Speech - David Davies Memorial Dinner

GetUp! - A New Kind of Astroturfing[1]

GetUp! - independent and non-aligned? 

There is something particularly repugnant about an organisation which: 

  • claims to be independent and non-partisan, but is actively partisan
  • campaigns on particular popular issues, but which is really only interested in funnelling votes to the Greens and Labor
  • each election goes through a charade of "independently" assessing the various political parties' policies when the result is a foregone conclusion
  • will slightly criticise Labor in order to lend credence to its claims of independence
  • pretends to educate young people about policy issues while taking advantage of their political inexperience
  • preaches openness and transparency, but is secretive about its own financial affairs

Which organisation am I talking about?

I speak of course, of GetUp!

Might I say from the outset that GetUp's activities would be perfectly legitimate if they just came out and admitted to being a left-wing activist group.

The trouble is that GetUp! trades on being "independent" and "non-partisan" when it is anything but.

It has never been either independent or non-partisan and it is this fundamental lack of honesty which elicits such cynicism.

GetUp's Board 

GetUp's current board comprises Amanda Tattsersall, a former staffer for NSW Labor MP, Meredith Burgmann, who is now Deputy Assistant Secretary of Unions NSW. 

Also on GetUp's board is Anne Coombs, a refugee advocate.  Anne Coombs has written an interesting article about GetUp! called, "How cyber-activism changed the world," in which she makes the admission that:

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.[2]

Coombs' article is fascinating, because it unwittingly details how GetUp! identifies and uses issues to funnel people to the Left.

In 2004 Coombs nailed her political colours to the mast 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&. Opportunity for all, care for the aged, security in our region - it is almost Whitlamesque.   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.  It's time they were given a substantial role to play.  Certainly Bob Brown is the only leader that inspires genuine respect.[3]

In 2006 Coombs and an associate put $90,000 into GetUp![4]  In 2007 she put in almost $40,000.[5]

Finally, GetUp's board includes its founders Jeremy Heimans and David Madden.

Although they claim to never have been members of a political party, Heimans and Madden, have been involved in anti-Bush and Democrat campaigns in the US, and have a history of activism and involvement in left-wing issues -much like GetUp's former Executive Director, Brett Solomon. 

Past GetUp! board members have included:

  • Labor luminaries Evan Thornley and Bill Shorten
  • Cate Faehrmann - a former staffer for Lee Rhiannon, Media Officer for the Greens, Campaign Manager for the Greens on both sides of the Tasman and former Greens lead Senate candidate in SA in 2001

So there can be no doubt that GetUp! is an intrinsically Left wing organization.

One might also note that one of GetUp's founders was Lachlan Harris, a staffer for Robert McClelland,who later became Kevin Rudd's Press Secretary.

At least Harris once - under pressure - had the candour to admit that "...if you are a supporter of, like, conservative governments, GetUp.org.au is not for you..."[6]   

GetUp's role in the 2010 election 

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 May this year GetUp! outlined that part of its political strategy was to "expose (Tony) Abbott as a radically conservative throwback to the Howard Government--rejected by the electorate in 2007."[7] 

And in early August GetUp! ran an advertisement taking Tony Abbott to task for his so-called "archaic and indefensible views on women."  

Featuring out of context quotes, GetUp! said its aim was to "examine Tony Abbott's ultra conservative views on key issues in these last crucial weeks of the election."[8] 

Hardly what one would expect of a so-called "independent," "non-partisan" organisation, which - despite airing a mildly cynical ad about Julia Gillard - never once lampooned or criticised Greens Leader, Bob Brown. 

Vote funnelling and dodgy "scorecards" 

This election GetUp! recruited volunteers in an effort to enrol one million unenrolled Australians to vote - an approach borrowed from United States president Barack Obama's 2008 'get out the vote' campaign.   

It then targeted marginal electorates with GetUp! members contacting swinging voters to talk about its issues of refugees, climate change and mental health. 

Then we again saw the farce of GetUp's supposedly "independent" assessment of the main parties' policies. 

Last election it was their dodgy vote generator - howshouldivote.com.au - which generated a supposedly personalised how-to-vote card for people too lazy to examine party policies - the only trouble being that it never recommended a vote for Coalition candidates. 

You may remember that this was the vote-generator which even advised my colleague Andrew Robb he should vote for his Labor opponent! 

This election GetUp's scam was a dodgy election scorecard, supposedly to "cut through the spin and tell voters where the parties stand on the issues that matter to Australians&(once again) from an independent, non-partisan source." [9]

Unsurprisingly GetUp!'s scorecard gave the Greens the tick on every issue, gave Labor more ticks than crosses and gave the Coalition more crosses than ticks. 

These issue scorecards were inserted in major newspapers covering key marginal seats and handed out to voters on election day by 7000 GetUp! volunteers at polling booths around the country.[10] 

When handing out these scorecards on polling day GetUp! booth-workers were heard telling intending voters they were providing an  independent assessment of the various parties. 

Many intending voters had no idea who or what GetUp! was. 

Is there much difference between GetUp! booth-workers telling voters they are independent while handing out scoresheets recommending a vote for the Greens and Labor booth-workers in South Australia telling voters to put their families first while handing out cards preferencing the ALP - something Premier Mike Rann said he would legislate against?[11] 

Greens sprung putting up GetUp! material 

One of GetUp's stated goals in the campaign was to influence the ACT Senate outcome, where the Greens candidate Lin Hatfield Dodds was attempting to win the second Senate position from Liberal Senator Gary Humphries. 

This contest had national significance. 

The Greens were poised to win the balance of power in the Senate in their own right this election, but they could not begin to wield this influence until the new Senate sits next July. 

But, as a senator for a territory, if elected, Hatfield Dodds could have taken her seat straight away, meaning that a Coalition Government would have to deal with more Greens from day one. 

GetUp! therefore invested considerable energy in campaigning for the Greens in the ACT, while pretending that their campaign was issues focussed. 

GetUp's partisanship was illustrated when a Greens booth-worker, sporting a Greens t-shirt, arrived at the Conder polling booth in the seat of Canberra on election day and was photographed blatantly putting up GetUp! material: 

GetUp! - a union-Greens front 

After pretending to be independent for the duration of the election campaign, on the morning of the poll it was revealed that six "progressive" unions had poured more than a million dollars into GetUp's coffers in the previous three weeks.  

According to the Sydney Morning Herald, union contributions accounted for half the $2m GetUp! raised for the election campaign.[12] 

I was interested in how GetUp's receipt of $1m from these unions sat with its long-running campaign on political donations. 

"Tell the government to get corporate and third-party influence out of politics and end all large scale political donations," GetUp's campaign on political donations, trumpets.  Yeah, right!   

"We think it's time to get the undue influence of big donors out of our democracy," GetUp! says.[13] 

An attached page asks: 

Does this mean union donations to parties would be banned too?

Yes&. Unions should be able to campaign and express their political affiliations, but there's no need for specific unions to also make monetary donations - sometimes in the hundreds of thousands of dollars - to political parties. 

GetUp! then raises the concern that its ban on big donations could "lead to the establishment of 'front' organisations?"   

It's very important that we don't ban big donations to political parties, only to have them flow to opaque organisations set up to run advertisements on politicians' behalf &.[14] 

Who would have thought?    

That wouldn't be the same GetUp! which took $50,000 from the CPSU in 2007, I suppose.[15]  Nor the same GetUp! whose TV ads coincidentally ran, with those of the ACTU, while the ALP was off air for 10 days during the recent campaign. 

Now we know that GetUp! is very big on preaching openness and transparency.  

So, when asked to reveal the identity of its union benefactors, GetUp's Director, Simon Sheikh, naturally refused to name the six unions, saying they wanted their identities kept secret until after donor returns are filed with the Australian Electoral Commission.[16] 

But GetUp! is, if anything, politically "nimble".  It now says it would welcome limits on its ability to raise money from unions as part of a reform package for political donations being negotiated between the Coalition and Labor and three key independents. [17] 

But should we wonder that GetUp! is a conduit for union donations, given that Amanda Tattersall, the Deputy Assistant Director of Unions NSW is one of GetUp's long-serving board members? 

GetUp's relationship with Heimans and Madden 

If GetUp's financial relationship with the unions lacks transparency, it's financial relationship with its founders - Jeremy Heimans and David Madden - does moreso. 

Note 17 to GetUp's 2008 Financial Report, pertaining to related party transactions, states that "GetUp's Directors serve on an honorary basis and are not paid for the work that they do as Directors.  Money paid to directors for work in non-directorial capacity is disclosed in the Directors' Report."[18] 

But go to the Directors Report and this states that, while no director received any benefits, this excludes "a benefit included in the aggregate amount of emoluments received or due and receivable by directors shown in the economic entity's accounts&. or the fixed salary of a full time employee of the controlled entity..."[19] 

So the situation surrounding any payments to Heimans and Madden - who established a company called Purpose Campaigns Pty Ltd two days before they established GetUp! Pty Ltd - is as clear as mud. 

GetUp! has always promised "a policy of financial transparency" and to post "a breakdown of (its) expenditures on (its) website."[20]  But this breakdown is becoming increasingly cursory.   It does appear, however, that in 2007-08, a massive 62% of GetUp's campaign expenditure was for electoral purposes. 


In 2005, as Special Minister of State, I asked the Australian Electoral Commission  to investigate whether GetUp! was an Associated Entity, acting principally for the benefit of Labor and the Greens. 

The AEC concluded that there were "insufficient grounds on which to undertake a formal investigation." [21] 

I have today forwarded this speech to the Australian Electoral Commission.

I believe that, five years on, five years in which GetUp! has demonstrated its partisanship - the type of partisanship GetUp! board member and major benefactor, Anne Coombs, admitted when she wrote that "GetUp! invested such extraordinary effort and passion into defeating the Coalition government" - the Commission should revisit this issue.

At the very least the Commission might consider whether the Electoral Act is adequate to address the problem of GetUp! deceiving voters at polling booths by claiming to be independent and non-partisan when clearly it is not.

So as I conclude, may I urge the Young LNP to take up the fight in exposing GetUp.

I believe you are in the demographic and have the technical savvy to take on such a project.

Finally, I congratulate the LNP for its efforts. Almost single handedly you won the election for us.

And if you haven’t, you’ve given us a spring board from which to win next time – and win we must!

[1] Astroturfing denotes political, advertising, or public relations campaigns that are formally planned by an organization, but are disguised as spontaneous, popular "grassroots" behavior. The term refers to AstroTurf, a brand of synthetic carpeting designed to look like natural grass.  The goal of such campaigns is to disguise the efforts of a political or commercial entity as an independent public reaction to some political entity -a politician, political group, product, service or event. Astroturfers attempt to orchestrate the actions of apparently diverse and geographically distributed individuals, by both overt ("outreach", "awareness", etc.) and covert (disinformation) means. Astroturfing may be undertaken by an individual promoting a personal agenda, or highly organized professional groups with money from large corporations, unions, non-profits, or activist organizations. 

[2] http://www.griffithreview.com/edition-24-participation-society/223-reportage/642.html?start=1

[3] http://newmatilda.com/2004/10/05/two-different-landscapes-ahead

[4] http://periodicdisclosures.aec.gov.au/Returns/9/X53.pdf

[5] http://periodicdisclosures.aec.gov.au/Returns/10/X140.pdf

[6] Interview with Mike Jeffreys, 2CC, 8th September 2005

[7] Email to members, 26/5/10

[8] Email to members 9/8/10

[9] Email to member 18/810

[10] Email to members 18/8/10

[11] http://www.abc.net.au/news/stories/2010/03/25/2855589.htm

[12] http://www.smh.com.au/federal-election/getup-bankrolled-by-unions-20100820-138yq.html

[13] http://www.getup.org.au/campaign/PoliticalDonations&id=692

[14] http://www.getup.org.au//files/campaigns/politicaldonationsfaq.pdf

[15] http://periodicdisclosures.aec.gov.au/Returns/10/X140.pdf

[16] http://www.smh.com.au/federal-election/getup-bankrolled-by-unions-20100820-138yq.html

[17] http://www.smh.com.au/federal-election/getup-open-to-limits-on-donations-20100826-13uay.html

[18] GetUp! 2008 Financial Return, p.14

[19] Ibid, p.2

[20] https://www.getup.org.au/donate/ 

[21] http://www.aec.gov.au/pdf/political_disclosures/2007-report/electoral_report2007.pdf

About Eric

Eric Abetz has been a Liberal Senator for Tasmania since 1994 and has served in a range of Leadership, Ministerial and Shadow Ministerial roles.

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