Advance Australia's Captain GetUp.

Advance Australia has had a quiet pandemic. But the conservative activist group, that bills itself as the right-wing antidote to progressive GetUp, finally got a bit of attention today, after receiving a $1 million donation from former fund manager Simon Fenwick. 

Fenwick told the Financial Review he is worried about “dictatorial” politicians like Dan Andrews and “that Australia’s freedom, prosperity and security is being undermined by leftwing agendas”. His injection of cash could be a much-needed boost for an organisation that has fallen behind its left-wing rivals in the pandemic’s battle of ideas.

What happened to Advance Australia?

It’s been almost two years since Advance Australia was set up. It’s the most recent version of the right’s long-held dream of creating an anti-GetUp.

The group is probably best known for Captain GetUp: a man in an orange superhero suit, who spent the 2019 election hanging around marginal seats trying to spread the truth about GetUp’s funders and making lewd gestures at Zali Steggall.

But since the election, Advance Australia has faded even further into irrelevance. Co-founder Gerard Benedet quit in October to go join the Pharmacy Guild as Queensland director. He was replaced as national director by Liz Storer, a former local councillor in Perth and a staffer for conservative Liberal Senator Zed Seselja. Storer promised to fight back against political correctness and “climate alarmists”.

Aside from a plan to distribute climate denialist materials in primary schools (backed pretty much only by Craig Kelly) we haven’t heard much from Advance Australia lately. In fact, what’s striking is how little they have had to say on the biggest political and economic challenge of a generation, preferring to quietly chew on the low-hanging fruit of conservative culture warring.

Its campaigns are still focused on things like saving free speech and fighting “climate commies”. An outdated plea for Scott Morrison to reopen schools seems to be their only statement on the whole pandemic. The group has had a growing spate of social media posts attacking lockdowns and China, but most remain fixated on pushing a denialist agenda and attacking political correctness. 

Appearing on a far-right YouTubers’s show in June, Liz Storer used the opportunity to rail against a “radical green left ideology” and call for more nuclear energy. When asked what Advance Australia stood for, Storer said:

“Promoting personal freedoms, attacking political correctness … family values, ensuring a safe and secure nation … we’ve got a lot of state sovereignty issues on the boil. And lastly, creating economic opportunity … they’re very big on class envy, the left.”

Can Fenwick’s money bring them back?

Fenwick said he’d donated to Advance Australia because he wanted to criticise both sides of politics. And that cash could mobilise Advance Australia as another shrill anti-lockdown voice. 

A former fund manager, with a career in investment banking in London and New York, Fenwick has, until now, kept a relatively low political profile, letting money do the talking instead. 

He’s been relatively generous with his philanthropy, funding scholarships at his former school Brisbane Grammar, Indigenous mentoring at The University of Queensland, and donating to the World Wildlife Fund.

But he’s also increasingly put that money into conservative causes. Fenwick had been on Advance Australia’s advisory board since well before his recent splurge. And in the lead-up to the 2019 federal election, he made seven donations to the Liberal Party adding up to $280,000. 

Who’s winning the pandemic war?

Above all, Advance Australia seems to be driven by a goal of usurping GetUp — something the group hopes to achieve with Fenwick’s cash. GetUp has had its own issues during the pandemic. Many of its traditional areas of focus, like climate change and environmental justice, have been sidelined from the political discourse during the pandemic. 

And recently, GetUp was once again attacked by Liberal MP Nicolle Flint for subjecting her and other female candidates to what she claimed were aggressive and intimidatory tactics during the last election.

But Advance Australia are still playing catch up to GetUp when it comes to membership numbers, financial muscle, and sheer relevance — last year the progressive group’s director Paul Oosting addressed the National Press Club. Aside from the odd go in News Corp papers, Storer and Advance Australia’s leadership are more likely to be seen on right-wing YouTube. 

They’ll need more than the odd million to bridge that gap.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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