GetUp: Power to the people? Not for this ‘grassroots’ group

GetUp: Power to the people? Not for this ‘grassroots’ group, by Brad Norrington.

Compared with political parties, which also rely heavily on volunteers, GetUp is top-heavy on salaries for a “movement” that took a total of $12.4m in donations. Donations were boosted by $806,500 from other income.

When you add the $7.2m salary expenditure for six top executives and 50 low-level staff to other spending listed on GetUp’s 2019 profit-and-loss statement, the running­ costs mount up. GetUp also spent $1.4m for adminis­tration, $806,000 for rent and $507,000 for travel to fly national director Paul Oosting and other executives around the country.

Just $3.6m was left for core campaign expenditure. That might sound like a lot of money, but it is just 29c in the dollar for an organisation that makes constant public appeals and talks up where every dollar goes. Disillusioned supporters look at GetUp’s poor federal election results last year where only one targeted MP, Tony Abbott, lost his seat. They don’t think $3.6m was a sufficient spend for maximum impact.

GetUp’s website spells it out in plain English: “Every dollar you donate to GetUp is used to build a more fair, flourishing and just Australia. Your donation will be used to fund billboards to get our messages in front of key decision makers, hard-hitting TV ads into the lounge rooms of key electorates and rallies demonstrating people power.”

A million members? No, just twelve.

This gets to the nub of GetUp’s problem. Democratic? People-powered? Grassroots? Independ­ent? Such values are not reflected in how GetUp is actually run.

Based on its constitution, as amended in 2018, GetUp is a company­ limited by guarantee. The only “full members” are nine board directors who have complete­ control. There are three other “founding members” with no role but given the title as recognition for starting GetUp in 2004.

GetUp says it has “more than a million” members. Sometimes it is more specific, as it was in the 2019 annual report with “998,652 members”. It says there were 70,000 individu­al donors last year and identifies 15,417 “core” members who made small regular contributions. The group’s post-election review said GetUp had 9433 volun­teers for phone banking, doorknocking and voting booths.

That’s a fair sum of volunteers, but suddenly “GetUp army” numbers are looking a bit more realistic and, as GetUp’s board well knows, no one except themselves and the three founders is a member. They’d be lying to say otherwise. …

These alleged “million members”, who are not really members, have no real say in GetUp’s structure. They are kept at arm’s length from an opaque decision-making hierarchy that dislikes scrutiny. …

Labor, Labor, Labor:

Which brings us back to GetUp’s leadership, and claims of independence. Five of GetUp’s nine-member board, until Phil ­Ireland stepped down as chairman last week, were Labor Party ­members or had Labor pedigrees. Over time, Greens have been represented too. The Australian Electoral Commission has rebuffed several attempts by the Coalition to have GetUp classed as an “associated entity” of Labor and/or the Greens. To do so would badly undermine independence claims.

But it is plain to see, on the facts, that GetUp has important alleg­iances at board level that are Labor, and who tick-tack with Labor outside GetUp board hours. Shorten was once on the board too. He gave big amounts of union money to GetUp, the total sum of which remains unclear.

GetUp’s is really a club of board directors, most professional activists, who control the money and have full say over who joins their club when one of them leaves.