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.

Peter Fray

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