Senate debates

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Matters of Public Interest

Political Organisations: GetUp

1:00 pm

Photo of Eric AbetzEric Abetz (Tasmania, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations) Share this | | Hansard source

I congratulate Senator Polley on her considered speech. There is something deceitful and repugnant about an organisation which claims to be independent and non-partisan but is actively partisan; which campaigns on particular popular issues but is really only interested in funnelling votes to the Greens and Labor; which at each election pretends to independently assess the policies of the various political parties when the result is a foregone conclusion; which pretends to educate young people about policy issues but takes advantage of their political inexperience; and which preaches openness but is secretive about its own financial affairs. Today I wish to update the Senate on some of these traits of the left-wing activist group GetUp.

GetUp claims to be independent and non-partisan and, lately, that it ‘does not back any particular political party’. It claims it only takes up issues in order to bring about progressive reforms. Unfortunately, this is not so. To GetUp, issues are merely fodder enabling the organisation to identify and electronically tag people concerned about particular matters, to enlist them to a broader agenda and eventually to direct them to vote—and, preferably, to campaign—against the coalition.

I will put a little theory to you. In a Wikipedia article, in a section entitled ‘Common aspects of “community organizing groups”’, it says:

Organizing groups often seek out issues they know will generate controversy and conflict. This allows them to draw in and educate participants, build commitment, and establish a reputation for winning. Thus, community organizing is usually focused on more than just resolving specific issues. In fact, specific issues are often vehicles for other organizational goals as much as they are ends in themselves.

Amanda Tattersall describes herself as founder and chair of GetUp. Previously, she was a Labor staffer. When GetUp was founded, Ms Tattersall was a special projects officer with Unions NSW. She is now Deputy Assistant Secretary of Unions NSW. GetUp’s 2005-06 annual report tells us:

Amanda is an experienced union and community organiser, bringing significant campaigning, political and bridge building skills between social movements. She is the executive director of Working NSW, a research-driven campaign centre established by Unions NSW.

GetUp’s 2005-06 annual report also credits Ms Tattersall, at the time a special projects officer at Unions NSW, with being ‘ultimately responsible for conceptualising and establishing GetUp’ along with David Madden and Jeremy Heimans. In a Workers Online article in 2006 entitled ‘So where to now?’ Tattersall outlined her plans for Working NSW and the challenge of connecting research, communications and campaigning. She said:

A progressive agenda ensures that individual campaigns are feeding into a broader program of change that can shift power away from big business and prioritise the needs of working families.

Does the phrase ‘working families’ sound familiar? The article goes on to say:

Working NSW is just one new piece in a growing infrastructure for progressive politics in Australia. The aggressive agenda of the Howard Government, and its attacks on almost every facet of the lives of working families—

there is that phrase again—

has created a strong base for coalitions of common interests between unions, community organisations, religious organisations, the environment movement and students. New organisations such as have been developed to interconnect individuals committed to specific campaigns to a broader movement.

I wonder what that ‘broader movement’ might be?

This is a salient admission by GetUp’s conceptualiser, co-founder and chair that GetUp was conceived in league with Working NSW, a Unions New South Wales campaign to interconnect individuals committed to specific campaigns to a broader anti-business, anti-coalition, pro-labour movement and political purpose.

Also on GetUp’s board is Anne Coombs, and she has given to GetUp up to $150,000. In 2004, Coombs declared her political leanings when she wrote:

So the landscape I see under a continuing Coalition government is not a hopeful one... After a six-week campaign, Latham is no longer the unknown quantity. Many Australians like what they see … it is almost Whitlamesque—

she gushed. She went on to say:

But I believe that if they win government then Labor are likely to backslide on both environmental and social issues. That’s why we need the Greens.

Anne Coombs has also written an article called ‘How cyber-activism changed the world’ in which she admitted:

GetUp! invested such extraordinary effort and passion into defeating the Coalition government that there was always a danger that the organisation would fall into irrelevance once this goal was achieved.

Like Amanda Tattersall’s article ‘So where to now? Anne Coombs’ article records not only GetUp’s anti-coalition agenda but also its broader, partisan political raison d’etre. It says:

One of the intentions of GetUp!’s founders was to unite the—

small ‘l’—

liberal middle-class and working-class unionists.

Somehow that does not sound very independent or non-partisan; but it does reveal the truth about how GetUp is designed to capture votes from so-called ‘liberals’ concerned about single issues and funnel them to Labor. Coombs elaborates:

Decisions about which issues Get Up! takes on are taken by a small core of staffers … The most significant feedback for Get Up! is that from people who say they have never been involved in politics before. Madden says, ‘It’s empowering for people and can lead to greater participation.

Coombs goes on:

The potential to mobilise those who have not traditionally been interested in politics was demonstrated … when Get Up! ran a strong campaign against Internet censorship. That campaign brought in tens of thousands of new members, many of them the kind of IT geeks not usually associated with progressive politics. Most have stayed on board and a significant number joined a subsequent action in support of a Human Rights Act.

Finally, Coombs admits GetUp’s recruits are politicised and enlisted as anti-coalition foot soldiers for federal election campaigns:

Signing up to an email campaign is one thing, but true political involvement means getting together with other people … Madden says this offline work was always part of the plan, ‘because people like face-to-face’. Local mobilisations were important in the lead-up to the 2007 federal elections —particularly in John Howard’s Bennelong electorate, where Get Up! concentrated major resources and Get Up! members volunteered from far and wide.

GetUp’s 2007 federal election report indeed shows that it was able, if we are to believe them, to field up to 7,000 active volunteer campaigners during that election campaign. It fielded a similar number in 2010, concentrating its activities in marginal seats. GetUp’s dodgy vote generator in 2007 and similarly notorious and spurious scorecard in 2010 also advocated voting for the Greens and Labor.

Together, Tattersall and Coombs’s candid statements testify to GetUp’s broad and deceptive political agenda, to which its issues based campaigns are merely subordinate. This is underlined by GetUp’s own figures, which indicate that, in 2007-08, a massive 62 per cent of GetUp’s campaign expenditure was actually used for electoral purposes rather than on issue based campaigns.

GetUp’s other early board members, the internet savvy current MP Bill Shorten and Evan Thornley, testify to GetUp’s political agenda. Another early board member was Cate Faehrmann, a former staffer for Lee Rhiannon, campaign manager for the Greens on both sides of the Tasman and Greens lead Senate candidate in South Australia in 2001. Cate Faehrmann has now taken up Lee Rhiannon’s place in the New South Wales Legislative Council on behalf of the Greens, Lee Rhiannon having been elected to the Senate. Here we see more evidence not only of GetUp’s deceptive broader anti-coalition agenda but also the clear political leanings of its founders and directors towards Labor and the Greens. Looking at GetUp’s staff at the 2010 election, pictured on the GetUp website, the majority giving the clenched-fist salute, we see yet another indication of GetUp’s ‘independence’ and ‘non-partisanship’.

I wish to return to some aspects of the theory of internet campaigning and the principle that this form of campaigning is concerned not so much with ideological inconsistencies as with pushing in the broad direction desired. In the lead-up to and throughout the recent election campaign GetUp said that it was campaigning on the issues of climate change, refugees and mental health. But, in August, GetUp ran a personal-attack advertisement featuring out-of-context quotes saying its aim was to ‘examine Tony Abbott’s ultra-conservative views on key issues in these last crucial weeks of the election’—hardly what one would expect of a so-called independent, non-partisan organisation which, despite airing an ad mildly mocking Ms Gillard, never once lampooned or criticised Greens Leader Bob Brown.

On Sunday it emerged that the CFMEU donated over $1.1 million to GetUp to run the anti-Tony-Abbott advertisement. GetUp is now in damage control on this issue and has had to poll its members—by means of a loaded survey—about whether they support this sort of donation. I would like to know whether GetUp discussed the timing and coordination of their advertisements with the Labor Party or the CFMEU.

Aware that their activities have been referred to the AEC, GetUp is now claiming to support the coalition’s proposals for mental health. Earlier this month GetUp said that for the first time its members would be emailing, calling and faxing Greens MPs trying to get them to be ‘more pragmatic’ and support the Liberal-Nationals plan. Of course, during the federal election GetUp claimed it was campaigning on mental health, but its spurious scorecard ranked our mental health policy as equal to that of the Greens and introduced two new criteria by which they were able to downgrade the coalition on health compared to the Greens and Labor.

So I say to members of GetUp and to anyone who may be attracted by a particular campaign GetUp is appearing to champion: don’t be duped. As in all transactions on the internet, you should be very careful who you are dealing with and what their real agenda is. GetUp is not so much interested in your issue as in grooming you into voting and working for Labor and the Greens. I hope to receive more messages of support from GetUp members like the one I received yesterday in response to GetUp’s online campaign:

… thank you for adding some scrutiny to this new, popular, emerging organisation. Keep the scrutiny going. I have supported some initiatives by them however I was unaware of the nature of the organisation …

On 6 September I referred a precis of a speech I made on GetUp to the Australian Electoral Commission with a request to re-examine the issue of whether GetUp should be deemed an ‘associated entity’ under the Commonwealth Electoral Act. The AEC has responded that the information being in this form does not constitute admissible evidence and that there is still no available evidence showing that GetUp meets the definition of an ‘associated entity’. Accordingly, I am preparing a submission to the AEC outlining the detailed case for GetUp to be considered an ‘associated entity’ under the Commonwealth Electoral Act and also examining other options to force GetUp to come clean with its members and the Australian public.

In short, the criticism is not what they do but how they seek to portray what they do. In a free democracy such as Australia’s, of course, any organisation should be free to speak and advocate as they want. But, when they are so clearly and extremely left-wing, to try to portray themselves as simply issues based—they are anything but—is a deception of the Australian people against which the Australian people need to be protected.