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Feb 4, 2009

GetUp and its strange but well-heeled bedfellows

Monday's list of political donations revealed left-leaning lobbyists GetUp spent a massive $1.2 million on political activity, writes Andrew Crook.

Monday’s list of political donations revealed more than just Labor’s burgeoning links to Chinese property developers — the figures show left-leaning lobbyists GetUp spent a massive $1.2 million on political activity with the voluntary cash sourced from a who’s who of armchair activists and white collar unions affiliated directly with the ALP.

GetUp is helmed by 22-year-old wunderkind Simon Sheikh and runs a popular line in issues-based advocacy. Its professional social movement model has achieved a number of successes, most notably a turn-around in public opinion over David Hicks. Apparently, it has also captured the wallets of thousands of donors, who according to separate ASIC filings stumped up more than $3.4 million in 2007/08.

But there is mounting evidence that GetUp’s 300,000-strong army is starting to demand more transparency from the organisation. With the mass democratic ethos of the labour movement almost entirely absent, GetUp has resorted to polling its members every few months, giving the perverse impression that funds are being squandered in the interests of navel gazing.

The AEC list shows Lonely Planet founders Tony and Maureen Wheeler gave $50,000 to GetUp, while rich-list patriarch Boris Liberman parted with the same amount. But by far the most surprising individual donation was the $30,000 received from the Community and Public Sector Union, currently involved in an internal battle with its members to affiliate with Labor across the country. In 2007, the union also gave $75,180 to the ALP’s NSW branch.

GetUp has previously copped criticism for being too close to Labor — current Labor MPs Bill Shorten and Victorian ministerial quitter Evan Thornley both served on the board before their ascension to Parliament. The sole ex-Liberal — former opposition leader John Hewson — quit within weeks of its 2005 launch. GetUp’s conservative cred was further eroded when Australian Institute of Company Directors CEO Don Mercer departed in March last year, a fact only revealed in the firewalled ASIC statements.

The CPSU donation would appear to cast serious doubt on GetUp’s claims to “political independence” which it has been at pains to defend this week. In a possible attempt to defuse the looming controversy, Sheikh penned a nonsensical column for the Canberra Times last week claiming he was now backing Malcolm Turnbull’s piecemeal policy on climate change — a long bow if there ever was one. He also heaped praise on Thornley’s new employer, car battery swapping outfit Better Place, claiming Thornley could single-handedly reduce Australia’s emissions by 30%, a ridiculous assertion in light of this damning CarPoint article that debunks the Better Place business model.

Thornley of course, retains strong links with GetUp, donating $14,165 of his own money in 2006 and serving on the interview panel that appointed Sheikh, as recently revealed by Crikey.

Annoyingly, GetUp’s annual reports for both the 06/07 and 07/08 financial years are both absent from its website, which also claims replacements for Thornley and Shorten are “imminent”, more than two years on.

But the core problem with GetUp is not its coziness with either the ALP or self-styled social entrepreneurs. It’s the aloof detachment from the grass roots networks that have always impelled real social change.

Along these lines, GetUp have been criticised for spending excessive amounts on wages and administration. The ASIC filings reveal a massive $1 million wages bill, an issue former Executive Director Brett Solomon was grilled on in 2007. The $2.2 million gap between total donations ($3.4 million) and political expenditure ($1.2 million) would indicate a significant proportion of total revenue is spent on day-to-day running costs.

Yes, all organisations need to pay staff and stock the photocopier. But the democratic deficit at GetUp’s core means howls of “taxation without representation” are all but inevitable. With over half of GetUp’s donations linked to a specific campaign, it would be interesting to see whether its members are truly getting enough bang for their buck. Opaque accounts and expensive surveys aren’t going to help.

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8 thoughts on “GetUp and its strange but well-heeled bedfellows

  1. Ron

    “Actually Get Up are sufficiently well resourced to replace crikey as the leading Australian ezine minor media in the inevitable baton change from democratic role of newsprint to online.”

    What could you possibly be talking about Tom?

  2. Venise Alstergren

    Gggrraaggh: I gave those bastards $50.00 because they seemed a bit impoverished. Every day, another lesson, Venise.

  3. Tom McLoughlin

    What I mean Ron, is that on Marg Simons Content Makers blog a few days ago I mentioned that Get Up public fundraising model could be a model for future serious journalism. This is in the context of the ongoing debate over how to keep Big Media alive in the advent of online freelancing etc and ezines trespassing on their financial viability.

    So now we have a serious sledge of Get Up. Who as I say are a potential online rival to Crikey, especially post Rudd election while the search around for an evolving raison d’etre.

    My own view is let a thousand flowers bloom. Build the indy alternative media sector, crikey, Get Up etc etc. By all means let crikey run the ruler over Get Up – I have written them up before myself over the Evan Thornley connection – but know crikey have an interest of their own. Cie la vie. It’s a family argument perhaps.

  4. Tom McLoughlin

    Actually Get Up are sufficiently well resourced to replace crikey as the leading Australian ezine minor media in the inevitable baton change from democratic role of newsprint to online.

    That’s an editorial declaration that crikey might reflect on too.

    Secondly Get Up took up the cudgels against the bogus carbon capture sequestration agenda of both Big Coal and the Rudd Govt mid to late 2008 when no one else in the big media were getting real traction. And weren’t they vindicated with the piss poor 5% target.

    I personally as a member of the left leaning Australian Services Union don’t have any problem with progressive unions being supporters if that’s what they really are. It’s naive to think that all unions have the machine ALP brand on their forehead. Life is alot more complex than that.

    As for their admin versus expendenture costs on political advertising. Well that’s a bit disingenuous analysis. I await to hear from them as to their breakdown. It’s not declarable political expenditure versus admin costs which might have all kinds of outreach and educational work in it, which is in fact political work just like political parties proper.

    Also the fact is they are excellent in production values up there with advertsing agencies and PR firms. The write and research extremely well and like Greenpeace are expensive but have real clout. Again it is naive to think that there is not a role for activism at all levels of society and if their is not an activist corporate level of engagement the activists on the street lose out too. No doubt there is a healthy internal tension but then crikey has some ex employee critics. I know I do in activist circles and so on.

    What indeed is the news in that in a political and grasping world. By all means bring on the transparency but spare me the smear, until you publish your own breakdown of finances including wage levels.

    Oh and I do my work on about $10K per year. Haven’t filed a tax return in years.

  5. rosettamoon


    I wrote a very basic comment on the GETUP sorry blog, not expecting to get censored at all.

    James of Getup wrote confusing comments on my site, but I had moved on to other issues, when I returned to comment on the GETUP site, which is a bit like going to FoodPlus for a 4 course meal, I was confused as to why nuclear issues, particularly ROXBY are absent.

    Its confirmation that GETUP is a government SETUP and the plan is to direct and manage public dissent – which is a great idea indeed – but if thats the plan you should at LEAST hire intelligent people to manage the site and the plan – but thats good news again – the side of evilness and depravity is suffering a skills and intelligence shortage which is GREAT news for HUMANITY!!!

    Anyway, if anyone is bored, look at how stupid James is 🙂

    GETAGRIP GETUP…if you are going to be EVIL, at least hire professionals 🙂

  6. Venise Alstergren

    Tom McLoughlin: If you must use quotes in languages other than English you might care to spell them correctly.
    Your “Cie la vie” should read ‘C’est la vie’. (C’est=this is. Life is self-explanatory). ‘Cie’ is the shortened word for ‘compagnie’ meaning company. As In ‘Jean St Cloud et cie’ Rue St Justine, deuxième arrondissement. Paris. Purveyors of fine wines.

    Normally I would never correct other people’s comments, because I make far too many errors myself. It’s just that you are being a bit of a serial bore at the moment.

  7. Lefty Sort

    Yep, I’ve had this thought for some time. There is a basic lack of genuine grassroots activism at GetUp and that can be a bit of a slap in the face for a lot of people in activist circles.

    They seem to organise an email campaign, then take all the credit for any wins on the topic, many of which are actually won by years of hard work on the ground by much smaller community groups that don’t have millions behind them.

  8. Keith Bedford

    Get away with you GETUP fills a niche that needs filling. Long may it prosper