What does GetUp! achieve?

Commenter Matt Marks says that:

The Liberal High Command has totally underestimated GetUp! and I think you are doing the same, albeit to a lesser degree.

A low-level political statement [what I had claimed of GetUp!] does not involve TV ad campaigns, over 200,000 members on their email list and dedicated fundraising.

I think GetUp! is an innovative organisation and that clearly there is demand for the services it provides. I’ve never seen a three-party election ad before. It runs media-friendly stunts like putting political messages in fortune cookies. It’s using new technology to update old political tactics like petitions and letter-writing campaigns.

But unlike Matt (and commenter Spiros) I’m not yet convinced that GetUp! is a model well-adapted to shifting votes or influencing policies in Australia.

While it is issue-focused, it is not an issue movement as we usually think of them. The successful issue movements (eg environmentalist, feminist, gay, economic rationalist) engage in a sustained effort to put issues onto the political agenda, and to persuade the public and/or politicians that their concerns should be acted on.

GetUp!’s strategy is quite different. It doesn’t try to create new issues – everything they have tackled so far was already on the political agenda. It doesn’t really try to change people’s minds – the typical GetUp! statement is only a few paragraphs long and not seriously aimed at winning hearts or minds. Actual or implied threats are more their style than arguments (eg you’ll lose votes, ANZ’s customers will go elsewhere if it finances Gunns).

What GetUp! mainly does is activate a base of supporters who believe what it does to support a petition or give money. It targets the soft-left orthodoxy of the day to maximise the chances of involvement (and draws on the leftist sub-culture in which your political views and your character are linked; to be a ‘good’ person you need to hold, and show you hold, the correct views).

This strategy is better-suited to the United States, where there is voluntary voting and far-more-common use of plebiscites, than here. One reason American politics is more polarised than in Australia is that the parties have to concentrate on mobilising their ideological base. GetUp’s US model MoveOn is probably useful there in motivating left-leaning voters to act. Here, compulsory voting performs that role. Since Australian political parties can largely take the more ideological voters for granted, they concentrate on swinging voters.

That’s one reason why traditional bread-and-butter issues like health, education and tax cuts were the focus of the major parties for the 2007 election. Of GetUp!’s current campaigns, only climate change was also an issue in the election. But even on that, Labor was very cautious because while it knows the public believes in greenhouse, it also knows that the public does not accept the implications for their own lifestyles.

At this point, the one clear thing that GetUp! is achieving is making available low-cost and user-friendly activism for people who want to ‘do something’ about the issues that concern them. There is nothing wrong with that. But I don’t think it is important to our political system in the way that issue movements working in the long-term to shift opinion and political agendas are important, or the way political parties are important in using truly mass constituencies and persuasion to take control of governments and implement policies.

7 thoughts on “What does GetUp! achieve?

  1. Andrew, we will agree to disagree but if Getup! continues to grow its support base it is possible, albeit unlikely given their support of Labor, that they would be in a position to run candidates for the Senate next time.

    If Nick Xenophon can get there wearing a sandwich board in Rundle Mall I don’t doubt these guys can!

    Seasons Greetings! Matt

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  2. Matt – That’s possible I suppose, but I am not sure that GetUp! would want to do it – its attraction is that if offers simple stance-taking without the messy reality of having to make trade-offs and difficult decisions. Chasing principle is so much more satisfying than chasing the median voter.

    And if so it would be a problem for Labor rather than the Coalition – it would split the left vote.

    While there may be some strategic lessons for the Right in GetUp!’s campaigning methods, I’m not sure what the Liberal Party can sensibly do about GetUp! itself. Trying to attract rusted-on lefties is not the way to win elections.

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  3. Andrew

    Just something else to throw into the mix: I know of at least one person employed by GetUp! who is very radical who indicated that they would most likely vote Greens in Election 07 (this was before the election). This is second hand (reliably conveyed). I do not know the person personally.

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  4. The big goal for political organisations (like GetUp!) in federal elections is to change votes, and like you Andrew I’m unconvinced that it does this well. I don’t have any data about this – but judging from the issues it promotes and people I know whom it attracts, I don’t know how many votes it changes. (granted the very small sample size for my data) Changing votes is the game.

    GetUp! certainly allows people to easily send politicians e-mails on particular topics or for funds to be quickly raised to put up billboard advertising. I guess that it does this more than changing votes.

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  5. Andrew,
    Perhaps your’re right in that their effect on vote shifting is limited. But there would be an element of vote creation: how many 18-20 year-olds just voted for the first time? The Get-Up! brand is fresh and edgy and would likely pick up a bigger share of spawning voters than the more dated looking leftist groups.

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