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Activist group GetUp! made 40,000 phone calls in seats selected to target Abbott-aligned parliamentarians, helping Labor win its key gains. By Mike Seccombe.

How GetUp! boosted Labor in Election 2016

Senator Eric Abetz is a bad loser. The Tasmanian Liberal powerbroker, his army of far-right conservatives wiped out at the election, was bilious when he went on Lateline on Monday night.

He sprayed it around, at Labor’s “Mediscare”, at the campaign run by his party with its “emphasis on innovation and technology”, and implicitly at Malcolm Turnbull himself. But his greatest bile was directed at the progressive civil society campaigners of GetUp!

“Grubs,” he called them. Grubs who “spent half a million dollars just in the seat of Bass, with 10 full-time people, besmirching the character of a great Australian servant, Andrew Nikolic…”

More than any other factor, Abetz said, the GetUp! campaign was responsible for the 10.5 per cent swing that ended Nikolic’s political career.

Abetz was right in saying there was no way his side could compete with the forces arrayed against him on the ground in Bass. It wasn’t just GetUp! – it was also a host of other civil society groups concerned with same-sex marriage, with climate change and the environment generally, and with other progressive issues. The unions, of course, were also active.

But Abetz was wrong to focus on the amount of money spent. Wrong first because GetUp! spent only about a third of the claimed $500,000, and second because it was not the number of dollars that counted, it was the number of people. Not just in Bass, but all over the country.

Ever since the election, the conservatives have been sniping at one another about the reasons for their poor showing in Saturday’s election. But the key to it, the available evidence shows, is that the conservative parties lost the ground war. Their opponents outgunned them when it came to directly interacting with voters in vulnerable seats. They actually talked to the people.

The GetUp! campaign was something unprecedented. It was by far the biggest, best-organised campaign run by an organisation not directly affiliated with a party.

The organisation’s national director, Paul Oosting, quantifies the effort: “In total, our people had 40,218 phone conversations – not just calls, but conversations – with voters in marginal seats, lasting anywhere from five to 30 minutes. Total calling time was the 17,471 volunteer hours. That’s almost two years of donated time from our members.”

The organisation concentrated its efforts on 12 seats: Bass, Dickson, Dawson, Macquarie, Macarthur, Deakin, Mayo, Cowper, Page, Braddon, Grey, Gilmore and, to a lesser extent, New England.

In almost all cases, the swings against the government were far higher than the national average. The government lost Bass, Braddon, Macarthur, Macquarie and Mayo.

Union campaign

Of course, there were other factors involved. The union campaign also concentrated on many of those seats. But not all. Dickson, for example, held by the minister for immigration and border security, Peter Dutton, on a relatively healthy margin of 6.7 per cent, was not on the 22-seat list of the ACTU.

That’s because the union list included seats simply on the basis of the margin by which they were held. Whether the incumbent was a moderate Liberal or the hardest of the hard right was of no concern to them.

The GetUp! campaign, however, chose targets on a slightly different basis. Margins were a consideration but so was ideology. So they went after Dutton. He survived, but a swing of about 5 per cent against him means his seat is now marginal.

“We targeted members of the right wing of the Coalition,” Oosting says. “We went back over voting records on various issues, and looked at those who voted for Tony Abbott versus Malcolm Turnbull.”

Their decisions were also informed by the work of the progressive think tank The Australia Institute, which had produced analysis identifying the seats in which the lowest proportion of people would benefit from the government’s proposed tax cuts, and where people were most likely to be impacted by cuts to government spending.

“These were not areas of the progressive heartland,” Oosting says. “The data for areas like Launceston shows that 30 to 40 per cent of those we spoke to had incomes of around $35,000 a year and didn’t finish high school.”

Nikolic was a perfect target, hard right factional warrior and an Abbott man, sitting on a 4 per cent margin in a low-income, highly welfare-dependent electorate. The local hospital in Launceston was overstretched and under-resourced and facing a crisis as medical staff threatened to quit.

And they got him.

Oosting jokes that Malcolm Turnbull should be grateful because people such as Nikolic “are the reason he has failed as a leader, because they have not allowed him to be the moderate, progressive force Australians hoped for”.

That’s unlikely, but Turnbull might at least be impressed by GetUp!’s, entrepreneurialism, agility and disruptive use of technology.

Lessons learnt from Victorian campaign

The campaign was crowdfunded. The organisation appealed to its one-million-odd followers for money specifically to fight the election, which resulted in 36,155 donations, at an average of $81 each. That’s a war chest of nearly $3 million.

That sort of money buys a lot of billboards and media space. But the organisation was much more innovative than that. It produced a torrent of online material. It also set up technology to allow members to make calls from six locations across Australia, and also from their own homes.

And that personal contact is what really works, says Andrea Carson, lecturer in media and politics at the University of Melbourne.

“GetUp! did something very similar to what the Daniel Andrews team did in Victoria in 2014, and that is person-to-person contact,” she says.

“Andrews’ team spent time with Obama’s people in 2012, picked up those techniques, came back, mustered 5500 volunteers, set up rented houses in 14 marginal seats, and got these volunteers to champion the cause through phones and face-to-face through doorknocking.”

The Andrews operation achieved the improbable on November 29, 2014, knocking off a first-term conservative government. Two months later, Labor did the same in Queensland, as Annastacia Palaszczuk supplanted the LNP’s Campbell Newman, also after just a single term, and from an even lower starting point.

In a way, these successes amount to a case of everything old being new again, for nothing in politics is older than person-to-person interaction between candidates, parties and the people they seek to represent. But it has new power when coupled with modern technology in the form of social media, data mining and phone banks.

Mass communications less effective

The ground game is all the more important, says Carson, because the old means of mass communication no longer work as they did just a couple of election cycles ago.

“Traditional media don’t have the sway they once had,” she said. “They’ve lost a lot of cultural power.”

There could be no clearer example of that than the Murdoch papers. They barracked furiously for the Coalition in the Victorian election, and lost. They did the same in the Queensland state poll, with the same non-impact. And in this election, the most virulently anti-Labor of all the Murdoch tabloids, Sydney’s Daily Telegraph, watched as the Western Sydney seats it purports to speak went heavily Labor.

Commercial television trivialised the campaign and was not even much interested in leaders’ debates. And talkback radio mostly now preaches to the converted.

Things have changed dramatically, but somehow in this election most of the mainstream media missed it, believing the Coalition would easily win, even in the face of months of poll results consistently showing the election was lineball.

As one of the few Canberra insiders who read the mood accurately, and made a handsome profit from betting agencies as a result, says: “How do they keep being surprised by the obvious?”

Says Carson: “GetUp!, like the ALP, have developed really detailed databases of who their supporters are, so when they approach you, they already know quite a lot about you. They use Facebook particularly well. Their Facebook contacts outnumber the major parties by quite a lot.”

GetUp!’s Facebook page has almost 25 per cent more “likes” than either major party, in fact. “They have become very good at strategic messaging, targeting particular electorates,” Carson continues. “They use their core supporters and constantly experiment with their messaging to see what works. And they keep refining the message until they get the most positive outcome.”

These methods of contacting electors are far superior to other ways of getting the message across such as direct mail, which is also very expensive, or so-called “robocalls” in which parties subject constituents to recorded phone messages. Indeed, there is growing evidence that robocalls actually alienate a lot of voters.

“Robocalls are about broadcasting a message, which is a very analog way of communicating,” Carson says. “It’s the politician or the party doing the talking, not the listening, whereas when they do the doorknocks or the phone calls, they very much gear it the other way.

“They lead the voter to a certain point and then stop and listen, and try and gather as much information as possible. That then re-informs their campaign and their messaging and also leaves the person who has been called feeling that someone understands them. And that is persuasive.”

The unions also have realised this. While much has been made in the media since the election of robocalls and text messages relating to the Medicare scare campaign, the ACTU effort also relied to an unprecedented degree on direct contact.

“For at least the last 12 months we have been rolling out personnel and building infrastructure in the field across 22 seats,” says ACTU secretary Dave Oliver.

“We designed local campaigns and we got over 16,000 people directly involved. We had over 46,000 conversations with union members who were undecided voters, and convinced over 33,000 to put the Liberals last.”

Oliver contrasts this election campaign with the “Your Rights at Work” campaign, which the movement ran in response to the Howard government’s WorkChoices policy back in 2007.

That one, he says, focused more on the “air war” of TV ads and mass demonstrations.

“This time is was more about direct communication – talking on phones, knocking on doors. We had over 80 doorknock days around the country.”

In the final 48 hours of the campaign they handed out a million Medicare “cards” and leaflets.

Their analysis shows the average swing against the government in the 22 target seats was about 5.5 per cent.

“The reason we are so successful is we have the activists,” Oliver says. “Some media called it a secret army. Well, it wasn’t so secret, but it was an army.”

Party volunteers

The Labor Party itself had an even bigger army – 15,000 volunteers, many party members but many others recruits found via social media. They were given training and scripts. Collectively, according to the party’s records, they made 1.6 million “contacts” with voters during the long campaign, either in person or by phone.

The Coalition had nothing to combat it, and that was the main reason it ended up where it did in the campaign, as its more perceptive operatives acknowledge.

“Their on-ground campaign was extraordinary, both in terms of its scale and its nastiness. People’s tyres were flattened, people were physically intimidated by unionists,” one Liberal MP tells me. “On Saturday in Lindsay, our people were outnumbered five to one.”

But at the same time, he says, the pro-Labor campaigns run by GetUp!, the unions and the Labor Party itself were “incredibly sophisticated” in the way messages were tailored to individual electorates and constituents.

“You have people in the unions who spend their working lives training to be activists – often at the expense of their employers.

“The one valid criticism of [Liberal campaign director] Tony Nutt is that he has basically decided we couldn’t match them on that battleground so we wouldn’t even try. In NSW, in the lead-up to the 2013 federal poll, [then-state director] Mark Neeham was very focused on giving us a phone banking capacity. It was embryonic, but it was a lot more than we did at this election.

“Anyone can make a robocall,” the MP says, “but Labor’s great advantage is the personal contact.

“There’s no easy solution for the Liberal Party. We just don’t have the people, particularly people with that training.”

Carson concurs. “The Liberals can’t compete,” she says. “They don’t have the grassroots organisational capacity. They have lots of small business people, who aren’t really up for lots of doorknocking and standing around giving out how-to-vote cards. They are more about handing over the cheques.”

If the conservative parties cannot turn it around and find their own volunteer army, it bodes ill for future election campaigns.

The party of capital is learning anew the truth of a trite old cliché: money can’t buy everything.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 9, 2016 as "How GetUp! boosted Labor". Subscribe here.

Mike Seccombe
is The Saturday Paper's national correspondent.