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Lessons from GetUp in how not to do activism

  • 23 May 2019


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.

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