POLITICS: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
Is GetUp! a democratic organisation?
, March 17, 2012
In our free-wheeling democracy, where many different voices are struggling to make themselves heard, the emergence of new voices is always to be welcomed. But when organisations appear, such as GetUp!, which claim to be mass movements with a substantial base of support, their claims need to be examined seriously.
Last year, Liberal Senator Eric Abetz exploded the idea that GetUp! was an independent organisation. In an important submission to the federal parliament’s joint standing committee on electoral matters in June 2011, Senator Eric Abetz documented how GetUp!’s electoral campaigning has been heavily funded by the left-wing Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU), which gave it over $1 million.
Senator Abetz did not mention it, but the CFMEU is a union conglomerate which was created in the early 1990s through the merging of several unions, the most powerful of which, for decades before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990, were run by communists of one complexion or another. These include the Building Workers Industrial Union (BWIU), the Builders Labourers’ Federation (BLF), the Miners’ Federation, and the Federated Engine Drivers’ and Firemen’s Association.
GetUp!'s website home page.
Senator Abetz also documented the fact that most members of GetUp!’s board have been associated with either the Labor Party, the trade union movement or extreme environmentalism, with the exception of one-time federal Liberal Party leader Dr John Hewson who was appointed as a director of GetUp!, but resigned within weeks of its launch, and Don Mercer, chairman of Newcrest Mining, who was on GetUp!’s board from 2006-8.
Senator Abetz also refuted GetUp!’s claim to be independent, citing statements from its own board members, and its reports on the 2007 and 2010 federal election campaigns.
I want to examine a separate but related aspect of GetUp!’s operations, its claim to be a democratic mass organisation.
First, you need to understand that GetUp! is not a normal public policy organisation. It operates almost entirely through the internet. It uses the internet as an organising medium, to encourage people to sign up for particular causes, and to raise money. If you go to GetUp!’s website, you will see that its current campaigns are:
• support for the Gillard-Wilkie pokies reform;
• support for same-sex marriage;
• opposition to mandatory detention and off-shore processing of asylum-seekers;
• stopping coal-seam gas mining;
• campaigning against Harvey Norman’s policy of using timber from native forests.
At any time, it has a handful of campaigns about the environment, human rights and other sensitive issues which concern all of us.
If you look at GetUp!’s home page on the internet, it shows an unidentified photo of a candle-lit rally, for an unknown cause, with the words in bold next to it: “Join the movement of 589,261 Australians”.
And under it are two boxes. The first is to be filled out by you, with the words “firstname.lastname@example.org”, and the second, again in bold, “Become a member now”.
These 589,261 Australians do not have any of the rights which normally attach to membership of an organisation. They cannot attend the annual general meetings of GetUp! They cannot vote for its office-bearers. They have no say as to how its income is to be spent (they have no role, other than to supply their email addresses to GetUp! and donate to its campaign funds).
It is a fundamental principle in all political, industrial and other organisations in Australia that they protect the rights of members.
GetUp! denies its members the rights which apply to similar organisations in Australia. It is not even possible to find a copy of the constitution of GetUp! on the organisation’s website.
This is not a trivial matter, because GetUp! raises millions of dollars in donations every year and claims to speak for nearly 600,000 Australians. It says much about the credibility of the organisation.
In both New South Wales and Victoria, and possibly in other states, there are laws which allow for the incorporation of voluntary associations. These laws require organisations to provide members with copies of their constitutions, and ensure that their rights to participate in policy formation and the election of office-bearers. GetUp! members have no such rights.
There is another related matter here. GetUp! has a very interesting way in which it generates political pressure. When a person clicks on a GetUp! online campaign, the GetUp! website then generates a personalised email which it sends to selected MPs or senators. In other words, GetUp! disguises the fact that the person whose name appears on the bottom of the email has not drafted the email, but has simply clicked on a box on its website. This is fundamentally dishonest.
If this happens once, it is unimportant. But when it happens thousands, or tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands of times, in an effort to change public policy, it should be described for what it is: a scam and a fraud on Australian democracy.
The third point I wish to raise is the way in which GetUp! reduces complex issues to shallow slogans designed to whip up the emotions of those who participate in them.
There are many examples I could give here. But if you look at their current campaigns, one of them is directed towards the three Independent MPs, Tony Windsor, Rob Oakeshott and Andrew Wilkie, and is urging them to join the Greens in opposing the use of waste timber and forest trash for electricity production.
Under the heading “Sign the Petition” is a YouTube video of just 43 seconds, with the heading, “Did you just kill a koala?”, and next to it is a box headed in bold red type: “Sign here!”.
Under that it says, “To the Independents: Burning native forests for electricity production is not renewable! Please keep the climate agreement strong. Don’t divert taxpayer funds from solar and wind into the logging of native forests.” Under that is a space with the words, “Your email address”, where a person inserts his or her email address. Below that is a button which reads, “Sign the petition!”
The fact is that the person who completes all these steps has actually signed nothing, but simply sent his or her email address to GetUp! The grossly over-simplified presentation of what GetUp! admits, in the fine print, to be “a complicated issue”, is mendacious and manipulative in the extreme.
GetUp!’s campaigns on other issues follow exactly the same style, and are equally simplistic. The “Pokies Petition” shows what appears to be a hand full of $100 and $50 notes in front of a battery of gaming machines.
GetUp!'s anti-pokies campaign.
Under the picture appear the words: “Australians lose over $12 billion every year on pokies, and problem-gamblers can lose over $1,000 in a single hour. This Parliament is our best chance to implement sensible pre-commitment technology to help problem-gamblers kick a habit that’s destroying Australian families. Add your name to our national petition for pokie reform on the petition to the right!”
The petition supports the Gillard-Wilkie plan for mandatory pre-commitment.
Again, a complex issue is reduced to a few slogans. No mention is made of the fact that mandatory pre-commitment does not prevent a person pre-committing to spend $2,000 an hour, or any other figure, should they desire to do so. Moreover, this campaign does not deal with other forms of gambling, including casinos, TAB betting, horse and harness racing, dog racing, the growing online betting market, and international betting.
As in the other campaigns, people are asked to sign the “Petition for Pokie Reform”. Again, they are asked to fill in their email address, and click on a button to “Sign the Petition”.
In view of the fact that petitions normally require the full name, address and personal signature of every person who wishes to associate themselves with it, this is clearly inadequate. But GetUp! has another email address which can be used to mobilise the person on this and other campaigns, and to appeal for money.
These examples show how GetUp! works, and why its claims to represent hundreds of thousands of Australians are fallacious. Further, its campaign methods do not meet the standard expected of community organisations.
GetUp!’s political campaigns lack credibility and transparency, and therefore legitimacy.
Peter Westmore is national president of the National Civic Council. This article is based on an address he gave to the H.S. Chapman Society in Sydney on February 26, 2012.