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As the Coalition steps up its campaign against GetUp!, it is revealed Turnbull leant on the group to do numbers for his leadership. By Mike Seccombe.

Exclusive: Turnbull sought GetUp! help before spill

Malcolm Turnbull and Christopher Pyne in 2009.
Credit: AAP / Alan Porritt

The request from Christopher Pyne was simple but unexpected. Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership was in trouble, and he was hoping GetUp! might help do numbers for him.

It was the last Saturday of November in 2009 and the phone call was to Simon Sheikh, then national director of the activist group.

“He complained that conservative organisations, particularly the Australian Christian Lobby, were contacting MPs to advocate support for Abbott,” Sheikh says. “He asked if I could organise for people to email or call MPs in support of Turnbull.”

Pyne had specifics in mind. He offered to provide GetUp! with a list of about 10 undecided MPs, whose votes might be swayed by a lobbying campaign. Given the events of this week, it seems particularly curious in hindsight.

Sheikh and Pyne had established a reasonable relationship, although the MP had expressed his frustration that GetUp! did not sufficiently distinguish between moderate Liberals such as himself and the party’s conservatives.

But Sheikh had some sympathy for Pyne’s request: the progressive agenda of GetUp! would likely fare better under Turnbull’s continued leadership than it would under Tony Abbott’s.

Ultimately, however, Sheikh declined. As an excuse, he said GetUp! could not organise it in the available time. The truth was he didn’t want GetUp! involved in the Liberal Party’s internal machinations. A few days later, on Tuesday, December 1, Abbott won the leadership by just one vote.

In retrospect, Sheikh thinks he made the right call.   

“I doubt that GetUp! could have had any impact,” he says, but concedes also that given “how bad” the Abbott government subsequently proved to be, he sometimes wonders “if we should have done anything we could”.

The call did plant the seed of an idea, however. The following year, GetUp! first contemplated a strategy of targeting individual politicians. They got as far as drawing up a hit list of those they saw as “holding back change”.

According to Sheikh, the list was not bound by party: “We identified people like Martin Ferguson in the Labor Party as well as some in the Coalition.”

But the organisation had other priorities at the time, and the targeting campaign went on the backburner. Five years and two directors later, though, the current head of the organisation, Paul Oosting, revived it. Once again, factional tension within the Coalition provided the impetus.

Shortly after Turnbull seized back the Liberal leadership – and the prime ministership – from Abbott in September 2016, the organisation polled its members on their views.

“We found something like 70 per cent of our members preferred Turnbull and 12 per cent preferred Bill Shorten,” Oosting says.

The thing that struck Oosting was that Turnbull and his previously articulated progressive views did not enjoy nearly such strong support within the government as they did with the general public and with GetUp! members. Turnbull had only beaten Abbott 54-44, and had been forced to adopt more right-wing positions to get the numbers.

So the targeting strategy was dusted off. The rationale was simple: the Turnbull government would be better if there were fewer right-wingers in it. Before last year’s federal election, GetUp! identified a dozen seats held by “hard right” Coalition MPs: Bass, Dickson, Dawson, Macquarie, Macarthur, Deakin, Mayo, Cowper, Page, Braddon, Grey, Gilmore and, to a lesser extent, New England.

What began was the biggest campaign ever undertaken by an organisation not affiliated with a political party. It involved 40,000 phone calls – not robo-calls but live conversations – as well as extensive doorknocking, letterboxing, online advertising et cetera.

In almost all the targeted seats, the swings against the government were higher than the national average. The government lost Bass, Braddon, Macarthur, Macquarie and Mayo. GetUp! went close to claiming another very significant scalp, in Immigration Minister Peter Dutton’s seat of Dickson, where the margin was slashed from 6.7 to 1.6 per cent.

Tasmanian Liberal Senator Eric Abetz, whose fiefdom of hard-right loyalists was particularly hard-hit by the loss of Bass and Braddon, called the GetUp! campaigners “grubs”. He has since devoted great energy and significant parliamentary time to alleging non-existent conspiracies involving GetUp! and various dark, anti-democratic international forces.

There is little evidence of this. Nonetheless, GetUp! is in a fair measure of difficulty right now, largely as a consequence of its intervention in the 2016 election.

 

This week’s story begins on Tuesday, when 13 federal police officers raided the Sydney and Melbourne offices of the union Bill Shorten used to lead, the Australian Workers’ Union (AWU), in search of documents that could show the union had disbursed funds improperly. The raids were ordered by the government’s new Registered Organisations Commission (ROC) – set up after a $46 million royal commission failed to find any dirt on Shorten – which in turn was acting on a referral by Employment Minister Michaelia Cash.

The timing was unfortunate, given the raids happened on the same day that Australian Federal Police (AFP) commissioner Andrew Colvin told a senate estimates committee that the police had been forced to cut back on investigations into organised crime, fraud, anti-corruption and child exploitation in the face of a $184 million budget cut.

Things quickly got worse for the government. Someone had tipped off media, so they were waiting at the AWU offices when the police arrived. Labor’s Anthony Albanese subsequently claimed Cash’s office had been “ringing around media organisations” informing them of the pending raids. The crucial senate crossbencher, Nick Xenophon, labelled the raids an abuse and a “political witch-hunt” and called for an independent inquiry into the leak.

Apparently, the police were looking for evidence that a series of donations by the union, made about a decade ago, were not signed off by the union’s national executive. Several went to fund Labor candidates, including $25,000 to Bill Shorten’s 2007 campaign. There was also $100,000, given to help establish GetUp!

Labor and the union maintain all were lawful donations, declared at the time and cleared according to proper process. The AWU began a Federal Court challenge over the seizure of documents, and insists in any case that the relevant documents had already been provided to the trade unions royal commission.

In estimates on Wednesday, Cash said on at least five occasions that neither she nor her office staff had alerted the media to the raids. Indeed, she said they were not even aware in advance that the raids were to happen. Turnbull gave similar assurances to the house, on Cash’s advice. She also insisted there were “very serious questions for Mr Shorten to answer”. The Registered Organisations Commission itself later said the investigation was not into Shorten, but into the union.

Cash’s denial of involvement in alerting the media was not true. That evening, she confessed a member of her staff had told journalists, and had resigned. She is in deep trouble over her apparent misleading of parliament. The convention used to be that ministers took responsibility for the actions of their staff, and Labor is demanding her resignation.

To sum up: the AWU may or may not be in trouble, but Cash definitely is. While it is conceivable that a staffer could leak information without her knowledge, it stretches credulity that he knew the raids were happening but did not tell her. The whole stunt appears to have backfired badly on the government and the commission.

As for GetUp!, the government and its surrogates, particularly in the Murdoch media, continue to claim the donation as evidence that the activist group is actually a cat’s paw for the Labor Party and the Greens.

This presents a real problem for the organisation. It has always pitched itself as progressive but not partisan in a traditional political sense. The threat comes not from the ROC, but from another statutory body, the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC).

 

For several months the electoral commission has been examining whether GetUp! should be classified under the Electoral Act as an “associated entity” of a political party. Extraordinarily, the commission is considering whether GetUp! should be considered an associated entity of two parties, Labor and the Greens.

Since late June, the commission and the organisation have been engaged in voluminous correspondence, arguing over whether GetUp! qualifies. No determination has been made, but if it were determined that the group was an associated entity it would force GetUp! to lodge financial disclosure returns with the commission.

It is not the disclosure, per se, to which GetUp! objects, but the classification. It argues that it is driven by the values and issues of its supporters, fully independent of party loyalties. Classification as an associated entity would stigmatise it.

Says Oosting: “We want to make it clear to the electoral commission we have no issue with financial transparency. We disclose all the information required of a political party or an associated entity. But we simply are not an associated entity, and to be treated as one would risk our independence. We have been established to operate outside of the political mechanisms. We are here to give a voice to people’s concerns, through non-party- political means.”

Experts in electoral law say GetUp! has a strong argument, but the commission is under enormous pressure from the Coalition parties to declare the organisation an associate of Labor and the Greens. That is the only way the Coalition can see to hit back at an organisation that is unique in its capacity to do damage to conservative politics.

Most other civil society groups, such as the major conservation organisations, rely on tax-deductible donations from their supporters. But the Charities Act forbids them from partisan political campaigning. They can advocate on issues within their remit, but if they try to tell people how to vote they risk losing their tax-deductible status. In its war on dissent – many aspects of which this paper has published on previously – the government is seeking to tighten the rules further, to limit the capacity of such groups to engage even in general advocacy of their causes.

But GetUp! has never sought charitable status.

Many organisations, such as legal aid organisations, also receive some funding from government to support their operations, and there too the government has sought to close down debate by making funding contingent on agreement not to engage in inconvenient advocacy.

But GetUp! gets no money from government.

The reality is that GetUp! is immune to the kinds of pressure an increasingly authoritarian government seeks to apply to other civil society groups. Hence the pressure on the electoral commission to have it declared an associated entity.

The rules around associated entities were formulated to try to catch parties dodging the edges of disclosure laws, typically by taking money from or giving money to other organisations set up to assist with their campaigning.

The electoral commission has a number of tests it uses to identify associated entities. To qualify they must: be controlled by one or more registered political parties; be a financial member of a registered political party; be an entity on whose behalf another person is a financial member of a party; have voting rights in a political party; or, be an entity on whose behalf another person has voting rights in a party.

GetUp! fulfils none of those criteria. It neither takes money from nor gives money to any party. It has no voting rights and represents no one with voting rights. It has no formal links of any kind with any party.

The only criterion the electoral commission could point to as being a relevant consideration in its letters to GetUp! was that the organisation might be seen as “an entity that operates wholly, or to a significant extent for the benefit of one or more political parties”.

But that is a highly subjective test, as the commission conceded in its first letter to GetUp! back in June. The mere fact an organisation had what it called a “left” agenda did not necessarily mean it was operating “for the benefit of all ‘left’ political parties”, it said.

The commission noted, however, that over the past year or so GetUp! had actively campaigned against Liberal and National Party members, and all the issues on which it campaigned appeared to be “in direct alignment with either the Australian Labor Party or the Australian Greens”.

But even if that were correct, the fact that the policy positions taken by GetUp! aligned with certain political parties did not mean it colluded with them.

The same test might equally be applied to a large number of other entities.

Consider, for example, the Murdoch media, which campaigns relentlessly against Labor at election time. Arguably a banner headline, such as The Daily Telegraph’s “Kick This Mob Out”, published during the 2013 federal election campaign, marks it as being every bit as partisan as GetUp!

Why is the AEC not investigating the declaration of News Corp as an associated entity of the Liberal Party? Or, for that matter, the Minerals Council or the Australian Christian Lobby, or the right-wing talkback hosts on commercial radio, whose campaigning might equally be seen as directed “wholly, or to a significant extent for the benefit” of the conservative parties?

As Professor Graeme Orr, an expert in electoral law at the University of Queensland, told the ABC this week:

“GetUp! might exist to a significant extent to benefit the progressive side of politics … but it doesn’t co-ordinate with political parties. So there’s no reason to think GetUp! is an associated entity of a party.

“Merely existing to advance progressive politics, to pull the political centre to the left, does not mean someone is associated with or co-ordinating with one or more political parties. If the government wants greater disclosure from anyone, whether it be News Ltd, through its newspapers, the IPA or GetUp!, it should probably amend the law.”

There’s no chance at all of that happening, which seems to leave the electoral commission in the position of not knowing what to do about GetUp!. It leaves the government and its associated entities in the media with no option but to fling what dirt it can find about the organisation.

There’s precious little of that. The fact is, the people who set up and supported GetUp! personify the kind of entrepreneurial, tech-savvy, agile attributes Malcolm Turnbull usually admires.

 

Amanda Tattersall is one of the three main founders of GetUp!. She says the idea for the organisation came in response to political events of 2004. One was John Kerry’s loss to George W. Bush in the United States presidential election. The other was Mark Latham’s huge loss to John Howard in the Australian election, which saw the conservatives control both houses of parliament.

Clearly the progressive agenda could not be pursued through the usual political channels.

Another founder was Jeremy Heimans, who had graduated Sydney Boys High with a score of 99.95, gone on to Sydney University, and then to Oxford University and Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, where he completed a master’s degree in public policy. He went on to work for the management consultants McKinsey.

At Harvard, Heimans met another bright young man, David Madden, a former army officer and graduate of arts law at the University of NSW, who was there on a scholarship and also studying for a public policy masters.

The pair were politically active, and inspired by Move On, an organisation set up in 1998 by a couple of Silicon Valley software entrepreneurs, harnessing sophisticated online techniques to advocate progressive causes and to raise money for the Democratic Party.

On their return to Australia, the two connected with Tattersall, who had a history in various community advocacy groups and who was then working at Unions New South Wales. In December 2004, in an Oxford Street cafe in Sydney, they discussed what she calls “the cool, digital stuff” that was happening in America. They wanted to establish something more independent of formal party politics than Move On, and so they did.

Tattersall persuaded John Robertson, then secretary of Unions NSW, to kick in $50,000 in seed funding. Three other major donors also committed: Evan Thornley, Joe Skrzynski and Julian Knights. All came from an entrepreneurial private equity or venture capital background.

Simon Sheikh – who also defies the usual activist stereotypes, having begun his career in the NSW treasury – says the early donors had a big influence on the structure of the organisation.

“It worked from the start very much on a venture capital model. They set various metrics – money, membership, campaign success – that had to be met in return for ongoing funding.

“The consequence is GetUp! has continued to be very data driven. The pattern is: try something, fail quickly, always measure data, move on and learn. It is exactly the type of model Malcolm Turnbull advocates.”

It also is very member driven. The organisation regularly surveys its supporters on the issues and even the tactics it should run.

The AWU also donated $100,000, and Bill Shorten was briefly on the GetUp! board, but Sheikh and others insist the organisation “never saw it as our job to barrack for a party, but to be fiercely issue-based, because politicians are apt to disappoint as soon as they get into government”.

At least initially, GetUp! also had pretty good relations with some Liberals, including Turnbull, and even worked with them on some issues.

“The relationship with Turnbull developed over the issue of internet censorship,” Sheikh says. “There was an interesting coalition between Scott Ludlam, ourselves, Electronic Frontiers Australia and Turnbull, fighting Labor’s plans to stop what people could see on the free internet. There’s a long list of issues on which we have opposed Labor.”

GetUp! co-operated with other conservatives, including Tony Abbott, whose mental-health strategy it endorsed as being superior to Labor’s at the 2010 election.

But the relationship between GetUp! and the Coalition parties quickly soured, for various reasons. And it has been absolutely poisonous since last year’s election.

According to Sheikh, who now runs a fossil-fuel-free super fund called Future Super, the organisation’s focus remains single-mindedly on advancing progressive issues. Indeed, he argues that the 2016 election, where GetUp! campaigned against those right-wing MPs, exemplifies that.

“GetUp! has never gone out and said, ‘Don’t vote Liberal’,” he says, “But it has gone out and said, ‘Don’t vote Peter Dutton’.” 

It’s a fine but significant distinction, made even more strongly by Amanda Tattersall.

“The 2016 targeting of the hard right was actually a pro-Turnbull campaign,” she says. “It was designed to make him a more effective prime minister by removing the hard-right people from his party. Sure, Eric Abetz didn’t like it. But Eric Abetz is part of that faction that wanted to undermine Malcolm Turnbull.”

Of course, Turnbull does not see it that way. Or if he does, he could never afford to admit it.

As for Christopher Pyne – he is not happy the world now knows about his phone call to Sheikh. In a curt statement, sent as Michaelia Cash faced a further session of questions in the senate, he said: “In the 2009 leadership contest I supported Malcolm Turnbull as leader of the Liberal Party and encouraged all those around me to do the same, including stakeholders and lobby groups such as GetUp.”

The decision not to use the group’s exclamation point was his own. Presumably, he doesn’t feel like shouting it.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 28, 2017 as "Turnbull sought help from GetUp! for spill". Subscribe here.

Mike Seccombe
is The Saturday Paper's national correspondent.