Lessons from GetUp in how not to do activism

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There's a fair bit of truth in the saying that 'everything is political'. Even political parties that promote small government still run massive departments responsible for huge programs managed by large numbers of public servants and affecting the lives of millions of people. Including people who don't get to vote.

Former Labor leader Bill Shorten with members of GetUp! during the 2016 election campaign.At election time, most voters pick between one of two competing policy programs from the 'parties of government'. How do they pick? It's about priorities. Some voters imagine the economy to be more important than climate. Some look more to self-interest while others are more altruistic. Some are more influenced by ideology or religious belief or even prejudice.

It isn't just parties that try to influence voters. There are lobbies, thinktanks, sectional interests and activist networks. Each of these tries its level best to present its opinions on pet issues as being consistent with mainstream opinion based on heritage ('Judeo-Christian'), science, economics etc. In many cases, the same economic, moral, scientific etc. factors can be used to argue in favour of totally opposing positions.

Take refugee rights, for example. One could argue the case for reduced refugee intake on the basis that refugees often are a burden on the social security system. This position was used by senior Coalition figures such as Peter Dutton. Yet another conservative, US author and humourist P. J. O'Rourke, argues that refugees have every incentive to work hard and make terrific citizens.

The most successful and influential political movements are those flexible enough to co-opt the rhetorical and ideological tropes of their opponents. The ones which tend to fail are those which insist on rigid ideological purity. They may be well-resourced, have plenty of volunteers and ambitious programs. But all this may count for little if they cannot sell their ideas to enough people to swing the electorate.

The experiences of GetUp in the recent federal election is a case in point. GetUp is an amazing progressive activist movement. In an email to members following the election, GetUp head Paul Oosting wrote: '9433 volunteers made an incredible 712,039 calls and knocked on 36,315 doors. And our work together was funded by 37,335 everyday people — nearly one third of them donating to GetUp for the very first time.' Furthermore, GetUp raised $4 million.

I attended two GetUp campaign launches — one in Melbourne and the other in Perth. In both launches, the audience members were largely in their 50s and 60s while the speakers were young enough to be their kids or grandkids. The organisation clearly is able to attract people of all ages. The Liberal Party branch meetings I've attended have mainly attracted people in their 60s and older.

 

"For an issues-based activist group seeking to promote mainstream values in a federal election, this messaging is inappropriate and risks offending many potential supporters."

 

GetUp launches are energetic affairs. But their strategy was based on a somewhat flawed assumption that the only way to improve the quality of policy on issues like climate and refugees was to go after the 'hard-Right'.

So who were these hard-Right MPs? There are plenty to choose from, and are not limited to one major party. But the list GetUp produced did not consist of anyone from One Nation, Australian Conservatives or the National Party. Much climate and broader environmental policy in the Coalition is heavily influenced by National Party MPs.

Only Liberal MPs were targeted by GetUp. Anyone attending the Perth launch would imagine that the Liberal Party in general was being targeted. When signing in at the Perth launch, attendees were handed a sticker which said: 'Let's avoid a car crash ... DON'T VOTE LIBERAL.'

Such stickers might be appropriate for an ALP campaign. But for an issues-based activist group seeking to promote mainstream values in a federal election, this messaging is inappropriate and risks offending many potential supporters.

Millions of people feel inclined to vote Liberal despite hating racism, despite supporting action on climate change and despite voting for Same Sex Marriage. Such people would likely include GetUp donors and volunteers. These people may vote for their local 'hard-right' MP in the Lower House but may preference in accordance with their values when voting in both Houses. Their hard-right MP may suit them in other local issues they support.

And should an independent candidate come along who has a less nasty policy mix than the hard-right sitting member, who knows what could happen? There is no way Tony Abbott could have lost his seat of Warringah had a whole bunch of Liberal voters heeded the message of his opponent on climate change.

Instead of spending its considerable resources targeting of specific 'hard-right' MPs in their often safe seats, GetUp could have continued promoting the broader issues.

The GetUp experience is a lesson to issues based activist groups. They need to find a way to be involved in policy and politics while being seen to avoid partisanship. Had GetUp spent less energy on partisan politicking and more time fine-tuning its message, it may well have gotten more bang for its buck.

 

 

Irfan YusufIrfan Yusuf is a Sydney based lawyer and blogger.

Main image: Former Labor leader Bill Shorten with members of GetUp! during the 2016 election campaign.

Topic tags: Irfan Yusuf, Election 2019, GetUp

 

 

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Existing comments

Your first mistake is the belief that Getup is an organisation and that the spokespeople are all there is.
Marilyn | 24 May 2019


Your estimation of the damage done to the Labor cause by GetUp is reflected in an article Michael Danby wrote in the recent Weekend Australian. He was also underwhelmed with Labor tiptoeing through the tulips with the Greens. As far as Queensland went, I think the Bob Brown convoy, the state government's duplicitous shilly-shallying over Adani and the invasion of farms by Animal Rights activists put the final nails in. If Labor ever want to win office again they need a leader like the late Bob Hawke, who could bring people together rather than estrange them and who, like Keating, was savvy about economics. Brian Fisher's costing on the Labor climate change policies showed how far they are from Hawke and Keating. Labor committed harakiri and the buck stops with the party. No one 'stole' the election. They lost it.
Edward Fido | 26 May 2019


I’ve always voted Liberal , including occasions when there were ‘issues’ not getting the big L support, and which therefor made me a bit uncomfortable. But I’m part of the ‘older’ generation whereby Liberal is part of our DNA. Also, I am an employer who wants to keep my business alive and well and our employees safely and securely employed. Many Families are dependent on our business ... and I acknowledge that responsibility. I will always back policies that support the future of my business. What our employees believe, what they want ... and who they want to vote for is entirely their decision. I respect the ‘Eurekastreet’ way but particularly sane, sensible debate. No time however for extreme views from either the Left , or the Right!
Jack | 27 May 2019


The level of nastiness, harassment, violence and lies in the Warringah electorate was quite shocking, especially for the elderly. For example obstacles at bus stops ... No person deserves such a campaign of vitriol. No members of the public deserve to be accosted as they were here.
Jane | 27 May 2019


To me the really interesting question is why the Get Up campaign failed and the comparable one of the Australian Christian Lobby (for the first time targeting only a small number of seats) succeeded.
Margaret | 27 May 2019


Ex ACTU National Secretary, Timothy Lyons called the actions to try and unseat the strongest liberal seats as, “Hubristic vanity projects”... and bemoaning that money was not put to work in the marginal seats. It demonstrates the naivety of the Get Up leadership and the foolishness of the experienced labour apparatus to get onto their horse.
Patrick | 27 May 2019


Good to hear a critique of GetUp. Power corrupts and as GetUp gains more power so is it vulnerable. I was an early enlistee with GetUp. However have become less comfortable as time went on. A key factor is the ability of a member to influence the policies and practices of the whole group; as with any form of consultation. I found more and more I was being asked for money and less asked about values and principles. Before the election I joined in a frenetic online launch of plans to phone voters and form groups to do so. What struck me about the launch was the fluffy hoopla and lack of solid material. There seemed to be oodles of young people churning through but not much scope for anything other than "Isn't GetUp great!" Reluctantly I joined up but in in no time they were getting my details wrong, I was being asked about convenient times and places to meet and then treated as if what I said meant nothing. When I resigned I kept getting messages and details of meetings to attend. I pointed this out. Response-an apology but no change. This was so redolent of volunteering for GU in the elections of 2016 that I despaired. Head office caused mess-ups and we in the regions were expected to fix them. Nah they need to do better than that if they are not to squander good will.
Michael D. Breen | 28 May 2019


Tony Abbott lost his seat long before Getup got up. He had no chance after his destructive performance in our parliament over the last couple of years and in the later months of his Prime Ministership. It was the electorate who got it right - nothing to do with anyone or any organisation other than Tony Abbott himself.
john frawley | 31 May 2019


GetUp has asked people to send them a post mortem survey. Not too literally so, I hope! They are often seeking feedback. Yes the non Libs should be targeted also, ensuring that they do not align with any party in particular. Serious issues like refugees, homelessness, neglect of First Peoples are partially addressed by Labor, but grass roots activism and compassion avoiding cosying up to any Party should arrest the drift towards capitulation to the hard Right. Example: Keneally being heavied to accept the endless imprisonment of refugees off shore in contravention of international law. In the name of my late mother, once a refugee.
Karis | 03 June 2019


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