Why Climate Activists Are Abbott's Worst Enemy

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Sunday was a wonderful day for a rally. Bright and sunny, Melbourne’s spectacular spring weather belied the southern capital’s somber reputation. As a result, a crowd estimated by organisers at about 25,000 packed the leafy Treasury Gardens for a rally about climate change.

There were speakers, including scientist Tim Flannery, Greens MP Adam Bandt and Labor’s former Climate Change minister, Mark Butler. Greg Hunt was invited to speak, the crowd was told, but declined. There was a ripple of laughter.

The weather was less kind in Sydney, where heavy rain dampened proceedings. But even there a hardy crowd of approximately 10,000 turned up. There were simultaneous events across Australia in the major cities and conference organisers claim as many as 8,000 people turned out across 130 regional cities and towns.

All up, perhaps 60,000 people attended the day of action nationally. It was comfortably the largest-ever national rally about climate policy, dwarfing the desultory turnout for the anti-carbon tax rallies of 2011.

The rally was organised by online activist group GetUp! It received a good scattering of coverage in the mainstream media, including the all-important television news bulletins. But this understates its impact, as regional media coverage has been strong.

As you’d expect from a GetUp! event, its social media presence has been much larger than any traditional media footprint. According to figures provided by GetUp!, the Facebook page for the event saw 163,000 invites and 1.3 million impressions by more than half a million people. The day of the rally on November 17 saw seven million impressions on @getup posts made about the events on Twitter; 384,000 people liked, commented or shared the single photo of the Melbourne crowd on Facebook.

For a long time, many on the left have harboured a certain scepticism of GetUp! and its approach to progressive organisation. The digital aspect of GetUp!’s activities and the often amorphous nature of its agenda have led many to conclude it is not a serious force for social change.

Certainly, GetUp! looks and feels different to traditional organising bases like trade unions and environmental groups. Its focus on clicks and emails, rather than old-fashioned techniques of letter writing and small group organising, makes it seem frivolous or insubstantial to some. Its activists are young, fresh-faced and annoyingly happy, in contrast with the dour Trotskyites of the hard left. 

Philosophical difficulties also loom. There is a strain of techno-libertarianism that runs through GetUp!’s philosophies, allied to the burgeoning social enterprise movement, that are utterly alien to many on the left. And, in common with American groups like MoveOn, the real-world impact of GetUp!’s campaigns has been questioned.

Can digital activism really change the world? Perhaps, as Malcolm Gladwell has argued, clictivism merely “makes it easier for activists to express themselves, and harder for that expression to have any impact.” Maybe it’s simply a big con, a delusion, as Evgeny Morozov has claimed.

Sunday’s rally suggests that, at least in Australia, there are reasons for cautious optimism. This was far more than just an online petition. It was not, as some have suggested, merely astroturfing. This was one of the largest mobilisations of popular sentiment for several years.

Conservatives should be worried. As we've remarked, the Abbott government’s honeymoon period has yet to materialise. Indeed, the new government is finding the going much tougher than in opposition, with unexpected crises erupting over foreign policy and travel entitlements. If progressives succeed in unifying and organising around climate, the Abbott government could find itself in real trouble by 2015.

For the first time in six years, the left has started to organise and campaign in the general community. The impact could be profound, if only because for the last three years at least, almost all the campaigning has been from the right. After a game-changing effort in 2007 against WorkChoices, unions, green groups and other progressive groups largely sat out the Rudd-Gillard years.

A number of factors were at play. Some well-resourced groups, like right-wing unions, were now effectively in government themselves, and so felt no need to campaign on issues outside their immediate ambit. Other groups turned their attention to policy lobbying, such as environmental groups looking to shore up Labor’s feeble willpower on carbon legislation. Other groups, such as the welfare lobby and teachers, were busy fighting and winning crucial campaigns on disability rights or on schools funding reforms. Some, like refugee groups, found the Labor government to be nearly as punitive as its predecessor.

The bewildering events of June 2010 didn’t help. By 2013, almost the only progressive groups strongly campaigning for Labor victory were feminist groups, appalled at the misogyny directed at Australia’s first female Prime Minister. The return of Kevin Rudd managed to alienate even this residual support base.

Now, all that has changed. Paradoxically, the election of the Abbott government has invigorated many on the left. No longer weighed down by a Labor government few could love, progressives are free to organise around something all of them agree on: getting rid of the Abbott government. And in Abbott himself, they have a hate figure who unifies the left base across many dimensions: feminist, unionist and green.

And here’s the really shocking part: the group best placed to catalyse this anti-Abbott movement is GetUp!.

GetUp! has the digital infrastructure that is increasingly critical to modern campaigning. With nearly half a million subscribers to its email list, the organisation has a far broader reach than any comparable progressive group in the country. GetUp! also has foot soldiers. It has a reservoir of enthusiasm among its Gen Y activists, but it has a far more diverse demographic profile than the caricature of inner-city latte-sippers suggests.

Precisely because it is not a hard left group committed to a relatively narrow political agenda, GetUp! has the flexibility to move across the political landscape to champion the issues most likely to discomfort the Coalition government.

There is a reason why the Abbott government has tried to frame its victory as a mandate on carbon – even before the election. Climate policy is the central battleground of 21st century politics. If electoral sentiment shifts against the governing party on this issue – as it did in 2010 after Abbott decided to oppose the Rudd government’s carbon legislation – it can rapidly transform the political agenda. A widespread community movement that mobilises around climate change therefore represents the best chance of limiting the Abbott government to a single term.

This is why GetUp!’s leadership of a broad campaign on climate politics is so significant. Committed leftists will scoff, but GetUp! is currently Tony Abbott’s most dangerous opponent. 

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Ben Eltham

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.

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