Cory Bernardi

Australia’s conservatives are losing the war when it comes to grassroots activism, outgunned and out-financed by outfits such as GetUp. The decade-old progressive activism outfit poured money into the last election, targeting 12 seats held by members of the Coalition government perceived to be dragging Malcolm Turnbull to the right.

It scored a scalp in Tasmania, with conservative Liberal Andrew Nikolic losing his seat. “This is what dishonest looks like — GetUp spent $500,000 and imported 90 activists into Bass,” Nikolic said in a now-deleted Facebook post (GetUp says it spent around $300,000 — a not inconsiderable amount).

Conservatives are fighting back. South Australian conservative Liberal Senator Cory Bernardi has, for the second time, made comments on the need for a “conservative GetUp”. And he’s not alone. Queensland Liberal MP George Christensen posted on Facebook that he was looking for those “interested in financing and forming a patriotic, conservative alternative” to GetUp. “If we do nothing, we will let the forces of socialism and globalism conquer,” he wrote.

[It’s Cory’s party and he’ll cry if he wants to]

But conservative, grassroots activism in Australia has a checkered and inconsistent history. Organisations rarely last long, and they are rarely well-financed. They are unable to draw on the might of the Australian union movement, which has a history of supporting progressive causes (including GetUp). Some conservative activists believe there’s a cultural issue too — conservatives simply don’t want to engage in mass movements, as they are too individualistic and fragmented in their political outlook and concerns.

Most Australian conservative organisations — think the Institute of Public Affairs, the HR Nicholls Society, the (now defunct) Bennelong Society — are primarily think tanks, in the business of producing policy papers and media talking heads. Genuine grassroots conservative organisations have been rare, says Dominic Kelly, an academic at La Trobe University who specialises in Australian conservative movements. But Bernardi has a history of doing things differently.

“What he’s trying to do is bridge the gap between elite and grassroots movements,” Kelly told Crikey. 

Kelly can see the point of it. Australia’s grassroots conservative movements — from the Australian Liberty Alliance to Family First to One Nation to the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party to less organised groups opposed to halal food and other aspects of Islam, to conservative and anti-gay marriage Christian organisations like the Australian Christian Lobby (which says it has 50,000 members and did campaign against Labor in the last election) — are all over the place. If brought together some way, Kelly says, “they could be a force”.

It’s certainly worth trying, says long-time Liberal spin doctor Ian Hanke, who now runs a political consultancy. He’s dabbled in digital activism of a sort before — from 2007 to 2011 he ran Agitate, an online conservative policy forum conceived as a way to put forward an alternative argument on things like industrial relations during the Rudd and Gillard years.

“A lot of people have spoken over the years about setting up conservative alternatives to GetUp. I think if you do it, has to be issues based thing to appeal to broad spectrum of the market.

“My basic view is that there is room for political activism across the spectrum. And certainly the conservative side of politics isn’t good at political activism. It has to be issues and policy-based rather than party-political to make it work. If it’s just seen a bit of outreach by the Liberal Party or the National Party, or any other party, it may not have the resonance required.”

Liberal insiders raised other potential difficulties with running a grassroots organisation through the party. Many of the people who work professionally in the Liberal Party are not necessarily interested in the grassroots issues that drive many in Australia’s broader conservative movement. The Liberal Party is still, in many ways, a party of elites, more concerned with economics than halal certification.

This doesn’t bode well for Cory Bernardi’s efforts to start a new conservative “movement”. But Bernardi is an unusual Liberal politician. He doesn’t seem to be bound by the party line and has often functioned as a sort of internal opposition to people like Malcolm Turnbull. And few politicians have spent as much time trying to build bridges within Australian conservatism in the way Bernardi has.

The South Australian Senator — who is travelling and, via an adviser, declined Crikey’s request to discuss grassroots conservative movements in Australia — has for many years poured his time and influence into either directly starting or otherwise supporting a vast number of conservative organisations. Some had a more libertarian bent (like the Australian Taxpayer’s Alliance) while others were more firmly focused on family values conservatism (Bernardi, along with outgoing Family First senator Bob Day, is heavily involved in the Adelaide-based Conservative Leadership Foundation). His support is often behind the scenes.

[Cory’s hit-list: Bernardi’s colleagues who don’t make the grade]

In 2009, Bernardi founded CanDo, a website billed as a conservative answer to GetUp. It doesn’t exist in any functional sense anymore. In 2011, Bernardi passed on management of CanDo to monarchist David Flint and Liberal campaigner Jai Martinkovits. They’ve since let its website lapse, but its Facebook page is still active and has about 3000 members. Martinkovits, its executive director, told Crikey that CanDo had been hacked recently and so was taken offline, but the idea is to put it back up when the funding to fix it was secured.

The Australian Taxpayer’s Alliance has been slightly more successful. It was founded in 2012, and executive director Tim Andrews says it has 25,000 members (it has 3200 “likes” on Facebook). Andrews told Crikey he dislikes the term “conservative”, and given the group’s narrow focus on taxation and economics, it’s easy to make the argument the group is more libertarian or “centre-right”, as Andrews puts it.

The alliance held a conference named for Milton Friedman in Sydney this year — 300 people attended, and it had speakers from most political parties. The group’s campaigns encourage supporters to sign web forms mailed to federal politicians, a similar method to GetUp’s petitions. The group also accepts donations. Andrews hesitates to say the group is similar to GetUp though — he says it’s far more decentralised. “We’re trying to empower local volunteers on the ground to run campaigns in different cities. We do a lot of social events, educational programs and the like. We’re trying to build a movement, rather than relying on slacktivism. I think that’s a more long-term strategy.”

GetUp national director Paul Oosting is sceptical of attempts to found a conservative alternative to his organisation. “I think this hard-right faction just doesn’t understand social movements,” he told Crikey last week. “It’s something that’s fairly new to Australian politics at scale.”

But conservative and centre-right campaigners say it’s not just about a lack of broad support — funding came up, again and again.

“Resourcing is definitely a huge aspect,” Martinkovits said when asked what a grassroots conservative movements need to be successful. “You can have people with the best intentions. But unless you have money behind you … to resource people with what they need to run even the simplest campaigns … it is hard to get anything done.”

GetUp makes publicly available a list of all those who’ve donated more than $10,000 to it. The list reveals several large donations from Australia’s union movement, the largest of which was a $1.12 million donation from the CFMEU in 2010-11. The earliest union donation came two years after GetUp was founded — $50,000 from the CPSU, and the ASU has also donated $35,000. GetUp says its average donation is $17, but it has undeniably benefited from donations from wealthy individuals and organisations. When it launched, Bill Shorten was on its board (he resigned in 2007). Over the past year, GetUp’s donations counter — which it updates daily — shows it received nearly $9 million from donors.

There is no conservative movement in Australia to rival the union movement for sheer fundraising potential, says Flint. Many say big business is on the side of conservatives, but with the exception of a few individual rich people, Flint doubts this is the case. “Big business looks for its own interests, and its interests are to work with all parties,” he said. Anyway, he says, the people who run businesses are often professional managers — inner-city types who live in Wentworth and support progressive Liberals like Malcolm Turnbull (whom Flint does not consider a conservative).

Even if funding was secured, there are cultural issues to overcome. While Australia lacks truly organised and politically influential grassroots conservative movements, the United States does not. In the US , the progressive MoveOn, which in many ways directly inspired GetUp, competes for influence with a wide range of grassroots conservative organisations, many of which go back to the 1960s.

The American Taxpayers Union, Americans for Tax Reform, Americans for Prosperity, Freedom Works, and other groups have for decades been building a grassroots conservative infrastructure. And that’s just on the economic front. On social issues, America’s conservative churches have spearheaded similar efforts.

But there’s a persistent belief that conservatives are made of fundamentally different stuff to progressives in Australia. Flint, who is the chair of Australians for Constitutional Monarchy, says most Australians outside the inner cities are conservative (even though many of them vote Labor). But he says Australians of conservative temperament are unlikely to join social movements without powerful motivation. In Australia, where there is little history of such broad-reaching conservative movements, perhaps this is as much cultural as political. “Conservatives are strong individualists and don’t take top-down instructions. And I think they’re not as easily marshalled,” he said.

That’s not to say no grassroots movement can be built on conservatism. Flint recalls how in 1996, Australians for a Constitutional Monarchy quickly organised a protest of 15,000 people when Bob Carr tried to remove the NSW governor from Government House (the decision was not reversed until 2011). “[Conservatives] tend to rally where they feel there is a clear and present danger to fundamental institutions and values.”

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey