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Inside GetUp's Ambitious Campaign To Crush Dutton And The Liberal Right

There's 151 seats up for grabs on May 18, but progressive campaigners GetUp are focusing on just six.

If you listen to the conservative press or the Coalition, the left-wing activists are the biggest threat to Australian democracy besides a shortage of election day sausages. But in reality, GetUp have laser-focused their considerable social media and on-the-ground presence in just a handful of areas around the country.

Dickson, Warringah, Flinders, Pearce, Boothby, Menzies. See a pattern?

“We know if we can rid parliament of these hard right blockers, we can really start to make progress on the issues our members care about," GetUp's national director Paul Oosting told 10 daily.

"We are taking on some very powerful and stubborn politicians, who are digging in their heels with the support of a party machine behind them."

Peter Dutton debate
Home Affairs minister Peter Dutton during a debate with Labor candidate Ali France on April 16, 2019. Photo: AAP.

The six seats are home to some of the more conservative and controversial politicians in contemporary #AusPol: Peter Dutton (Dickson), Tony Abbott (Warringah), Greg Hunt (Flinders), Kevin Andrews (Menzies), Christian Porter (Pearce) and Nicolle Flint (Boothby).

GetUp chose those seats after asking their growing membership base which seats they most wanted to come under the national spotlight. It says these areas are represented by "hard right" members, and have poured in money, activists and strategy, across Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth.

"We know we have a huge task ahead, this is the most ambitious we have ever been," Oosting said.

While GetUp is also part of a community alliance campaigning in Kooyong, represented by treasurer Josh Frydenberg, the most high-profile major scalps they want to claim are those of Abbott and Dutton. Abbott's independent challenger in Warringah, Zali Steggall, has repeatedly said she was not working with GetUp, but that the group was running its own race in the area that just so happened to align with -- and have the same goals as -- her campaign.

"When we call voters and say 'don't vote for the Liberals', it's not personal. They just have a shit climate policy," Henrietta Smith, election director for GetUp, bluntly told 10 daily.

She admitted the group "made a boo boo" with a controversial anti-Abbott ad briefly aired -- then quickly yanked -- last week, showing an actor playing volunteer lifeguard Abbott ignoring someone drowning in the ocean. It was meant to represent what some saw as Abbott ignoring climate change, but after instant outrage, the ad was junked and GetUp apologised.

READ MORE: GetUp Pulls Controversial Ad Featuring Abbott Impersonator

tony abbott impersonator getup
Abbott impersonator; via GetUp!

"We've tightened those approval processes," Smith said, but added that she didn't think that "the swing voters of Warringah will be fazed by" the ad controversy. She said GetUp's people had knocked on 20,000 doors and made 100,000 phone calls already in recent weeks, and claimed more than 500 volunteers were working in the seat.

GetUp is advertising phonebank parties on Facebook through targeted paid ads. The bright invitations tell invitees "Peter Dutton won by 217 votes. In one shift you can help change 39 minds".

By election day, she claimed up to 3000 GetUp volunteers would be on the ground, handing out how-to-vote cards at polling booths, asking for Australians to dump conservatives.

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"We just pick seven seats, while the major parties have to work in 151. We can be more focused and localised in our messaging," Smith said of GetUp's tight focus on this campaign.

"We can really figure out how those local campaigns work. The other candidates have to stick to boring messaging from head office."

labor dickson candidate ali france
Labor candidate for Dickson Ali France during a debate with Dutton. Photo: AAP.

She said the 2019 campaign was borrowing heavily from the progressive populist strategy of the Bernie Sanders and Beto O'Rourke presidential campaigns in the USA: going into communities to engage at a granular grassroots level, community campaigning through local public events, and focusing on many small donors rather than a smaller number of large benefactors. She also said GetUp was working with a "network campaign", where local activists were trained up to run their own races in each area, rather than it all being minutely coordinated from headquarters.

"We're getting people razzed up with town hall meetings, and getting people working in their own neighbourhoods with limited oversight from us," Smith explained.

READ MORE: Captain GetUp Deletes Zali Steggall Dancing Video

READ MORE: Why Tony Abbott Is Struggling In Warringah

"It's low control from our HQ. There's an existing network of action groups around the country we tap into, where we organise centralised parties for phone calls and online campaigning."

Smith said GetUp pegged all six targeted seats as "more or less 50-50" with two weeks left in the campaign. Abbott, who has notched 25 years as MP for Warringah, will be hard to knock off and polls show the race in Sydney's north is neck-and-neck.

tony abbott climate change
A demonstrator at a protest in Sydney on May 3, 2019, with a giant head in the likeness of Tony Abbott holds a sign referencing a comment he made in 2017. Photo: AAP.

But north in Brisbane, much-derided Home Affairs minister Dutton holds his Dickson seat by just a whisker, and appears notionally vulnerable after a damaging 2018 for his personal brand.

Sky News reported this week that GetUp's presence in the seat this year was not nearly as strong as it was in 2016, when Dutton clung on in a nail-biter with a 1.7 percent margin. The high-profile minister, formerly seen as one of the Coalition's strengths, has been all but MIA in this campaign -- his only notable contribution being a roundly-slammed criticism of Labor opponent Ali France, when he claimed she used her disability as an "excuse" for living outside the electorate.

Dutton's destructive role in bringing down former PM Malcolm Turnbull may cause him a hit in the polls, but GetUp still has its work cut out. Dutton's role as the face of the government's hardline immigration and offshore detention regime has seen him criticised by many, but GetUp said its campaign against him was focusing on a wider range of issues including climate change and housing.

The activist group also notes that in 2019, a record number of young people are enrolled to vote. Nearly 90 percent of under-25s are on the electoral roll in Australia, the highest number ever, a milestone GetUp think could see Dutton potentially knocked off and his wafer-thin margin chipped away.

The group spoke of the number of young people in Dickson and of its success with online campaigning, including “sick memes” and “hot” digital content.

Johannes, an 18-year-old GetUp volunteer, asked Dutton a question about housing affordability at a recent community forum. He believed the minister did not take his concerns seriously, and said other young people in Dickson are concerned about the housing ladder remaining frustratingly out of reach.

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"It's not a fair playing ground at the moment," Johannes complained of the property market.

"There's lots of older people who live in this electorate, and there's no focus on the future generations. It bugs me. I don't think we should disregard the older generations, that's important.

"But what is also important is that we don't forfeit the opportunities that older generations have had in the past. We can make the difference we want to see in the community."

Contact the author: jbutler@networkten.com.au

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