Wednesday, June 08, 2011

GetUp's mistletoe role

A third post in one day!

In the post that began my current thread on politics and public policy, Saturday Morning Musings on a changing Australia, I said in part:

As I write, the left of centre advocacy group GetUp has launched a national TV campaign trying to force the banning of the export of live animals for overseas slaughter. The campaign features images of mistreated cattle and sheep exported from Australia to Indonesia and the Middle East and will air on free-to-air and pay TV.

GetUp is an interesting phenomenon and itself a sign of change.

Internet based, it draws from very particular demographics and has provided a vehicle for organising opinion in those demographics. To survive, GetUp has to identify those issues popular within its support base to the point that people will contribute money. No money, no campaigns, no GetUp. It's really as simple as that.

I am on the GetUp mailing list because I supported a campaign on mental health. As a consequence, today I received the following email from them. Comments follow at the end.

-- A "people-power victory on live exports" read The Age homepage this morning. Congratulations! --
Dear Jim,
This morning Prime Minister Gillard announced an immediate suspension of live exports to Indonesia. To every single one of the 236,000 Australians who have been part of this campaign: congratulations!
Last week, many of us across the nation were shocked to see footage recorded by the courageous team at Animals Australia in Indonesian abattoirs. So when Animals Australia and the RSPCA invited GetUp members to join the campaign, together we responded with the fastest growing campaign in GetUp history.
Over 230,000 of us joined the petition to Julia Gillard and the Agriculture Minister in just one week. Not only that, but together we chipped in over $300,000 for rapid response TV and radio ads calling on the Prime Minister to end the cruel practice!
Our friends at Animals Australia and the RSPCA have poured their hearts into this campaign. They have stood witness first hand to animal cruelty that most of us can barely stand to watch on a TV screen. The credit for today's sucess belongs very much to them. But it also belongs to every single person who made this people-powered campaign such a force over the last week.
Today's announcement marks a radical improvement on the Government's stance from just days ago. There can be no doubt that by creating a huge, hard-hitting advertising campaign and one of the largest petitions in Australian history, every single person involved in this campaign helped shift the Government from a quick political fix to a serious response.
Sadly, there is no guarantee that there isn't horrific animal cruelty happening right now in other countries because of the live export trade. That's why it's important to forward this email to your friends and family and ask them to sign the petition to end live exports too.
This isn't the end of our efforts to stop the cruel practice of live exports to Indonesia. Over the coming months we'll continue to work closely with Animals Australia and the RSPCA to carefully scrutinise the Government's commitment, and ensure that never again are Australian taxes allowed to fund such callous animal cruelty in these slaughterhouses.
Campaigns like this are what GetUp is all about: hundreds of thousands of Australians joining together to hold politicians to account. It's people power that works - and not just on this issue.
Congratulations and thanks for being part of this,
the GetUp team
PS - All of GetUp's campaigns rely on donations. Over 50,000 Australians have chipped in - and our small team and volunteers ensure your donation goes a long way to creating change. If you'd like to make a secure contribution, please

GetUp is an example of the issues based morality politics that I referred to in The rise of issues based morality politics. I discussed the live cattle export question in Problems in Indonesian live meat exports.

As GetUp notes, campaigns like this one are just what GetUp is about. It needs popular issues and donations to survive. As I said in my earlier post, no money, no campaigns, no GetUp. It's really as simple as that.

Most people's reactions to GetUp depend, I think, on whether or not they agree with the issues GetUp espouses. My reaction is a little different.

To my mind, GetUp has become mistletoe on the gum tree that is the Australian political system. It looks for particular popular issues and then feeds upon them. It does not contribute to debate, it cannot, because it has to win to keep the money flowing. Further, it is effectively locked in to issues that appeal to its support base.  

GetUp does not hold politicians to account. Its role is to try to force them to do particular things packaged in simple terms. Stop the sheep or cattle is equivalent to stop the boats, packaged pap.

In saying this, I am not in any way decrying or devaluing the views of GetUp supporters. I am simply saying that GetUp has become yet another hurdle in the way of sensible discussion on the issues facing this country. It is part of the problem when we need a solution.  


In a comment, Marcellous wrote:

I'm not sure that you are right that GetUp always has to be on the winning side. It hasn't always managed to be.

Personally, I concurred with this letter in this morning's SMH:
Cattle sent to Indonesia to be treated according to Australian law. People sent to Malaysia won't be. This is confusing.
Michael Charlton Blaxland

From recollection, GetUp!'s advocacy is at least more consistent than the governments. Democracy at work?

Marcellous is, of course, right in saying that GetUp hasn't always been on the winning side. However, it does need to be able to present wins or apparent wins often enough to survive.

I thought that Michael Blaxland's letter as quoted by M. captured moral confusion rather neatly. One difficulty with issue by issue responses lies in the way that it actually encourages inconsistency.

Marcellous is also correct in saying that GetUp's advocacy is more consistent than the Government's. It could hardly be otherwise, for GetUp operates in a zone set by its supporter's interests and beliefs. Those with different views get squeezed out. I am not suggesting some form of GetUp censorship, simply the natural winnowing process that flows from the way GetUp operates. 

Take my own case as an example. I was interested when GetUp first started because I saw it as a possible vehicle for participatory democracy. As I said in the post, I supported the mental health campaign. However, as I read the subsequent flow of emails from GetUp, I realised that I didn't actually agree with most of the GetUp campaigns. Now I had a problem. If I supported one GetUp campaign that I agreed with, then I was de facto supporting other campaigns that I did not agree with. And that was the majority.      

   The concern that I have with GetUp that I tried to express in the post lies in the way that it's advocacy role affects the political and policy process. Now here I accept that there are differences between GetUp campaigns.

Take, as an example, GetUp's support for and organisation of demonstrations to support action on climate change. Here we have a sensitive issue that has been well argued where the Government has a generally defined position. We also have organised opposition that uses the internet in combination with direct action to try to defeat the Government's position. Who could argue with GetUp's advocacy role? It doesn't add to knowledge, but it is a legitimate part of the political process. 

The position becomes more difficult when you are dealing with single issue campaigns like live animal exports. Again, GetUp's advocacy role is a legitimate part of the political process. However, my concern lies in the way that GetUp interacts with other elements in the political process to deliver (as I see it) negative results.

GetUp has become a structured way of using new technology to orchestrate and organise certain sets of political views so as to increase immediate impact. In doing so, it's very success makes it self-defeating.

I increasingly doubt that the Gillard Government can survive. The Indonesian live animal imbroglio is just the latest mess created by Government responses to pressures from its ideological friends.

I am not a natural Labor supporter. However, at a purely personal level, I really wanted the Labor Government to be a success because I thought that it would offset what I saw as the accreting errors of the Howard period. I don't think that this can happen now.           


Anonymous said...

I clicked, therefore I care. GetUp is the tupperware party of Australian politics; a gathering of like minds comforted in the uncanny similarity of their views.

You can hear them every morning on radio talkback. It used to be "Brian told me". Now it's "Alan and Ray agree with me".


Jim Belshaw said...

Tupperware is usefull, KVD!

Anonymous said...

If you say so Jim. It just seems to me that my good wife bequeathed me a drawer full of odd shaped solutions to problems I never knew we had. And it's all a pale shade of green ;)


marcellous said...

I'm not sure that you are right that GetUp always has to be on the winning side. It hasn't always managed to be.

Personally, I concurred with this letter in this morning's SMH:

Cattle sent to Indonesia to be treated according to Australian law. People sent to Malaysia won't be. This is confusing.

Michael Charlton Blaxland

From recollection, GetUp!'s advocacy is at least more consistent than the governments. Democracy at work?

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi KVD. Perhaps your wife's draw could be loaned to the PM!

Marcellous, Michael Blaxland's letter does capture the inconsistency rather neatly.

You are right, of course, that GetUp has not awlays been on the winning side, but it has to be able to show that it wins or part wins often enough to be able to maintain it's position.

At one level, GetUp is indeed democracy at work. It would argue that it polls its members on issues before acting; that's a democratic process. It would argue that it provides a vehicle for organising opinion within the democratic process. Both points are correct.

The problem I have with GetUp lies in the way it affects or seems to affect the democratic decision making process itself.

Neil said...

Blame me. ;} Get-Up "founded by Jeremy Heimans and David Madden" in 2005. Jeremy is an ex-student and current Facebook friend.

Anonymous said...


I accept you are likely very busy, but I would take polite issue with your response to Marcellous - "At one level, GetUp is indeed democracy at work ..... Both points are correct."

Getup is not 'democracy at work'; rather it is the harnessing of current technology by a small group of individuals for personal (financial and/or idealogical) gain. They are more like the inevitable growth of barnacles on the bottom of a ship.

Getup could only pretend to be a part of our political process if our democracy worked on the basis of ad hoc daily response to each and every issue. (Cue the jokes, I guess)

And I'd really like to see the financials for Getup - to see who actually gets what.


Jim Belshaw said...

Neil, I would never ever blame you for an ex-student who tried something new! That's the mark of a good teacher even if I might have reservations about the result!

Dear, KVD. You are certainly tougher than me! Seriously, whatever my personal reservations about GetUp, they are part of the process of political adaptation to the new media.

As I said in a comment to Neil on his facebook page, for every action there is a reaction. So expect GetUp equivalents elsewhere. Indeed, that is happening. My reaction to them is the same.

What really interests me is just what GetUp and its ilk means for the process. One interesting thing that I am still trying to define in my mind is the way the new media allows the marshalling of what are minority views into a broader force.

Anonymous said...

GetUp is a very fruitful, very cynical marketing exercise which could be lifted, franchised, into any geographic location with minimal text change and a catchy title.

I've made a longer comment on your later post, but really, I'll just stick to my "barnacle" metaphor.


Jim Belshaw said...

Hi KVD. Noted!

Legal Eagle said...

I tend to agree with KVD, on the whole. GetUp whips up issues quickly because it needs 'em to retain relevance (as KVD says, kind of like a left wing shock jock). It thrives on a certain sort of moral outrage. There's a whole basket of things which it spearheads, some of which I agree with, some of which I don't. Whether I agree with it is neither here nor there. Of course, it's allowed to stimulate interest in those things, but what worries me is the ad hoc nature of it.

Also the other thing that bothers me is the difference between stated preferences and revealed preferences. GetUp represents a certain kind of stated preference, one that's quite easy to state without thinking too hard - in fact, GetUp states it for you. What people say they want and what they actually do when a real choice is presented to them often differs quite markedly, and I think we have to be aware of this in assessing the relevance of GetUp.

Jim Belshaw said...

Interesting comment, LE. Where I part company with KVD, I think, lies in the motivations of those involved. To me, these combine certain views on the internet with a belief in "progressive" causes. I don't doubt sincerity, but I am concerned with effects. KVD is more cynical.

The GetUp accounts that KVD sent me are interesting because of the size. Two million in campaign donations is not to be sneezed at.

Your point about the difference between stated and revealed preferences is well taken.

Legal Eagle said...

Oy vey, $2M in campaign donations? The cynical lawyer in me thinks "well, yes, there has to be money in it..."

I don't doubt the sincerity of those involved. I have some friends who are always posting stuff from GetUp on Facebook - said friends are very earnest, genuine people who are trying to do what is right.

But I don't much like it because I don't like the sense it generates that "all righteous people believe X, if you don't believe X in every aspect, you must be unrighteous"). The world is more complex than that. And I like to hear conflicting opinions.

Jim Belshaw said...

Yes, again it's a question of impacts. In a sense, it blocks thinking. And can cause strange government reactions!

Anonymous said...


I’m very disappointed that you feel I am “cynical” about GetUp. I will accept the description only if you will likewise accept “idealistic” for your own views 

I do not dispute the good intentions of the 50,000 (50,000!) well meaning financial supporters of this internet prefabrication; but I just do wonder about the intentions of the illuminati – the chosen few - who direct, command and, dare I suggest profit? by their ‘commitment’.

A couple of points from the accounts which you have in front of you:

1) No mention of Income Tax. I’m used to seeing that in financial accounts, therefore I guess the supporters’ donations are somehow being accepted as non-taxable.
2) In Assets you will see a figure for GST - total $33312 - which suggests again that takings (dare I use that word?) are not taxed, and hence the inputs are subject to refund for any GST component. In fairness, I will note that Liabilities contain some $5300 possible offsets to this figure, but that leaves the company a $28000 expected refund.
3) In Payables you will see a figure of $24140 owing for Payroll Tax. This is normally paid monthly at the rate of 5.45% (thereabouts) on wages over an exemption level of $55000 per month. That would make the June 2010 wages bill $497935 – i.e. $6M p.a. Obviously wrong, since they only got $2M in donations – therefore AND HENCE my frustration. For example, if they are a year behind, this would still make the annual wages bill about $1.1M out of total “donations of $2M which made LE gasp.

Question (cynical, I guess, to my idealistic friend): if a Public Company surviving on donations by well-meaning individuals can be allowed to publish such meaningless “public” accounts – what hope is there for such an old cynic as myself to be assured that donors’ money is being spent wisely?


Jim Belshaw said...

KVD, I proudly wear the idealistic tag!

David, I wondered about the tax position. As I remember it, GST and income tax are two different things, but both come back to the question of charitable status.

Payroll tax is an interesting one. GetUp has, I think, a staff of about fifteen. I also suspect that staff grew quite quickly in the year in question, affecting monthly distribution. It would not suprise me at all to find that staff costs were a high proportion of income - no staff, no advocacy.

To know more, you also need to know the break-up between special campaigns (there is a cost apportionment issue here) and general contributions.

Anonymous said...

Hi Jim

You are correct that GST and Income Tax are quite different treatments; nothing I said suggested otherwise - I hope. I think probably the entity receives non-GST-able income but pays GST on expenditure, which it then of course can claim back. Re Income Tax, it appears as if the company is not taxable, and it is plainly stated that donations are not tax deductible to the donors.

I'm fine with all that, and I'm fine with 10-15 employees consuming most of the "donations".

I am not "fine" with any pretense that all this effort is anything more than a benefit to said fifteen employees (plus volunteers, who are termed "interns" - all very 'West Wing')

Also, I am very much not "fine" with a public company, not taxed, seemingly totally reliant upon supporter donations, publishing such a farcical set of so-called public accounts.

As you say, to know more you would need much more information. I'm simply saying that such information should be published as a matter of course.

And how this all fits with "democracy" as opposed to "cynical opportunism" is anyone's guess.


Jim Belshaw said...

KVD, I wasn't suggesting that you didn't know the difference in tax treatment. It was more a note to me. Becuase the rules are a little different, I wasn't sure that the treatment was the same. For example, as I remember it you can be exempt from income tax but not GST.

I do think that GetUp should publish a better break-up. Maybe it does outside the formal lodgements. There is a broader issue here that relates to the 'membership' of not for profits. It makes me uncomfortable that you can have a membership that is restricted.

Legal Eagle said...

Where can I see the accounts? I want to have a look now...

Anonymous said...

Hi Jim

I did not take any offense from your comment. Anyway, I've decided now to join GetUp, and to find out how one might be supplied with a fuller explanation of their revenue and expenditure.

Please don't get me wrong; I think all the people supporting the various protests/actions do so from the best of motives. It just worries me that so little information is publicly available from the public company. I will let you know if anything further comes of it.

LE, I will email you the public accounts - good luck finding anything actually to do with the activities.

Note also, further desultory clicking on links for past campaigns provides only dead or inactive links. It is all rather unprofessional imo.


Anonymous said...

Just a further information source.

On the GetUp website the link to the Australian Electoral Commission's record of activity does not (as usual) work.

However I have managed to find the correct link as follows:


Jim Belshaw said...

KVD and LE. Thank you for your comments on what has become an interesting thread. KVD, the AEC return does add a little extra detail.