GetUp, Taking Action by Australians for Australia – Join Now

We all know, from what we experience with and within ourselves, that our conscious acts spring from our desires and our fears*

(L to R) Finance Minister Penny Wong, Infrastructure Minister Anthony Albanese and ACT Deputy Chief Minister Andrew Barr accept a petition on marriage equality from Simon Sheikh of GetUp outside the ALP national conference on Sydney on December 2, 2011.

Over the past couple of years the Australian social action group GetUp has increased its profile and is now heavily involved in taking a diversity of issues, including that of ‘equal marriage’ rights, into the hallowed halls of parliament. It is a movement attempting to enlist like-minded people who want to bring participation back into democracy. They want to make sure that our politicians are kept accountable and do not become isolated from the real issues that many people are concerned or worried about. This does not always mean that GetUp are fighting on behalf of a majority. It could be an issue far more concerning to one part of the community than another, who has not perhaps experienced its impact first hand. What I most like about being a member of this group is that I do not have to support every cause they take up to fight for, just the ones you agree with and want to support. Each argument is offered individually, and in an unbiased way, with the decision to donate and help the fight for that particularly cause left entirely up to you.

GetUp recently got some measure of publicity, not only because its leader and national director Simon Sheikh collapsed on live television, but also because of the reaction of the government minister Sophie Mirabella sitting next to him at the time. Compassion or curiosity as to why her colleague suddenly slumped forward with his head on the desk was clearly something that had never entered this ladies head or horizon before, which in itself for many people including me was very worrying. A body language expert or psychologist would have had a field day with her ‘recoil’ reaction. Let’s all hope the lady worked through why with a counsellor. She has opposed GetUp’s actions recently and unlike politicians of the past, who could oppose and still respect another’s point of view, perhaps her immediate reaction revealed to voters that she cannot and that they, and she, should reconsider her position.

Simon Sheikh was taken to Liverpool Hospital and later graciously said the incident shouldn’t have been turned into a political issue. The Getup team have also said since that ‘we really do believe it was one of shock rather than malice. It was a terrifying situation, and whilst many of us hope that we would react with compassion, I suspect shock is the default response‘. A lot of X generation, or older people like myself were clearly reacting to Ms Mirabella’s non-action and seeming lack of compassion and genuine concern for the fellow human being next to her, which was happening right in front of our eyes. It was like the Good Samaritan story all over again where everyone continually walks by the person lying on the ground in distress rather than offer their help. This aspect of societal behaviour in my generation, following the greatest example of man’s inhumanity to man World War II, would have been considered not only quite abnormal but also for the majority completely unacceptable. The worry for us now is that this current generation doesn’t see the gradual change that has taken place over the past fifty+ years, which has not always been for the greater good of society. Change should be about making something better, not just for change’s sake.

New ways of thinking about human behaviour currently is a subject for ongoing serious research, including testing the hypothesis that expanding knowledge about how our brains work will impact in the future on politics, policy and practice. Will this knowledge become an integral part of public discourse and thus contribute to generating democratic agreement on how to respond to the pressing problems of our times is a question being asked. Will it change forever the way we do things? How will expanding our choices help us to decide what’s right or wrong, what is a good reform and what is not? Clearly there are no quick answers. Reinvigorating social institutions so that we can respond to the shared problems we face must remain a priority.

GetUp clearly does not back any particular party, but aims to build an accountable and progressive parliament – a parliament with economic fairness, social justice and genuine concern for people and the environment at its core.

Nick Xenephon (with Tim Costello) protests in Rundle Mall, Adelaide, against pokies in Woolworths-owned pubs. Source: The Australian

Simon Sheikh following his recovery made light of the ‘live tv’ incident, saying that he’d suffered a carbon dioxide overload in his brain during the debate about the carbon tax ensuring ironically, that he fainted. He has also since said in an email to GetUp members, of which I am one, ‘fortunately, I’m just a small part of GetUp. We have a great team of staff and volunteers, who continued to work on our campaigns (actually we were served by Woolworths while I was recovering in hospital). Most importantly, there are hundreds of thousands of GetUp members across the country behind the campaigns’.

One good example of a current campaign would be the fight GetUp have taken on with Woolworths, the largest operator of poker machines in Australia. They believe “it is a fight worth standing for”. It is about how the lives of addicted gamblers affect all those around them. GetUp wanted an Extraordinary General Meeting of Woolworths to discuss and vote on making the companies high-loss poker machines safer for communities and Woolworths refused. So they took them to the High Court of Australia.

Taking on Woolworths, Senator Nick Xenophon and GetUp national director Simon Sheikh (centre) arrive at the Woolworths Limited AGM in Sydney on Thursday, Nov. 24, 2011

In a nutshell, Woolworths was unsuccessful in denying GetUp members and Woolworths’s shareholders the right to an EGM about poker machine reform. They did however manage to buy some extra time before that meeting; it will now happen in November. Woolworths is the second largest company in Australian history to be forced into holding an EGM on a social justice issue, the first being BHP in 1999.  Woolworths will now have to contact all 432,000 of their shareholders with a 1,000 word letter from GetUp members, making the ethical and business cases for limiting the company’s poker machines to $1 bets. All shareholders will then be able to vote on a motion to change the company’s constitution to enforce change.

A great example of current societal behavioural change was given in a paper on ‘‘Changing the Subject’ by Matt Grist for the RSA at London n 2011. He said “it makes sense to put healthy-eating options first in line at the school cafeteria if this modestly increases take-up of those options. Yet if we really want to halt what appears to be an obesity epidemic, we need much more than this – we need education, good parenting, the availability of sports clubs, adult peer-support groups, the regulation of advertising aimed at children and so on. But perhaps what we need most of all are people capable of not becoming obese – that is, capable of autonomously running their lives and taking responsibility for their individual behaviour as well as their duty of care to others such as children, and their wider social commitments. To produce a society populated on the whole by people like this.. can only be achieved by developing the social institutions that sustain such individuals –institutions such as families, schools, associative groups, responsible companies and public services’.

Workers for GetUp - keeping politicians up to it

Government heavyweights and corporate executives, especially in very large companies, who live life on a maximum pay wage often find, that after a few decades they become accustomed to the way of life they now have, and all that money can buy. They are then in very real danger of suffering from what I call “Versailles syndrome”, i.e. living in an ‘isolated world’, one cut off from the reality of most people’s lives. This is like the ancien regime in France, where courtiers (managers and staff) bowed down to them because their jobs depended on them feeding their families, and so what they were told was nothing to do with reality or truth.

Getting someone to speak ‘truth’ just doesn’t happen any more when you become that lofty, unless you have had a friend of years and years alongside you, or an older mentor you trust nearby to help keep you real. Otherwise you need a system in place to deal with it, like the way the monarch’s powers were circumscribed in England. In companies if the members of the Board of Directors who advise the CEO lose reality too, then a company is placed in grave danger.

This can happen because many of these positions are now lucratively paid and very powerful and fierce competition to have a seat on such a board is constant. Finding people whose passion for the ‘greater good’, rather than being self-serving, is becoming harder and harder.

The council system is one that in the main now works (after years of reforms) because councillors are really poorly paid, cannot involve their own business interests in what they are endeavouring to achieve and are taking on such a responsibility usually in addition to their full-time job, which has to have no conflict of interest. They could never certainly these days say they are in it for the money. A social profit (not-for profit) organisation like GetUp is a great balance for societies systems and indeed important, as long as it and its people remain uncorrupted by money, power and influence.

British sociologist Anthony Giddens, who is known for his holistic view of modern society believes that because of manufactured uncertainty and reflexivity, ‘radical politics’ in late modernity should be concerned with ‘life politics’: not of life chances, but of life-style. Life politics he says concerns disputes and struggles about how as individuals and collectively we should live in a world where what used to be fixed either by nature or tradition is now subject to human decisions.’ ‘Life politics is about the challenges that face collective humanity, not just about how individuals should take decisions when confronted with many more options than they had before.

In 2010 when we first wrote about GetUp they had set a target of reaching 50,000 signatures on its Native Forests Charter before it was presented to Environment Minister, Tony Burke. While Simon Sheikh was sitting in the reception at Mr. Burke’s office waiting to go in the petition was at 48,500 signatures. But volunteers in the GetUp office sent Twitter and Facebook messages out to GetUp members, who in turn asked their friends to join the campaign. Within minutes they hit their target of 50,000 Australians right in the middle of their presentation of the petition to the Minister!

GetUp members and its partner organizations had been working to save Australia’s native forests since they began campaigning against the the Gunns pulp mill in the Tamar valley back in 2007. Their efforts were backed up a 30-year campaign that locals in Tasmania had been fighting. Environment Minister at the time Tony Burke transformed the Australian Native Forests Charter from a piece of paper into a political force when he said “The Australian Native Forests Charter presented to me by GetUp demonstrates the commitment of Australians to protecting our unique and beautiful native forests”.

On their Facebook site GetUp reveals its mission: whether it is sending an email to a member of parliament, engaging with the media, attending an event or helping to get a television ad on the air, GetUp members take targeted, coordinated and strategic action.

GetUp receives no money from any political party or the government. They rely solely on funds and in-kind donations from the Australian public. It is all about action for Australia by Australians and you can join NOW and become actively involved by donating or becoming a volunteer.

It’s going well and a very real credit to Simon Sheikh and his team. You have the option of joining NOW it doesn’t cost anything to be a member except perhaps a belief in the democratic system and the freedoms we enjoy here in Australia. It is all about standing up now and then to be counted.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle 2010 – 2012

*Albert Einstein

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