign for same-sex marriage and the campaign in support of Julian Assange, could also have been supported by fake profiles.

I decided to further test GetUp’s commitment to human rights issues by suggesting a campaign in support of Human Rights for Coptic Christians. The idea came to me after attending a rally in late January in Martin Place condemning the state-sanctioned killings of Coptic Christians in Egypt and threats against Coptic churches in Australia.

As part of the submission for my campaign suggestion, I suggested that members of GetUp write to Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Foreign Affairs Minister Kevin Rudd, urging them to publicly condemn the attacks and the Egyptian government’s complicity in them, something which thus far they have failed to do. I also suggested that GetUp arrange a petition to be sent to both Ms Gillard and Mr Rudd with those demands.

So far I am one of only two supporters of this campaign suggestion, which has received only four votes, three of them from me. It currently sits near the bottom of the list of human rights campaign suggestions, well behind the campaign titled “Australia to become a Republic on 10 December 2012” which currently has 199 votes. How the issue of Australia becoming a republic can be counted as a human rights issue is beyond me.

In the lead-up to last year’s federal election, GetUp became involved in several high-profile stunts. One of these was a billboard at the entrance to the domestic terminal of Sydney Airport. It featured a picture of Tony Abbott coming out of the surf, dressed in his Speedos, accompanied by the slogan, “Tony, abstinence is not a climate option! Climate Action Now”. The slogan was designed to criticise both Mr Abbott’s strong Catholic faith and the Liberal Party’s blocking of the then Rudd government’s Emissions Trading Scheme in the Senate.

To many people, this type of publicity stunt would seem, at best, cheap and tacky, if not vulgar and bigoted against Catholics. Furthermore, it does little to sell GetUp’s climate change message and has the potential to seem patronising towards Generation Y, who make up a large number of GetUp’s membership, as it gives the impression that Generation Y are shallow and easily swayed by slogans.

Another stunt was the group’s antics at the Canberra Press Gallery’s midwinter ball in June. In the charity auction, where the prize was a surfing lesson with Tony Abbott, GetUp made the winning bid. It then publicly donated the prize to Riz Wakil, a former Afghan refugee who had spent nine months in the Curtin Detention Centre. The aim was to teach Mr Abbott about the plight of asylum seekers. Although Mr Abbott appeared enthusiastic about meeting Mr Wakil, to many people the hijacking of a charity auction to make a political point, especially when the aim of that stunt was to embarrass an individual who was giving his time to support the charities benefiting from the auction, would seem to be in very poor taste.

The action that attracted the most publicity in the 2010 election campaign was GetUp’s challenge in the High Court to the validity of amendments the Howard government had made to the Commonwealth Electoral Act in 2006 (Rowe v Electoral Commissioner). This was accompanied by a Federal Court case challenging the laws prohibiting people from enrolling online to vote in elections (GetUp Ltd v Electoral Commissioner).

On the afternoon of August 6, the High Court decided against the provisions of the Electoral and Referendum Amendment Act 2006 which prevented people from having their claims for enrolment on the electoral roll considered between the day an election was called and the close of the polls. Members of GetUp, including national director Simon Sheik, gleefully proclaimed it a “historic day for all Australians”. Sam McLean, communications director of GetUp, also triumphantly claimed that the ruling was a “win for democracy” and showed that in Australia “voting is for all, not just for some”. 

Independent MP Rob Oakeshott, in what might have been a clue as to which way he would lean in the hung parliament that eventuated, released a media statement in which he congratulated GetUp on their victory and described the laws as a “farce”. Mr Oakeshott, who has attended events hosted by GetUp in his federal electorate of Lyne on the mid-north coast of New South Wales, said of the impugned legislation: “This is a law that goes back to the last days of the Howard government, and was unfortunately kept by both the Rudd and Gillard governments.”

The case against the Electoral Commissioner was brought by GetUp members Shannen Rowe and Douglas Thompson. Both were students who had missed the enrolment deadlines fixed by the 2006 Act. Shannen Rowe had turned eighteen in June, a month before Julia Gillard called the election on July 17, yet did not attempt to enrol until after that date. Similarly, Douglas Thompson, who, at the age of twenty-three, was already enrolled to vote but had moved from the division of Wentworth to the division of Sydney, failed to change his enrolment details within the three-day limit following the announcement of the election.

Rowe and Thompson were represented by Ron Merkel QC, the former Federal Court judge who decided to return to the Bar in 2006 and is currently involved with several left-wing advocacy causes, including the move to sue Herald Sun columnist Andrew Bolt for allegedly breaching the Racial Discrimination Act. In his written judgment, Chief Justice Robert French claimed the impugned provisions “diminish the opportunities for enrolment and transfer of enrolment that existed prior to their enactment”.

However, not everyone on the bench of the High Court was in agreement since the seven judges had split 4–3. Along with French, Justices William Gummow, Virginia Bell and Susan Crennan all upheld the plaintiffs’ case while Justices Kenneth Hayne, Dyson Heydon and Susan Kiefel opposed it. In their written judgments, the last three justices all gave similar reasons for not supporting the plaintiffs’ case. They all maintained that the plaintiffs were not only entitled to enrol to vote, but had a legal obligation to do so upon becoming eligible and that, had they not eventually attempted to enrol, they would have been liable to face a criminal sanction. Justice Heydon also said the plaintiffs should have been well aware that an election would be called soon, as there was widespread speculation about it.

Several questions need to be asked about GetUp’s real motives in launching this case. It is true that there was widespread speculation about when the election would be called, including from GetUp, which ran a high-profile campaign encouraging people to get enrolled. Their efforts included an online video mash-up submitted to the “Get Enrolled” competition being run by the ABC’s Q&A program. So why then did Shannen Rowe and Douglas Thompson not heed the advice of the organisation of which they are both active members?

Second, the timing of this court case must also be regarded with a degree of cynicism. GetUp had made objections to the 2006 electoral laws since they were first introduced. So, why did they not only wait four years before mounting a challenge to these laws, but also decide to do so once a federal election had been announced? Is it perhaps too cynical of me to suggest that the reason might have been that a challenge taking place any time before the announcement of the 2010 federal election would not have grabbed headlines in the same manner that this successful last-minute challenge did? Would it be unfair to suggest that launching a High Court challenge in the middle of the election campaign could have been yet another pre-election publicity stunt designed to embarrass Tony Abbott over the laws that his party introduced? ABC election analyst Antony Green certainly thought so. He told ABC News the outcome of the case favoured the left-wing parties: “Given all the publicity, I would imagine there would be a huge increase in the number of eighteen-year-olds on the roll and that would probably assist Labor and the Greens.”

Or was there something even more sinister behind the whole affair? The Liberal Party said it would be monitoring the situation for any signs of electoral rorting. Senator Michael Ronaldson told ABC News the Howard government introduced the laws on enrolment deadlines to strengthen the electoral roll’s integrity:

While we welcome the additional 100,000 voters who will be participating in this election, we remain concerned the decision leaves the door open to abuse by electoral rorters. Electoral rorters will now be able to use the busy period, after the issue of writs, to make false enrolments and false transfers of enrolments.

The eventual outcome of the 2010 election, however, posed some awkward questions about the degree of political clout that GetUp could actually generate. The organisation arranged for several hundred volunteer workers to attend polling booths in four key marginal electorates: Bennelong and Wentworth in Sydney, the ACT, and Ryan in Brisbane. They handed out leaflets urging voters to consider three main issues: action on climate change, refugees and mental health. The first two were obviously designed to influence voters to vote for leftist parties. In the event, GetUp’s efforts were ineffective in determining the outcomes. Labor’s Gai Brodtmann held the ACT but suffered a 2.7 per cent swing to the Liberals. In Wentworth, the sitting Liberal member, Malcolm Turnbull, increased his majority by 11 per cent. In Ryan, new Liberal National Party member Jane Prentice increased hers by 6 per cent. In Bennelong, of course, Labor’s Maxine McKew lost her seat to John Alexander, thanks to a 4.5 per cent swing to the Liberals.

To be fair, some of GetUp’s campaigns are commendable, such as their campaign for mental health care reform and their current campaign to provide assistance to the victims of the Queensland floods through fundraising and encouraging members to open their homes to people who have lost theirs. Unlike many of their previous campaigns, these two can attract support from all sections of the community.

As the next few election campaigns come and go, GetUp’s political integrity will be strongly tested. One could interpret their use of the word independent to mean “anyone but the Coalition”.

Perhaps the best summary of this point of view came from, of all places, a comedy show. On the second-last episode of the Chaser’s new series Yes We Canberra, which aired on the ABC for the duration of the election campaign, one segment featured a parody advertisement for GetUp. Chaser team member Chris Taylor, dressed in a GetUp shirt, presented a piece to camera claiming the organisation was not about taking sides or telling people which way to vote, but rather encouraging dialogue on the real issues of the election. Whilst Taylor was talking, small subliminal messages briefly flashed on screen, such as “Don’t Vote Liberal”, “Don’t EVER Vote Liberal”, and “Tony Abbott is Satan”. At the end of his talk, Taylor advised the viewers to log on to the GetUp website “for a completely unbiased, objective lowdown on how to vote Labor”. Although the piece was intended only as parody, it is perhaps the most accurate portrayal of GetUp to date.

Kieran Morris is a member of the New South Wales Division of the Young Liberal Movement of Australia and a recent graduate in journalism.

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