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The Australian's powerful editorial on GetUp and the destruction of trust in our democracy

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Trust in the political system is taking a battering. According to the Australian National University’s election study, only 59 per cent of voters are satisfied with how Australian democracy is working, down from a hefty 86 per cent in 2007. A mere one-quarter of respondents in the post-poll survey said people in government could be trusted, the lowest level recorded since 1987, when this version of the study began. Certainly, major parties of the left and right are being fitted up for the dysfunctional policy-making that has marked the past decade. But as last year’s federal election showed, the Americanisation of electioneering has brought two poisonous strains into our politics. One was the $80m tulip-yellow plague of Clive Palmer’s United Australia Party, its nutty populism and mindless jingles polluting the bought media space. Big, ugly money politics is here. The other was GetUp’s nasty, brutish hit squads. As Paul Kelly observed mid-campaign of the two groups, “if their 2019 performance is our future, then our democracy, like our society, is becoming more toxic, hysterical, negative and polarised”.

GetUp presents as a moral, mass movement, committed to ridding the nation of extremism, but is itself a purveyor of out-there ideology. It is secretive, undemocratic and a law unto itself. We welcome political debate and participation. But unlike others in the fray, GetUp doesn’t exist to elect people to parliament — its business model is to destroy careers. During last year’s campaign, the left activist group and unions conducted a sickening all-out assault on South Australian Liberal Nicolle Flint. The repulsive personal attacks on the member for Boothby created an environment for abuse, harassment, intimidation, shouting, even stalking to become the “new normal”, Ms Flint told our newspaper. The onslaughts were designed to inflict mental and physical disintegration on the MP. Such tactics can only scare good people from public life.

Other Liberals targeted by GetUp were Peter Dutton, Kevin Andrews, Christian Porter, Greg Hunt and Tony Abbott. The group’s attack on the former prime minister — who lost his seat of Warringah to independent Zali Steggall — was beyond the pale. A campaign ad depicted Mr Abbott as a lifesaver refusing to rescue a drowning swimmer calling for help. When the swimmer disappears under the water, the actor playing the former prime minister mimics his idiosyncratic laugh. At the time, we said it was an abysmal low in political advertising. The ad ran after two Victorian lifesavers, a father and son, lost their lives while rescuing a man. The Royal Life Saving Society called the ad insensitive; GetUp pulled it but did not apologise to Mr Abbott. It was, however, fundraising genius of sorts, a stunt connecting the activist group with the wallets of its donor base.

And where did that money go? As Brad Norington reported on Monday, GetUp spent more than 70 per cent of the $12.4m in public donations it raised last year on salaries, administration costs and travel. Hold on, doesn’t the leftist group boast “every dollar you donate to GetUp is used to build a more fair, flourishing and just Australia”? We suppose there’s some marketing juice in that phrasing, but the spiel goes on to claim “your donation will be used to fund billboards”, “hard-hitting TV ads into the lounge rooms” of key seats and “rallies demonstrating people power”. Such a contribution is an “investment in extraordinary impact”. Nice impact, if you can get some. Many people will feel dudded by these odd priorities.

Still, GetUp operates in a political and charitable twilight zone. It’s neither a charity, nor a political entity, even though its ruling collective of directors is overwhelmingly from the Labor side of politics. GetUp was found “prima facie” to be an associated entity of Labor or the Greens by the Australian Electoral­ Commission, after a detaile­d investigation of the activ­ist group’s campaigning activity during the 2016 federal election. But the finding, which would have undermined GetUp’s claim to be independent and imposed tougher financial disclosur­e, was reversed a year ago after the AEC sought submissions from GetUp and secured legal advice. It was the third time GetUp was able to shake itself loose of the rules governing political parties and their surrogates.

This self-styled movement can say and do as it pleases. So it does. GetUp volunteers accost voters at polling booths with dodgy scripts and engage in push-polling over the phone. The group concocts misleading ads, spruiks for one side of politics. While it claims to have one million “supporters”, sometimes more, GetUp is not run on democratic lines. Its “board” is stacked with Labor partisans, its organisational rules are opaque. GetUp is a political thug, a vanity project for insiders and a not very well concealed weapon with which to whack conservative warriors. This sorry outfit of progressive grifters sucks up funds to spend on itself, all the while preening as a superior force for worthwhile change. Bob Marley sang, “Get up, stand up, stand up for your rights!” For those who want a better Australia, we’d add, don’t give up the fight — or your credit card details.