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Will 'GetUp!' influence political debate?

By Mark Bahnisch - posted Wednesday, 24 August 2005

New internet politics venture GetUp! seems to have succeeded in attracting attention from pollies and the press, if nothing else, with Glenn Milne's tendentious scare-mongering only the latest example. A couple of weeks ago, we had the odd phenomenon of Coalition MPs complaining about GetUp! generated emails as spam. As Suki points out, that's a rather dismissive attitude to receiving consituent emails in a representative democracy. Even if the content is standardised, the volume of the emails should tell politicians that there's real community concern about the government's Senate majority.

Most of the stories about GetUp! seek to discern whether it, and similar sites, will have an effect on Australian politics comparable to that of in the US. The Dean campaign broke new ground in Internet led activism, and community political sites contributed to both increased turnout in the 2004 Presidential elections, and to some degree to a resurgence of grassroots activism within the shell of the big business and union funded Democratic Party.

This is not the first attempt to do something similar in Australia. Margo Kingston's WebDiary spun off Your Democracy, and 2024 network seeks to facilitate face to face meetings and policy development. Online magazine NewMatilda also has a remit to develop alternative policy.


NewMatilda pursues a more traditional model of policy development, with the process driven largely by policy and academic experts. The other ventures have not been conspicuously successful. Your Democracy has not enjoyed anything like the popularity of WebDiary, and both it and 2024 appear to resemble poorly written blogs where the readers meet up occasionally for a drink to bemoan the state of the world.

There are a number of problems in the use of new media in these sites. Margo Kingston ventures are - well - Margo driven, and despite the interactivity, are in effect top-down affairs. 2024 is a nice idea, but it seems to have a small audience in the Sydney-Melbourne-Canberra triangle, and lacks the critical mass of attention needed to generate real numbers and enthusiasm. As many bloggers know, if you build it, they don't necessarily come.

The difference with GetUp! is the massive funding. However, I still remain dubious about its prospects of influencing political debate and activism. First, despite its new politics claims, it still seems to be a top-down site - with campaigns driven by the concerns of the site owners.

Any burgeoning online community needs to allow campaigns and concerns to be driven from the bottom up, or it becomes a very passive form of political involvement. With Australians generally having much less of a robust civil society tradition than Americans, this is a big challenge. "Apathy" towards politics is not a new phenomenon in this country. Part of the reason also is the rigidity and polarisation of the party system.

The way that GetUp! has been discussed in terms of being a Labor front indicates this very aspect of political culture at work. Any opposition to the Howard Government is likely to be perceived as being partisan. The involvement of Evan Thornley and the resonances with his Labor First site (potentially an interesting development but coming up against strong factional barriers in Labor culture) adds to these suspicions.

The appeal of Get Up! represents a failure of internal democracy, and belief in the viability of change, through political parties. But it also represents a constitency - progressive educated urbanites - who for reasons of culture and policy, are often unwilling to identify with the ALP as the main vehicle for opposition to Howard.


Both an inability to understand the pragmatic need for political compromises over issues such as asylum seekers, and a diffuse desire to have a purer and cleaner politics are among the drivers of this group. But policy clashes and tensions which haunted the Keating coalition are also reflected here.

Educated middle class small l liberals are often socially liberal and economically liberal. So while they might be fulsome on social issues, they might also support aspects of the neo-liberal agenda in economic and IR policy. An IR campaign by GetUp! might be the deal breaker for many of its supporters. Which is probably why it's being couched in terms of process and accountability, rather than justice. The difficulty with process slogans (as the Australian Democrats have found out), is that they represent only weak (because non-ideological) banners around which to rally a political movement.

So I'll be a little surprised if GetUp! sets the world on fire. More promising for political action, I think, are net-works dedicated to particular campaigns or issues with an existing consitutency, and possibly blogs which are configured in such a way as to allow maximum interactivity in posting and community generation, and a real contribution to policy debates. But such political webs are likely to be woven at the grassroots, rather than spun by mega dollars and TV advertising campaigns.

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About the Author

Dr Mark Bahnisch is a sociologist and a Fellow of the Centre for Policy Development. He founded the leading public affairs blog, Larvatus Prodeo.

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