Sophisticated, cashed-up, feared - how GetUp grabbed your attention

By Matthew Schulz, Journalist, Our Community
This article is taken from
Our Community Matters.
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It's no accident that GetUp is arguably the most powerful not-for-profit in the country. It has run grassroots campaigns in every state and territory and on every media platform that matters. It's picked battles on issues such as health funding, climate change, coal mining, human rights and marriage equality - battles it has every intention of winning. Politicians are rightly afraid of GetUp's ability to knock them out of their seats.

GetUp is unapologetically political in its approach to issues, and not at all afraid to take sides. GetUp pitches itself as progressive and independent and claims the backing of "more than a million people" pushing to "bring participation back into our democracy".

That political stance - including opposing specific politicians and parties depending on the particular campaign - means GetUp can't qualify for the tax-deductible gift recipient (DGR) status cherished by other charities. Instead, it's gathered a loyal following of supporters prepared to put their money where their mouths are.

Our Community spoke to GetUp's Impact Director, Kelsey Cooke, for the inside track on the organisation's campaigning successes.

Give us a taste of your latest campaigns.

2017 was a huge year for GetUp. As a member-led, grassroots digital movement, we've scaled up our efforts in the past year to win more campaigns than ever.

For a number of years, GetUp has been working with the Stop Adani movement to protect our land and water from the proposed Adani mega-mine in Queensland. GetUp members mucked in for an incredible rapid-response effort in the Queensland election campaign, quashing the plan to lend billionaire miner Adani $1 billion in taxpayer funds for the project. Hundreds of people hit the phones to speak to voters, and urged them to vote against the loan.

We successfully campaigned alongside multicultural communities to stop some of the worst legislation proposed in 2017, including proposed changes to the Racial Discrimination Act, and changes to citizenship laws that would have disproportionately impacted on diverse communities.

And of course, GetUp members were a huge part of the campaign for marriage equality, which was an incredible win to see out the year.

What's your view about the spite you're copping from some media and political quarters?

The GetUp movement has been copping some flak from the hard-right of politics for years, and that's nothing new. In the last year or so, a number of political players have ramped up their opposition. But it's not just simple attacks: in the same breath, you have the hard-right of politics saying that GetUp needs to be stopped, while also saying that their party needs its own version of GetUp. Go figure.

The attacks on us have ramped up off the back of our successful federal election campaign in 2016, where the GetUp community targeted hard-right politicians who were blocking progress on issues the majority of Australians care about - issues like climate change, and fair funding for health and hospitals. This campaign left political players like Immigration Minister Peter Dutton clinging to his seat by a whisker. The attacks on GetUp are a sign that the hard-right of politics is deeply threatened by the work that we do. They're threatened by movements that speak truth to power, threatened by political movements that aren't party affiliated, and threatened by the meaningful relationship that civil society holds with everyday people.

But you know what they say: first they laugh at you, then they fight you.

What are methods you can deploy to create influence: both modern and old-fashioned?

One of the most under-rated tools for creating change is real face-to-face contact with MPs, particularly those in marginal seats. Don't underestimate the power of a torrent of calls from voters in an MP's local area, especially on an issue that's garnering a lot of media coverage.

In recent years, storytelling through videos has been an essential element of any effective campaign toolkit. Platforms like Facebook are increasingly prioritising meaningful content, and that's a big win for organisations creating great short videos that capture the heart of their issue. Great videos don't need to be fancy, they just need to be fresh, honest and simple, and they need to add something to the debate that wasn't there before. Globally, media outlet AJ+ has been the reigning leader of that for a while now.

How do you rate Australia's community groups and not-for-profits when it comes to advocacy in the past year?

Sometimes it feels as though a not-for-profit's work is never done, and now is no exception. Many of us are painfully aware of how far we are from living in the kind of Australia we want to be in. But I think it's fair to take a moment and recognise that community groups and not-for-profits contributed to some incredible wins over the past year. If the increased attacks on civil society are anything to go by, clearly we're doing a few things right.

Are groups always more influential than individuals?

In any social movement, recognising individuals and their unique contributions is critical. It's often the unusual things individuals bring that can contribute to incremental wins on an issue - whether they brought along volunteer time, connections to decision makers or allies, a contribution of funds or even just extraordinary zest for winning. The problem with concentrating your power in individuals is that their contribution to the campaign can often only be temporary. Few things are more powerful, and more resilient, than a group of individuals who have a shared vision and a common interest in working towards it. Individuals may move on, and when they do, they take their assets, their connections, their influence with them. But by building a group, and building a community, you build power.

What do the next 12 months hold for advocates from the community sector?

On the federal stage, it'll be an interesting year. It's possible we'll see more local by-elections depending on how the MP citizenship fiasco pans out, as well as state elections in a few pockets of the country. Many of these races will turn into mini-referendums on issues that are resonating locally, but playing out nationally. Both will be an opportunity for community groups to get involved.

We'll certainly see some big decisions on the government's priorities for spending in the federal budget in May, and the Labor Party will hold its national conference in the middle of the year, which may be the last chance for them to make significant policy platforms before the next federal election is held. 2018 could well be a year without a federal election, which means it's a good time for the community sector to be focusing on what they want to see political parties deliver for them, and planning out effective campaigns. By the time the federal election rolls around, it'll be a scramble.

As not-for-profits and community groups, we also need to be heading off any attacks on us. There's legislation before Parliament now that could lead to significant changes to how community groups operate. It's reminiscent of legislation that came into effect in the United Kingdom in 2014, where charities are still spending precious time and energy trying to repeal or amend the laws, and wrestle back their right to advocate freely.

Here in Australia, we need to make sure we don't follow in their footsteps, and heed off any laws that could limit the work civil society does to stand up for everyday people. Head to Hands Off Our Charities to find out more about that.

Where can community groups make the biggest difference?

Community groups often have a unique role to play in taking the voices of the local community and putting a megaphone to them in the local MP's office. It's a balancing act to manage both the time you spend working with the community you represent, and time you spend influencing decision makers. However you balance the two, for an effective campaign, be sure to build up your base of support in the community, but never lose focus on who the decision maker is and how you're influencing them.

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