Almost nothing is known about Matthew Sheahan, the man who helped lead the ‘No’ case to victory and is now turning his attention to political advertising laws. By Mike Seccombe.
The man behind Advance’s far-right campaign
The person Matthew Sheahan most easily calls to mind is Donald Trump’s former strategist Steve Bannon. Most noticeably, it is the hair: greying, longish and greasy-looking.
As Sheahan walked on stage at this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Sydney, it was hard to avoid the similarities in their faces. His clothes, like Bannon’s, were on the unkempt side of smart casual: no tie, shirt buttons tight across an expanding middle.
Where Donald Trump’s former chief strategist is a commanding speaker, however, Sheahan is not. The executive director of the right-wing campaigning organisation Advance, who masterminded the strategy that defeated the Indigenous Voice referendum, spoke haltingly, with a slight lisp. Yet he shared with Bannon a slightly loose attitude towards the truth.
“We’re an independent grassroots movement,” he declared, right at the outset. “And we’re not affiliated or connected to any political party.”
Numerous sources disagree with that statement. The independent MP Zali Steggall describes Advance instead as “a thinly disguised arm of the Liberal Party”.
In 2019, when she ran successfully against former prime minister Tony Abbott in Warringah, Advance campaigned for him and against her.
The low-road effort sought to portray her as allied to the Labor Party and the left-wing third-party campaigning organisation GetUp! An actor paid by Advance followed her around the electorate in a superhero costume, calling himself “Captain GetUp”. The organisation – then called Advance Australia – even disseminated a video of Captain Getup rubbing himself suggestively against a Steggall poster.
After numerous complaints, the video was taken down, but in a statement Advance continued to describe Steggall as a “fake independent”. This was untrue.
In the 2022 election, Steggall, along with another independent candidate, David Pocock, was depicted as a Greens candidate, which also was untrue. The Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) ruled the ads were misleading and Advance took them down.
In its efforts to bolster the chances of the Liberal candidate for Warringah in that election – anti-trans activist Katherine Deves – Advance drove a mobile billboard around featuring the images of several female Olympic swimmers along with Steggall’s face and the caption “Women’s sport is not for men”.
The images of the athletes were used without permission from the Australian Olympic Committee or Swimming Australia or the swimmers themselves. Two, Emily Seebohm and Dawn Fraser, made their outrage public. Advance had to withdraw that campaign, too.
Then there were the billboards featuring a manipulated image of the leader of the Chinese Communist Party, Xi Jinping, apparently dropping his vote for the ALP into a ballot box, with the caption “CCP says vote Labor”. They appeared all across the nation ahead of the 2022 election. In parliament, the then prime minister, Scott Morrison, and his defence minister, Peter Dutton, sang from the same song sheet. Dutton was particularly outrageous.
“We now see evidence, Mr Speaker,” Dutton said, “that the Chinese Communist Party, the Chinese government, has also made a decision about who they’re going to back in the next federal election, Mr Speaker, and that is open and that is obvious, and they have picked this bloke as that candidate.”
That gambit drew a rare public rebuke from the head of ASIO, Mike Burgess.
The point here is that Advance, while notionally independent, in the sense that it is separately constituted, is closely associated with the Liberal and National parties, in particular the hard-right elements of those parties.
This is apparent in the people it has campaigned for and the issues it has campaigned on – trans athletes, opposition to action on climate change, support for nuclear power and, most prominently, the Voice.
It is apparent, too, in the personnel. Abbott is on its advisory board. Jacinta Nampijinpa Price, now shadow minister for Indigenous Australians, worked as its spokesperson before entering parliament last year. Vicki Dunne, a Liberal member of the ACT Legislative Assembly for 20 years until 2020, is one of its three directors.
Advance was formerly headed by Gerard Benedet, a long-time Liberal Party staffer, among other jobs, including a position with the Murdoch media. In 2019 he became director of the Queensland branch of the Pharmacy Guild of Australia, and a couple of weeks ago was appointed executive director of the guild nationally.
Sheahan’s background is somewhat mysterious. He appears to have had no social media profile before taking over about two years ago. Advance declined a request by The Saturday Paper to interview him and did not respond to an email seeking more detail on his background.
Advance is secretive about the sources of its money, but some big donors have revealed themselves. Three weeks ago, one of them, wealthy former fund manager Simon Fenwick, a member of Advance’s advisory board, detailed to The Australian newspaper the extent of his support since its establishment five years ago: $1 million in 2020, and another $750,000 to fund the anti-Voice campaign.
Fenwick told The Australian he also had bankrolled candidates backed by Clive Palmer, One Nation, the Nationals, Liberal Democrats and Liberals to the tune of $500,000 since 2014. AEC returns show the bulk of that went to the Liberal Party – he gave it well over a quarter-of-a-million dollars in 2018-19 alone.
It all rather undermines Sheahan’s insistence that Advance is independent, and his claim to be “astonished … sometimes to read in the media that we are funded solely by a few wealthy individuals”.
He claimed a donor base of 23,000, but the evidence suggests Advance is rather less a grassroots operation than the organisation it was originally set up to counter: GetUp! That group relies heavily on small donors, and publishes in real time details of its funding.
Latest returns have not yet been published by the AEC but it is already clear Advance has quickly become far bigger and more influential than it was back in the Captain GetUp days. The success of the referendum “No” campaign showed that.
Sheahan told CPAC: “Our capabilities now include communication strategy, digital campaign infrastructure, including website building and social media, built from the ground up, field operations that allow us to organise people for letterbox dropping, doorknocking and volunteers at election booths. I’m now confident that Advance’s infrastructure can now reach more Australians than any centre-right political party in this country.”
Even Advance’s harshest critics acknowledge its power.
“If you think this was about the specific issue of the referendum, you’re missing the point,” says Ed Coper, chief executive of the progressive communications outfit Populares.
“There has been a very significant evolution in Advance and their proxies in the right-wing ecosystem in a very short amount of time.
“It’s a complete mirror of what the Trump ecosystem does in the US. They really just rip the playbook straight off.”
Coper cites the famous quote from Steve Bannon, which neatly summarises that playbook: “Flood the zone with shit.”
Put simply: you make outrageous populist pronouncements and then wait for the mainstream media to report them. Inevitably the other side will seek to debunk them. Coper calls it the “weaponisation of lies”.
The fact people attempt to correct this misinformation, says Coper, “is a feature, not a bug”. The whole point is to create controversy. From there, the claims move into social media, whose algorithms elevate conflict, and out through “all these disinformation networks, whose job it is to spread those messages … far and wide”.
When Jacinta Nampijinpa Price says colonisation was good for Indigenous people, or Nyunggai Warren Mundine calls a modest proposal for consultation a declaration of war, it does not matter if the claims do not hold up under sober consideration. What matters is that they create division.
“In my opinion,” says Coper, “the most damaging message for the referendum was that Australia would be divided by race. So if you look at that, Advance starts advertising that message as early as September–October 2022. And then you see it bounce around the internet in this kind of ecosystem.”
In that assessment, Coper and Advance agree. Sheahan told CPAC his organisation’s research identified it early as the key message.
“And through the polling … focus groups, it was clear that division was the big, big factor for people voting ‘No’,” he said.
It left supporters of the Voice in an unwinnable situation. They could not let the risible claims go unchallenged, but in challenging them they only cemented the perception of division. The claim the Voice was divisive became self-fulfilling.
The thing about this style of campaigning, says Josh Roose, associate professor of politics at Deakin University, is that it only really works in the negative. He notes that when you look at the 15 or so issues Advance champions, almost all relate to things it opposes. The exceptions are its advocacy for greater defence spending and nuclear power. The latter, however, is really just the corollary to its “Not Zero” campaign against renewable energy.
Roose sees Advance’s tactics as having been borrowed from the US, as was the idea of CPAC as a networking opportunity for the political right.
“CPAC was founded in 1974 as a more mainstream conservative forum but has become more extreme over time, as US politics has. They’ve been successful in building local franchises, effectively, in Australia, Brazil, Japan, South Korea, amongst other countries,” Roose says.
“It’s an effort to shape Australian politics along the lines of the American polarised divisive approach that we’ve seen over the last decade in particular. I think it’s a significant concern in the context of Australian democracy.”
Nina Jankowicz has the same concerns. Jankowicz, whose original field was Russian studies, worked briefly for the Biden administration advising on how to combat disinformation. She also worked for the Ukraine Ministry of Foreign Affairs as Russia’s misinformation campaign about the country grew.
“What we’re seeing, whether we’re talking about Australia, the States, the EU, or the UK, [is] a lot of these fringe voices using the very same tactics that Russia was using … flooding the zone with shit and making it impossible for people to tell truth from fiction.”
This situation is hard to combat. How do you balance the need to protect people from disinformation without impinging on legitimate free speech?
The best Jankowicz can suggest is that a politically unaffiliated body be empowered to make judgements.
Steggall is arguing for a similar approach. She will shortly reintroduce a bill that would give the electoral commission and ultimately the courts greater powers to enforce truth in political advertising.
What she advocates is relatively mild – essentially applying the same standards to political advertising as to the advertising of consumer products.
“I’m simply suggesting that our political advertising, where it’s authorised and paid for to be pushed to a particular audience, should include the same voter protections as we have consumer protections,” she says.
A recent report by the parliament’s joint select committee on electoral matters also advocated for the strengthening of truth in political advertising laws. The Albanese government is expected to include provisions in its broader revamp of election law.
Steggall notes public opinion surveys showing the vast majority of voters want change. So do the Greens and independents.
“But the Liberal Party and the Coalition are quite against it,” she says. “My great fear is that if the government was to do a deal on electoral reform with the Coalition, the bargaining chip to get the Coalition on board would be giving up on truth.”
In the meantime, Advance has flagged that its next big campaign will be to fight this proposal. It describes it as a plan to establish a “Ministry of Truth”.
On its website, it claims that “Labor, the Greens and the Teals are planning a new law to let the government decide what’s ‘true’ and what’s not”.
Which is to say, it’s now spreading disinformation about any plans to curtail disinformation. Steve Bannon could do no better.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 4, 2023 as "The man behind Australia’s new right-wing force".
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