We see their spokespeople quoted in the papers and their ads on TV, but beyond that we know very little about how Australia’s lobby groups get what they want. This series shines a light on the strategies, political alignment and policy platforms of eight lobby groups this election campaign.
GetUp!’s 2016 election campaign has claimed a big win. An online petition to save the Great Barrier Reef, started by 11-year-old Sophia on GetUp!’s citizen-led site CommunityRun, received public acknowledgement from its target: international celebrity Ellen DeGeneres.
Ellen, the voice of tropical fish Dory in Finding Nemo and upcoming sequel Finding Dory, put out this community service announcement:
GetUp! also claimed Ellen’s announcement as a win for its five-year campaign to stop dredging and new coal mines near the Reef.
Environment Minister Greg Hunt subsequently sent a series of tweets to Ellen claiming the government was working hard to protect the reef. And the Coalition has committed to a A$1 billion fund to invest in projects that will improve water quality, reduce emissions and provide clean energy in the reef catchment region.
This example shows just how much political engagement in Australia has changed over the past decade. New organisations have taken the lead in channelling citizen voice into politics.
The internet fostered a fundamental realignment of politics in the 2000s, diversifying the organisations that structure political activity, the actions they use, and the targets they seek to influence.
In GetUp!‘s Great Barrier Reef campaign, we can see all three of these changes at work. CommunityRun created the space and tools for Sophia to launch an online petition to get a response from a celebrity, while putting pressure on national policy agendas.
This approach to political engagement was novel in Australia when GetUp! launched in 2005. It began as a partnership between two young Australians – Jeremy Heimans and David Madden – who had worked on digital campaigns in the US, with Unions NSW.
The organisation was formed in direct response to the previous Coalition government, led by Prime Minister John Howard, gaining majorities in both the House of Representatives and the Senate.
GetUp! is part of a group of progressive organisations internationally inspired by MoveOn in the US. These organisations are best described as “hybrid” campaigning bodies because they use both online and offline tactics to engage citizens. They are insider-oriented interest groups that lobby politicians, and outsider-focused social movement organisations, coordinating mass-based political participation.
Similar to sibling organisations internationally, GetUp! uses a storytelling and emotion-laden approach to structure its campaigns and public messaging. This creates a shared, positive narrative that is more likely to lead to collective action than negative, adversarial politics.
GetUp!’s campaigns that have found success in terms of public or policymaking influence have focused on a range of issues, including mental health, voter electoral registration, refugees, marriage equality, university fees, carbon pollution, Medicare fees, and live animal exports.
Membership and competition
In 2016, GetUp!’s digital activities are now mainstream. Most citizen-focused political organisations use similar tools, having adapted to the new political context.
Yet GetUp! also remains distinct in Australian politics due to its size, its fundraising strategy, and its multi-issue progressive agenda.
GetUp!’s membership total hit one million members in late December 2015. You join by taking a GetUp!-sponsored action and then are added to the email database.
Yet there remains a qualitative difference in being a member via signing up to receive political information to paying a regular membership fee in exchange for membership and voice, like joining Greenpeace or the Wilderness Society, or for services and representation, like union membership.
An important focus for GetUp! is turning their subscribed members into active members and regular donors. GetUp! is unique in Australia as its funding is from both small donations for political actions, such as placing an ad on television or to run a billboard campaign, and regular donations from “core members”.
In the 2015 financial year, GetUp! raised A$7.2 million. Only 4% of this was from large individual donations that need to be declared (currently A$13,000) to the Australian Electoral Commission. GetUp! also notes in its 2015 Annual Report that 11,700 core members donated 45% of the organisations’ annual revenue.
In the Australian context, most charities, non-profits and environmental organisations are registered nationally to have deductible gift recipient status (DGR). This means donors can claim the expense and have a deduction made from their taxable income. Union members can also claim their membership fees as tax deductions.
However, GetUp! is a political organisation so its donors cannot benefit from DGR status. This is a sizeable disincentive for socially progressive wealthy philanthropists to make donations.
Most of Getup!’s peers that are large, progressive political organisations undertaking advocacy on single issues are registered charities, such as Greenpeace, WWF, and Amnesty. Yet as we have seen this year, the charity status and political advocacy of many of these organisations is increasingly under scrutiny.
GetUp! in the 2016 election
All GetUp! campaigns are centred around three core areas of human rights, environmental sustainability, and economic fairness.
In the 2016 election campaign, it is particularly focusing on:
climate change and renewable energy;
linking multinational corporation tax avoidance with public funding of schools and hospitals; and
targeting the electorates held by what it has defined as “hard-right” politicians, including Andrew Nikolic, George Christensen and Peter Dutton.
Similar to the ACTU’s election strategy, GetUp! is using volunteer-staffed phone banks to target key electorates on their core issues. On election day, volunteers will hand out voter cards, comparing party positions on these core issues.
Australian political lobbying and interest group action has long been dominated by two major groupings: business and unions. Business interests are well-resourced and have direct influence on major parties’ political agendas. But organisations such as GetUp! are rising up by using novel forms of political engagement to represent and mobilise the interests of citizens.
Read the other articles in The Conversation’s Australian lobby groups series here.