Reflection on GetUp! and social change in Australia is desperately needed but the critique of the organisation by James Arvanitakis published in New Matilda yesterday is somewhat misdirected.
Arvanitakis underplays the proportion of activities GetUp! does in the "real world". I know that when I was online director at GetUp!, most of the organisation’s resources (including my own time) were put into training community advocates, grassroots organising, offline community events, organising paid media (such as ads in newspapers), and mainstream media interviews and so on — and this continues, I believe, today.
GetUp! is one of the few Australian social change organisations around that is actually medium and tactic agnostic — adapting its methodologies to the issue at hard — while of course continuing to keep its members informed and engaged by email. Just because GetUp! uses email and online technologies more effectively than other Australian progressive groups doesn’t mean that’s the only tactic they employ. (It’s possible to argue that these days, the issue is actually more about how poorly other groups use online techologies.)
Good emails are one GetUp! strength, but it’s their ability to do solid political strategy and a willingness to just "get stuff done" in a timely manner — even if it means working all weekend or all night — that is their real strength.
Some commentators criticise GetUp! for "taking resources" from other causes. To the contrary, I suggest GetUp! actually increases the pool. Evidence suggests there is no finite amount of "willingness to give" on the part of donors. The more people are given good reasons to donate — and you’ll probably agree that GetUp! generally makes a solid case for its donation requests — the more they are likely to give even more.
Meanwhile GetUp’s budget remains modest compared with the vast bulk of the non-profit advocacy sector in Australia yet it works across many more issues. The Wilderness Society’s budget alone is many times greater than Getup’s. GetUp’s ability to pivot on issues and quickly direct dollars and public attention into causes and debates — from mental health to David Hicks — that otherwise have very few advocates or resources for "political’ purposes" is a major strength.
GetUp! has copped some flak regarding their willingness to celebrate victory around the Gunns Pulp Mill. But those offering a critique regularly cite only one or two things GetUp! did in that campaign as evidence that they did very little. I personally remember many, many more elements of GetUp’s pulp mill campaign over several years — from multiple waves of advertising in Australia and Europe to polling, to a large grassroots and advertising effort during and post the Tasmanian state election, to the bank campaigning and supporting the industry-environmentalist negotiations. And I have no doubt that there was much more going on behind the scenes that GetUp! simply can’t talk about.
This is not to take away from the vital work over many years done by The Wilderness Society and grassroots Tasmanian groups — and GetUp! did acknowledge the partnership in their "win" email. I’m not sure the same can be said for the many other, often larger groups that partner with GetUp! to great benefit but rarely acknowledge it. And I gather the Wilderness Society holds no grudge — The Australian recently reported that TWS’s Gunns campaigner, Paul Oosting, has joined GetUp! as their environment campaign director.
I’m unclear what Arvanitakis suggests GetUp! should be doing differently. As he notes, it’s played a lead role in organising climate rallies and forming partnerships with other groups who were given substantial exposure at the Melbourne event and invited its vast membership to come along. GetUp’s effort to promote the rally has been valiant: sending a vast number of emails, recruitment videos, SMS messages and even making phone calls to active members. In this context, I think it’s a bit rich to blame GetUp! for low attendance — and really, 8000 people coming along to rally in Melbourne with less than a week’s notice is a fairly good result for an "online petition" group.
Over the last six years GetUp! has set the bar higher for all other campaigns and campaigning organisations: I think the real question is whether the rest of Australia’s progressive sector will evolve to meet the challenge. We’ll be better off for that!
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