16 October 2019

Transcript: Paul Oosting at the National Press Club

Politics Belongs To Everyone


I grew up jumping off the doleri columns of the Devonport coast into the cool ocean waters of Northwest Tasmania. It’s a place we called ‘The Hat’. A place of beauty, scattered with ancient Aboriginal petroglyphs.

Through my school years we were told that Tasmania no longer had any Aboriginal people. This wasn’t true - that denial of truth is part of the ongoing dispossession and extinguishment faced by the Palawa people, the many First Nations across Tasmania - their rich history erased through violence and perpetuated through silence in the stories we passed on to the next generation.

As a nation we have a long way to go in reconciling with the truths of what happened across this country. We can’t end the injustices facing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people if we don’t first say what they are.

This is why I start today by respectfully acknowledging that we meet on the land of the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people. I pay my respects to their Elders past, present and emerging and recognise their sovereignty was never ceded.

I also recognise those whose ongoing effort to protect and promote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures will create a lasting legacy for future generations.

I want to speak today about Australian democracy, and about GetUp’s work to open up participation in our democratic system.

I want to tackle some misunderstandings about our model. And I want to touch on our vision for Australia’s future.

I feel honoured to lead this organisation. It’s an improbable job for a kid who grew up in north-west Tasmania, with a mum who worked nights as a midwife in the local public hospital and a dad who was a beekeeper then a refrigeration mechanic.

Events early in my life made me think about how decisions made a long way away can affect your life.

Growing up, we didn’t always have a lot of money but we always had a lot of love.

But in the early 90s my dad was in a major workplace accident, surviving with third degree acid burns to most of his body, spending long periods in and out of hospital, and without public healthcare it could have been a different story.

In the school holidays I’d work in the family bee business and imagined a future working in the local tourism industry. But the business was eroded as the logging company Gunns cut down the leatherwood forests. That’s where my political awakening began: protecting the forests.

As a campaigner I saw first-hand the tactics used to crush community resistance and shut down dissent - the threats, the lawsuits, the lies.

I ended up as a leader on that campaign, and we won it. And that changed my life. I saw the possibility of democracy, and having an impact. It inspired me to do what I do today: helping to raise the voices of over a million GetUp members from all corners of our country. Australians who want to make things better. Many of whom are finding their voice for the first time in their lives.

It’s fair to say that Australians have always had a healthy skepticism about politicians.

But something else is afoot today. Not the normal healthy suspicion that’s always been a part of our political culture. A much deeper anger about the whole system.

A University of Canberra study last year found that public satisfaction with Australia’s democracy has crashed, from 86 per cent in 2007 to 72per cent in 2013 and just 41 per cent last year - and that was before another change of prime minister.

We saw that first hand this year. Almost 10,000 GetUp volunteers put in 37,404 hours ​simply talking to people o​ n their phones and their doorsteps, in nearly every state, in nearly every demographic, about the issues that mattered, the policy options, and why they should vote for change.

What we found was alarming: it’s as if something has snapped.

We were shaken by the depth of hopelessness and cynicism across the community -like politics is something that’s been tried and failed and they’ve given up.

People were only half joking when they asked what the Prime Minister’s name was.

They talked about their frustration that nobody listens to them because they don’t have bags of money to throw around. They despaired about the lack of any vision to tackle the big complex problems like climate change or the drought. Politics now seems singularly incapable of addressing any of these things, and many Australians feel powerless to do anything about it.

Many no longer believe politics can make anything in their lives better. That’s one part of the story we found on the doorstep.

But on the other side of each doorstep was a GetUp member, no less frustrated but responding differently: rolling up their sleeves and getting stuck in, often for the first time.

GetUp was ​inundated​ with volunteers this year - three times as many as last time round - almost 10,000 people desperate for a better politics and a better future.

People like Vanita Roychoudry, in Western Sydney – who was a regular donor until, like a growing number of Australian women in their fifties and sixties, she was made redundant, well before she was ready to retire.

She works a few jobs these days, but one she most enjoys is running exams at her local high school. They don’t have air conditioning, and in a typical summer these days the mercury can get to 47 degrees.

Vanita migrated to Australia in 1981 believing Australia was a land of promise – a land of fairness – and it’s a source of great personal pride to know that GetUp’s work reflects something of the vision of Australia that first inspired her.

Vanita picked up the phone in GetUp’s election campaign because, in her words, “people have no idea what their representatives are voting for in their name.”

GetUp’s starting point is this: the more people like Vanita that are involved in the decisions that affect their lives, the better.

Politics affects everyone, so politics should belong to everyone. GetUp was born in the 21st century.

So our model is different to traditional politics and civil society campaigning, which makes it easily - and often - misunderstood or misrepresented.

Our model is built on ordinary people, our members, taking action on issues they care about.

Our staff are accountable to our members who tell us what they care about through surveys, person-to-person interactions with staff, and multiple other feedback loops, like every time we put a campaign in front of them.

Does the campaign resonate with people’s lives? Does it inspire action? Does it excite more Australians to join the cause?

Will they give up time to write a submission, email their local member, talk to a friend or neighbour?

And yes – will they donate their money to secure change on this issue?

If they do none of those things, there is simply no GetUp campaign. Full stop.

In fact, there is no GetUp.

Let me explain how we are funded.

95% of all of our donations come from everyday people. They’re small donations of less than a hundred bucks – an average of $24 per contribution. We occasionally get some larger donations - in the last financial year, six were above $50,000 - but unlike the major parties we depend on small donors – and in the last year, there were almost 50,000 of them. 20,000 donated to GetUp for the first time.

We are a crowd-funded organisation. There’s no funding without the crowd.

This gives GetUp members much more power over the direction of our organisation than a political party member, or even a shareholder or board of directors. We cannot power a campaign for any length of time without the literal buy-in of members.

Much of the confusion about GetUp comes, I think, from our involvement in elections.

Of course GetUp’s work is political. But it’s not partisan. Those two things shouldn’t be confused.

It’s worth quoting here from GetUp’s Statement of Independence. This is something our members have endorsed very specifically, by donating to fund numerous full-page newspaper ads setting it out in black and white.

*“We judge parties and politicians by their policies, values and character – not their brand…We are beholden to no-one but each other and our shared values. Together, we pressure, persuade and work with those in and outside government who can deliver real change on the issues that drive us – without ever giving or receiving money, or direction, from any political party, politician or candidate.” *

Our political independence has been confirmed by the Australian Electoral Commission in 3 separate reviews when they found that we are not an “associated entity” of any political party.

But do we get involved in elections?

Absolutely. It’s the time when the greatest number of Australians are thinking about political issues.

Parties and pollies are always the loudest voices talking to voters in elections. They frame the issues, and often they are the only ones urging a vote one way or another. That’s fine, but they shouldn’t have a monopoly.

For us, these are critical moments to effect change on the issues our members care about: giving voters clear information about how voting this way or that way influences that issue.

Do we sometimes take positions against MPs from the Liberal Party?

Yes, but not just the Liberal Party.

Indeed, we sometimes work ​with​ Liberal Party members - as happened in our grassroots campaign efforts for marriage equality two years ago.

We were active in Warringah this year, and we found remarkable enthusiasm from many Liberal Party members for our efforts.

Our focus is not the party or the labels - it’s the issues, the values and the outcomes.

That’s why we get stuck in on the issues. Let me give you two recent examples:.

GetUp’s members have charged us to shine a light on this government’s cruel and inhumane treatment of asylum seekers. In 2017, they supported our Human Rights team going undercover into the Manus Island Detention Centre, bringing back the first ever footage of that centre taken by an independent outsider.

Members also want us to help Australians find out what life’s like on the dismal Newstart support payment. So we’ve elevated the voices of people living on Newstart by bringing their stories direct to politicians in Canberra.

A key part of our model is an unusual level of transparency. We believe in sunlight. It’s through radical candour with our members that GetUp has built and sustained their trust.

For example. We publish the source of major donations over $10,000 on our website within 30 days. Better than any of the political parties, who often don’t disclose until as much as a year after an election.

Our website provides a snapshot of our donations that is updated every single day.

We regularly have open events across the country, talking publicly to thousands of people about our strategies.

We’re radically transparent about how we communicate with our members - even posting online the members’ calling scripts for when they’re chatting to voters.

I’m not sure any other organisation is so open. Of course this sometimes gives us a heartache - if we make mistakes, people quickly know about it! But this sort of transparency is what a ‘new power’ model like ours is all about.

Yet a few months ago, the freshly-elected Prime Minister stepped up to the podium at a Liberal Party conference, to talk - not about the real issues facing this country, but to make wild claims about us operating in the shadows, and whipping up outrage about GetUp members’ involvement in the election.

I don’t often quote Janet Albrechtsen, but she put it best: “Getting angry at GetUp is akin to getting angry at democracy.”

We might just put that on a T-shirt.

So let’s just get a sense of proportion about the Prime Minister’s attack.

GetUp’s small donor network helped marshall a total election investment of $3.5 million.

Clive Palmer marshalled ​$60 million.​

There’s simply ​no​ level playing field when a Clive Palmer can wash our whole country’s smartphones, laptops, and just about every spare billboard in an icky sea of yellow.

But instead, Palmer gets a pat slap on the back, and GetUp members get a slap in the face.

The double standard here drives us nuts.

There’s not a peep from the Prime Minister about the threat posed by dark money in politics that helps him get power, by millionaires operating in the shadows, or the influence of industry lobby groups like the Minerals Council.

But because we’re not a Liberal Party surrogate, it’s GetUp that’s attacked.

Scott Morrison might not share our members’ values or priorities.

But when an organisation like GetUp empowers hundreds of thousands of Australians to jump in, have their voices heard, and join with other people to fight for issues they care about, you’d think he could at least acknowledge - ​how good is democracy​.

Instead, the Prime Minister seems hell-bent on crushing us: tying us up in legal wrangles, tossing out slurs and innuendos about our members and making it impossible for us to have our voices heard.

What’s happening in Australia under the Morrison Government feels increasingly like what other grassroots campaign groups around the world have been experiencing.

As Yascha Mounk, one of the world’s leading thinkers on populism, wrote in his recent book ​The People vs Democracy​:

“Citizens have long been disillusioned with politics; now, they have grown restless, angry, even disdainful…[and] fed up with liberal democracy itself…[A]uthoritarian populists are on the rise around the world, from American to Europe, and from Asia to Australia. … The question now is whether this populist moment will turn into a populist age - and cast the very survival of liberal democracy in doubt.” ​

Democracy everywhere is under attack from right-wing authoritarian populists who divide their countries into ‘us versus them’ and then try to silence their opponents. From the U.S. to the Philippines, from the U.K. to Brazil.

This is not conservatism. They’re undermining traditional institutions, weakening the rule of law and destroying democratic norms.

As Malcolm Turnbull said last week, the term conservative is being debauched by politicians better thought of as “reactionaries or authoritarian populists”.

I don’t believe for a minute that Australians want a Trump-lite prime minister, but week by week we’re seeing more signs of this government fashioning itself on the authoritarian populist playbook.

Facts get twisted and things get made up against us - like his slur that Getup we are misogynists, knowing an echo chamber will repeat the lie and if it’s repeated enough people will start believing it.

We see him imitating Trump’s absolutism with the obliteration of complexity in the political debate. You either agree with him, or you’re an enemy.

Even big business is copping attacks when they step out of line and criticise government policy.

Instead of engaging an argument and talking about substance, we get this brittle, authoritarian reflex.

Another part of the authoritarian playbook is silencing dissent. Whether it is the media, whistleblowers or NGOs, anyone who disagrees with the government is being made an enemy who must be destroyed or utterly discredited.

The raids by armed police of the ABC and Annika Smethurst’s home this year are so unprecedented they have attracted international attention and condemnation.

A government committed to free speech would be fixing the broken law to prevent the chilling effect for journalists, media outlets and whistleblowers. This matters profoundly for democracy, accountability and stopping corruption and the abuse of power.

The way GetUp is now being targeted for investigation comes straight from the same playbook.

We’ve already gone through three AEC investigations into our independence, triggered by government complaints. The most recent one lasted 20 months and finished just three months before the election. Once again, the AEC found that the facts proved our independence. But the Prime Minister now wants yet another investigation.

Meanwhile, we’re under scrutiny by the ATO following a referral from the good Senator Eric Abetz. Again, this came from a groundless report released by an ex-Liberal candidate during the election campaign. A few weeks back we received a ruling that - no surprises here - confirmed GetUp is doing the right thing. But it’s another instance of government using their power to clamp down on their enemies, in this case leaning on an independent regulator.

Later this month, we will be facing up to the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters. The Chair of that committee has already publicly laid out the Government’s agenda to silence dissent by locking out issue-based campaigners, and make it harder for people to vote.

The point of all these inquiries and attacks isn’t even to get a finding against GetUp - they never have. The point is to smear, discredit, cast a slur, and raise doubt. Again, it’s straight from the same playbook. Tie up the resources of organisations that demand accountability, democracy and openness, so we are less able to campaign on the issues our members actually care about.

We’ll defend our members - but we’ll keep advancing our vision for a better future and a stronger democracy.

I want to finish by mentioning two priorities of our work as we look to 2020.

The first is defending democracy from attacks, like those threatening press freedom. We’ve recently taken a petition of 100,000 Australians for a Media Freedom Act to parliament.

When the Senate forced an independent inquiry into press freedom, against government resistance, GetUp members made submissions by the thousands. We heard from farmers who have relied on Radio National for decades, medical students anxious that they could speak out about dangers in the public healthcare system without prosecution. We heard from Liberal Party voters, too, appalled by this government’s illiberalism.

We’ve got a forward agenda to rid elections of the corrupting influence of big money.

At the upcoming Electoral Matters inquiry we’ll join others in urging expenditure caps for elections.

Essential as donations reforms are, expenditure caps tackle the “demand-side” of the problem. If politicians can’t spend, they don’t need to raise it. If they don’t need to raise it, wealthy donors and corporates won’t have the power to subvert democracy. No more Clive Palmers and his $60 million sea of yellow.

A second priority is the climate crisis. No issue has more greatly sapped Australians’ faith in our politics - especially younger Australians.

There’s simply no leadership from Canberra.

We know this government’s record: cuts to the CSIRO, gutting ARENA, attacking renewables, gagging public servants, gaslighting the international community and voters about progress against our commitments.

After this year’s election, I fear the Government will only go harder in polarising the country: cities versus regions, farmers versus miners, workers versus activists.

If that’s their calculation, I think it’s wrong – morally and strategically. Because community attitudes are shifting, people are mobilising, and leaders are speaking out.

Farmers suffering through unprecedented drought. Communities like Walgett running out of drinking water.

Bushfires through winter and spring ravaging parts of Queensland and New South Wales.

From teachers sweltering with their students in demountables, to builders labouring through record heatwaves, to nurses seeing a surge in heat stroke in overcrowded wards. This is becoming a conversation everywhere.

New voices are adding to the calls for a serious approach to the long-term climate crisis.

Like Defence Force Chief Angus Campbell who has noted that “increasingly frequent natural disasters caused by climate change could stretch the capability of the Australian Defence Force.”

And the National Farmers Federation saying that farmers believe the science, because they believe what they’re seeing with their own eyes.

And the Reserve Bank’s financial stability review, released Friday, highlighting the need for investors to actively manage carbon risk.

And the Australian Medical Association declaring climate change a health emergency.

Australians are getting it. But our politics is stuck. And people power is the only way to change that, to get us beyond a politics of us versus them, of winners versus losers, of the past versus the future.

The Prime Minister has a choice. He can change course, drop the playground politics, and bring our cities and regions together around a genuinely transformative plan. If he had the political courage to face down the hard right in his own party, he could be truly transformative. He could be a real leader.

But our members aren’t going to sit around waiting for a miracle.

They’re coming together around a unifying vision for climate action that take us beyond winners and losers and the culture wars over climate. That’s why since 2017 our members have been pushing for ambitious and urgent investments - including a federal job guarantee as the foundation for a just transition for workers and communities most at risk.

We’re also working alongside First Nations communities and leaders who are organising and building power to protect their country. As I speak to you today, GetUp members are standing with Traditional Owners from the Northern Territory outside and inside the Origin Energy AGM, protesting fracking plans that would destroy sacred sites and threaten water sources. This is some of the most critical work GetUp is doing.

So let me say this to the Prime Minister on behalf of GetUp’s million members.

Prime Minister, if you’re serious about being a leader for our times - tackling Australia’s big challenges, restoring trust in our democracy, building bridges and listening to all Australians, we’ll back you all the way.

But if you just want us all to sit down, shut up and become the quiet Australians who let you do whatever you like and never challenge you, then our message is this.

GetUp’s million members won’t be silenced.

Politics is for everyone, and we love our democracy.

So we’re not going to go quiet, and we’re not going to give up.

We’re going to ​get up.​ Everyday.

And defend our rights and defend the voices who you won’t listen to.

The voices of the next and future generations who’ll have nothing but fury for this generation’s who have failed to tackle our climate crisis.

The voices of people who year after year are kept living in poverty–skipping meals and essential medicines to survive on the inadequate Newstart payment.

The voices of First Nations peoples, who are still being marginalised and disrespected by our governments.

The voices of the everyday Australians who are GetUp. I’ve spoken today about GetUp’s work.

Our values and commitments.

Our policy priorities.

Our response to attacks.

And our commitment to democracy.

But all this boils down to something very simple: everyday Australians feeling heard for the first time, having a sense of agency, being a citizen and not just a subject. The great privilege of democracy.

One of GetUp’s volunteers this year was a woman from Wollongong named Kasana.

Kasana was battling with terminal cancer, and had become too sick to leave her house. But she wasn’t too sick to pick up the phone.

So through the election campaign, Kasana spent hours making phone calls to voters in Warringah.

It was important to her to have a final say in the future of the country she loved.

Kasana is no longer with us. But after she died, one of her friends contacted us to let us know that those calls were the thing she was most proud of at the end of her life.

That is what GetUp is about.

Our mission is to tear down the barriers that stand between ordinary people and politics. To give every single one of us – no matter our age, our postcode, our ability, or the colour of our skin – a say in the future of the country they call home.

For me, a working class kid from northwest Tasmania, it’s an incredible privilege to lead, and serve, this movement.

The optimism, energy and enthusiasm of the thousands of GetUp members I’ve met across the country inspire me every single day.

And it’s a privilege today to bring their voices to the nation’s capital, and to you.

Thank you again, and I look forward to your questions.