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Australia to MoveOn?

24 January, 2006
By Graham Young

The 2005 Annual Report of US online political action committee shows how the Internet can be used to produce effective political organisations in some ways more powerful, and certainly more flexible, than conventional political parties. It could be the future in Australia as well.

MoveOn was founded in 1998 by Internet entrepreneurs Joan Blades and Wes Boyd - they invented the flying toasters that used to appear on computer screens. In 2003 it was influential in making Howard Dean the favoured Democrat candidate of the technocrats. Today it is the premier online left-wing advocacy organisation in the US.

Its 2005 Annual report shows just how powerful it is, and all from a standing start 7 years ago.

The report boasts a number of things that can’t possibly be tested, but which sound formidable: "MoveOn members helped swing opinion against President Bush's Social Security plan. With other groups, our pressure saved the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and stopped Patriot Act renewal until the bill is fixed. Thanks to an all-hands-on-deck push, the 'Nuclear Option' [a reference to appointment of judges, not defence] failed. In a number of states, MoveOn members helped reform election laws to protect our elections. Perhaps most important, MoveOn members helped cause a sea change in public opinion and in Congress on Iraq - Democrats are now speaking out for a responsible exit plan."

Other claims can be measured quantitatively and they confirm that MoveOn is significant. They also confirm that per capita an organisation like this would be significant in Australian politics. Take membership size.

Moveon boasts 3.3 million members. Australia has a fifteenth the population, so on a per capita equivalent that's 220,000 people here, more than the combined membership of the major Australian political parties. What is more, membership is growing at about 15 per cent per annum. In Australia political party membership has failed to keep pace with population growth.

Membership is free, but from the report it would appear that somewhere between 500,000 and 1,000,000 of those members are regularly active.

But what does active really mean? Let’s look at the quantitative measures.

When it comes to fundraising, Moveon is influential. It raised $9 million for general campaigns. Scaling that to an Australian figure, and allowing for current exchange rates, that would be equivalent to $799,920. To put the scaled figure into context, estimates of the campaign expenditure by Liberal and Labor in the last election run to $15 million each. $799,920 is 5% of that and looks puny, but it wouldn't be if it was strategically spent in key campaigns in marginal seats. Put another way, it's more than the Queensland Coalition spent on TV advertising in the last state election.

MoveOn donates to individuals separately. It gave $1.6 million ($142,208 Australian equivalent) to "progressives" running in 2006. While most received about 10 per cent of the amount, one West Virginian Senator, Robert Byrd, who at 87 is 24 years older than John Howard, received $870,000 or more than half of this war chest. That’s around $77,000 in Australian terms and would amount to about a quarter of what would be spent by a major party candidate in a critical campaign.

MoveOn has had some relative failures. MoveOn members have a hierarchy of importance. They’re harder to move on civil liberties and the environment than on taxation. The Patriot Act, a civil liberties issue, doesn’t appear to be at the top of their list. Only 5000 of them could be motivated to ring their Congressman. Scaled back to Australian proportions, it means that each member in the House of Rrepresentitives would have received only two calls.

Their best result was a campaign against what they termed the "Robin Hood Budget" which resulted in Australian equivalents of 3,000 phone calls and 9,333 letters to politicians, 867 letters to the editor and 16,667 signatures on an online petition. Not as good as the ACTU "Your rights at work" campaign which delivered 85,000 signatures against industrial relations reform but for a campaign generated by an organisation that boasts only 19 paid staffers without an expensive national television campaign is still a worthwhile achievement.

As an online organisation MoveOn is extremely successful. Perhaps that’s why the next step appears to be offline. In a program called Operation Democracy they have co-opted "thousands of Operation Democracy leaders" who will organise meetings of MoveOn members, underlining that the Internet is just a tool, not an end in itself.

With voluntary voting, getting the vote out is essential in the US. In 2004 MoveOn mobilized 70000 volunteers to knock on doors and nag voters to the voting station. In Australian terms that is approximately 4,667, or around the same size as the total Queensland Liberal Party.
The one thing that MoveOn appears to lack is a transparent political process itself. While it enlists volunteers in its causes, and does undertake some consultation, it is essentially a corporate structure where control rests with the proprietors. Perhaps this is the future of political parties, with voters enjoying a transferable form of membership and potentially belonging to two or more organisations with quite dissimilar or even conflicting aims and cherry-picking those campaigns and issues that suit them.

As yet no Australian organisation has successfully copied MoveOn. But at least two are trying. John Menadue’s New Matilda is both a journal and a pressure group while Evan Thornley’s GetUp is explicitly a copycat which regularly seems to tap around 10,000 supporters. Certainly fertile conditions exist in Australia with a stagnating Liberal/Labor political oligarchy holding power through the hands of a few operators propped up by massive public research and marketing budgets.

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