After polls closed last Saturday night, volunteers from the activist group GetUp gathered at a bar on Brisbane’s southside and watched the election results roll in.
For months, an army of some 1,500 volunteers had been engaged in a bitter and expensive campaign to unseat the home affairs minister, Peter Dutton, from the marginal Queensland seat of Dickson on the city’s northside.
But as the ABC’s Antony Green sifted through the early numbers on a big screen, the volunteers, many of them still decked out in the orange shirts they had worn throughout a months-long campaign, quickly realised it was not going to be the night they had hoped for.
While their comrades in Sydney celebrated the unseating of former prime minister Tony Abbott, the swing in Dickson was decidedly not on. In fact, the needle was moving in the other direction. Dutton had not only survived, he had prospered, picking up a 2.6% two-party-preferred swing in his favour.
The campaign, one of GetUp’s most ambitious, had come to naught, and by the time volunteer Gordon Melvin arrived at the pub some time after 7pm, the mood was already desultory.
“Things were pretty flat. There was a positive little burst when we found out Abbott hadn’t won, but after that people started to drift away,” Melvin told Guardian Australia this week.
“It wasn’t bleak and despondent, but it was certainly, ‘Oh dear … ’”
Since the Coalition’s shock victory on Saturday GetUp has faced an avalanche of criticism from both sides of politics, staring down the wrath of a re-elected, re-energised Coalition and a Labor party struggling to come to terms with how it lost an election most pundits assumed would see them cruise to government.
Dutton accused GetUp of “deceptive”, “undemocratic” and “unrepresentative” conduct during the campaign that backfired with voters in his electorate, while Labor figures in Queensland including former Gillard and Rudd government minister Craig Emerson suggested the group’s presence in Dickson may have hurt the party.
“In a state like Queensland, if people perceive that groups from other states have come to tell them what to do or how to live they will react very badly to that,” he told Guardian Australia.
“That’s not an attack on GetUp, maybe 100% of their volunteers who were on the booths campaigning were Queenslanders, but if there is a perception they were outsiders, Queensland is such a parochial state that it would go down very badly.”
The government in particular is spoiling for a fight. Despite Abbott being the only one to lose his seat out of the six MPs targeted by GetUp on its so-called campaign “hit list”, senior Coalition figures have wasted no time pursuing a group it has loathed and envied since its foundation as an activist bulwark against the Howard government in 2005.
Dutton said after the election that he would back “parliamentary processes” to limit the group’s campaigning power, and this week the Australian reported senior figures within the Coalition were considering curtailing the group’s power by introducing rules to restrict volunteers outside polling booths to those attached to registered parties and independent candidates.
Attempts by the Coalition to limit GetUp’s influence are nothing new. Opponents such as conservative senator Eric Abetz have long accused the group of being affiliated with the Labor party, and at the behest of Coalition figures the Australian Electoral Commission has reviewed GetUp’s campaign status three times – in 2005, 2010 and last year.
Each time the AEC found the group acted as an independent third-party campaigner and did not need to register as an associated entity, a designation which would likely hurt its appeal to politically unaligned supporters.
But in the wake of the election some on the left of politics are questioning the effectiveness of the group’s campaigning, because while it celebrated Zali Steggall’s victory against Abbott in Warringah, other target seats remained firmly in the Coalition’s control.
In Victoria, the health minister Greg Hunt in Flinders suffered only a 1.5% two-party-preferred swing against him, while former Abbott loyalist Kevin Andrews in Menzies got a small bump in his favour. In the seat of Boothby in South Australia Nicolle Flint suffered a small swing, while the attorney general Christian Porter picked up a 3.5% swing in his seat of Pearce in Western Australia.
Paul Oosting, GetUp’s national director, admitted the group “hadn’t achieved what we set out to achieve” but said that came in a context where a predicted nationwide swing against the government failed to materialise.
He said the group had helped stunt the move to the Coalition in seats where it campaigned.
“If you look at the places GetUp was active you’ll find much smaller swings to the Coalition – that was certainly the case in seats like Boothby, Flinders and Dickson so I think our work has in many respects been successful,” he told Guardian Australia.
“Unseating a former PM and by far the leading climate denier in the Australian parliament, someone who’s done untold damage with cuts to the renewable energy target is a huge achievement and something we and our members are really proud of.
“Definitely we aimed to achieve more though, so we need to go back as a movement and reflect on what did and didn’t work and be real about that.”
That’s a feeling shared across the left of politics in Australia following the result, fuelled by a sense that traditional blue-collar voters didn’t buy into the more stridently progressive aspects of Labor’s campaign.
In the days after the election, Labor’s presumptive new leader Anthony Albanese has pledged to move the party back to the centre, while right-faction figures such as New South Wales MP Joel Fitzgibbon, who saw a huge swing towards One Nation in his coal-dominated Hunter Valley seat, demanded the party “reconnect” with blue-collar and regional voters.
Amanda Tattersall, one of the original co-founders of GetUp and a researcher at the University of Sydney, believes there was a disconnect between climate and inequality messaging from the progressive movement during the campaign.
While the trade union movement talked about wage stagnation and the economy, groups such as GetUp talked about climate change. The result, she believes, was an incohesive narrative that the Coalition was able to exploit by stoking fears about employment and cost-of-living concerns.
“I think that disconnect wasn’t as big a problem in places that weren’t feeling those deep inequality problems that are very real other parts of the country,” Tattersall said.
“That’s why you saw such different results in say Warringah compared to say parts of western Sydney and parts of Queensland.”
She said progressive groups including GetUp needed to come up with new ways to speak to those communities, and pointed to the Green New Deal in the US and Lock the Gate in Australia as examples of how.
“I think for GetUp this is going to be a moment for both celebrating a tremendous campaign with some victories but also sitting down and doing some serious reflecting and learning about how to create the kind of innovative campaigns that will be required to transition our economy and our democracy,” she said.
“Because it’s not enough to win Warringah when the communities that are suffering in terms of inequality mostly turned away from a progressive agenda.”
That theory is played out by the experiences of GetUp volunteers on the ground. Mosman resident Judith O’Neill, who door-knocked for GetUp in Warringah, said the climate change-focused sales pitch there was largely well-received by residents.
“When we introduced ourselves we made it quite clear that our concern as Australians was about climate change and that we were concerned that our local member didn’t believe in climate change and basically wondered if they would like to have a conversation about that,” she said.
“Most of the time it was really pretty positive I have to say. There were some very funny moments. There was one young woman who came out and said ‘Look my husband is inside and I don’t want him to hear me but I’m not going to vote for Tony Abbott because he doesn’t believe in climate change.’”
But in Dickson, a patchwork electorate, carved from commuter-belt suburbs, industrial areas and rural villages in Brisbane’s north and north-west, GetUp’s pitch had to overcome not only Dutton but also an electorate without a unifying touchstone issue.
As a result, GetUp’s campaign was less focused on a single issue and instead about finding out what was exercising voters.
“It was really about finding out what they wanted from their politicians, and then reflecting on where Peter Dutton stood on the things they cared about,” volunteer Rob Keniger from Brisbane said.
“Obviously we were trying to influence people not to vote for him, but it was about listening to what people’s concerns were and then relaying how we felt and why we felt Peter Dutton wasn’t the right choice.”
Keniger said often the challenge in the seat was that the people he spoke to were “just disenfranchised with politics generally”.
“A lot of people were just done with the shenanigans in Canberra and had just disengaged. I think often they were concerned mostly about local issues and Peter Dutton has been there a long time and a lot of people know who he is,” he said.
The Greens candidate in Dickson, Benedict Coyne, echoed that sentiment, saying the issue that got most cut-through for him was the Greens support for a national anti-corruption body and “stopping the revolving door between lobbyists and parliament”.
“There’s that real level of cynicism, and some people wanting earnestly to hope that change could happen but also a lot of people sort of saying ‘yeah good luck with that’,” he said.
While he was disappointed with the result, Keniger said he felt as though GetUp had done all it could to swing the seat. Others are less certain, however. Gordon Melvin, 71, who spent the last two weeks of the campaign driving around the electorate in a Tarago kitted out with GetUP’s anti-LNP slogans, said he wondered if the campaign had been too personal.
Melvin joined the campaign because of his opposition to the Coalition’s refugee policy, a topic GetUp mostly steered clear of during the campaign because it was seen as too divisive in the suburban sprawl of Brisbane’s northside.
He said he understood the reticence to lean too heavily on the issue, but wonders if the campaign went too far the other way in response – making too much of its focus about removing Dutton himself.
“From my point of view I joined GetUp’s campaign because they were campaigning against Dutton, I got into it for that reason so I was happy to do it,” he said.
“But on reflection I’m not sure we did it in the right way. I was a little disappointed [because] I have no idea what would have happened if we talked less about Dutton himself and more about the things he did. If we’d beat up the policy, instead of the person.
“Hindsight is a wonderful thing of course, but I do wonder whether that only galvanised some of his support.”
Coyne, the Greens candidate, agreed, saying Dutton had been effective in making himself the underdog.
“At the risk of generalising, there is a sense that Dutton was able to play the victim card, you know, ‘GetUp and all these outsiders are coming here to do this to me’, and that certainly speaks to his base to come and defend him whether it’s true or not,” he said.
“That really garnered, you know, a huge battalion of volunteers and a hell of a lot of money.”
Oosting concedes that combatting the notion of GetUp as “outsiders” in a state like Queensland was “definitely a challenge that we are going to have to reflect on”, but also points to the outside forces that impacted on the campaign in Dickson.
“The fact is that our campaign in Dickson was led by local people there who are really fed up with Peter Dutton and wanted change,” he said.
“But unlike the 2016 election, this campaign we faced a massive smear campaign. There were billboards, radio advertisements and robocalls directly attacking our movement, some of them highly defamatory and untrue which is something we haven’t faced before.
“That’s our challenge, to make sure the public are aware GetUp members are just people like themselves – local people who are passionate about the issues in their electorate.”
While people like Craig Emerson believe it’s possible GetUp’s presence may have alienated voters in Dickson, others such as Labor party president and former treasurer Wayne Swan said the group had simply failed to make an impact.
“I don’t think when you look at it that the impact of GetUp was all that favourable in terms of what they were trying to achieve,” Swan told ABC radio this week.
“I’m not aware of their strategy but if I was GetUp I’d be doing what the Labor party is going to do [and] go and have a good hard look at the effectiveness of what we were doing.”
Similarly the former Queensland state Labor MP John Mickel told Guardian Australia that while a “vote Dutton out” message might resonate in cities like Melbourne or Sydney, Dickson was a “jealously guarded area” that may not have appreciated the pitch.
Now an associate adjunct professor at the Queensland University of Technology, Mickel said without a single rallying cry it was possible voters reverted to what they knew.
“Within his own electorate Dutton’s seen as someone who’s delivered for the various sports clubs, the community organisations, so they’d have a completely different view of him to people attuned to who he is as a minister,” he said.