The contest between Tony Abbott and Zali Steggall in Warringah will be one to watch. (AAP: Peter Rae)
Mosman businesswoman and mother-of-three, Anna Josephson, is an unlikely guerilla political campaigner, but this election has changed that.
- President of the Mosman branch of the Liberal Party says progressive agitators tried to infiltrate the branch
- Campaigns fear that Advance Australia and GetUp! are doing more harm than good in the election
- Liberal MP Jason Falinski calls for legislation to ensure there is truth in political advertising
Mrs Josephson has held “cocktail and canape” fundraisers for the independent candidate for Warringah, Zali Steggall. Guests are treated to water views over Sydney Harbour.
She says they were frequented by “high-profile business or finance-type people, both men and women” and “90 per cent would have been traditional Liberal voters”.
Warringah is one of the safest Liberal seats in the country, and right now it’s a battleground.
That battle isn’t only being fought between Ms Steggall and the sitting member Tony Abbott. Behind them, there is a proxy war taking place between third-party campaigners like GetUp! and the right-wing activist group Advance Australia.
A key player in this tussle is what has been dubbed the Coalition of Anti-Abbott Groups, which formed late last year.
Mrs Josephson got involved with the group’s grassroots campaign, despite being a Liberal voter in the past.
Anna Josephson says she has previously voted for the Liberal Party. (ABC News: Sophie Kesteven)
“Over the past couple of years [I’ve been] growing more and more disenfranchised in terms of Australian politics and what’s happening with the Liberal Party, with far-right-wing destructive people including our own member in parliament, Tony Abbott,” she said.
The anti-Abbott coalition has brought together at least half a dozen different community groups across the Warringah electorate.
Some are focused on climate change, while others just want to get Mr Abbott out.
Liberal branch meetings were the start of the enmity
The coalition was set up by local woman Julie Giannesini.
She says she initially tried to join the Mosman branch of the Liberal party because she wanted to get action on climate change policy.
But she says that while she was accepted as a member of the Liberal Party, she was rejected as a voting member of the Mosman branch.
“Out of 10 people that were accepted that night I wasn’t accepted,” she said.
“I thought at the time it was because I had been to a community forum with Tony Abbott with my daughter. And he didn’t let us speak.”
Mr Abbott tweeted that he believes Ms Giannesini was an obvious “plant” at the event.
Tony Abbott tweet: “Zali’s Liberal Army” (today’s Manly Daily headline) has just two members. Julie Giannesini who hasn’t been a member since 2007 and when she tried to rejoin late last year was rejected by the Mosman branch because she was so obviously a plant.
Some senior Liberal sources have told the ABC that the Mosman branch often rejects new members — even if they’re local constituents — and only accepts very conservative members.
But Mosman branch president David McLean disputes this.
He says that in the decade or more under his leadership, the branch had never rejected a new membership application until September last year.
“People associated with the North Shore Environmental Stewards group started to apply for membership of our branch, [at] the same time as when one of them infiltrated one of our branch meetings and worked with GetUp! and other bodies to have a demonstration of about 70 people in the car park outside our meeting.”
The ABC has repeatedly tried to contact Mr Abbott for comment about the contest in Warringah, but received no response.
But in a secret recording obtained by the ABC, Mr Abbott told local constituents at a campaign event the campaign was starting to feel “all pretty personal”.
“I’ve been in Parliament for a long time… I’ve got a pretty thick skin and nine times out of 10 it’s all like water off a duck’s back,” he said.
Two weeks ago posters like this appeared around the electorate, including some that had profanity printed across Tony Abbott’s forehead. (Supplied)
“If this coalition for grassroots groups succeeds, then great — you’ve won,” he said.
“And if they don’t, well I will keep on doing the best I can for the people of Warringah.”
Third-party campaigners dragged into battling each other
This election GetUp! is focused on unseating conservative stalwarts within the Liberal Party.
That’s why it is funnelling resources into the electorates of Liberal MPs Peter Dutton and Mr Abbott. But it says it is not campaigning on behalf of any candidates or parties.
Advance Australia has billed itself as “conservative GetUp!” and insists it is only campaigning in Warringah because GetUp! is.
“We’re running a campaign to highlight that if people vote for Zali Steggall they’re going to vote for Bill Shorten,” says Gerard Benedet, the group’s national director.
Linking Ms Steggall to GetUp! has been a tactic of both the Abbott campaign and Advance Australia.
Ms Steggall has hit back, saying: “I have no association with GetUp!, I don’t get any financing and I have all of my own volunteers”.
Moderate Liberals have told the ABC they are concerned that Advance Australia’s activity in the election is doing more harm than good, turning traditional Liberal voters off with its message.
Both GetUp! and Advance Australia have said they are independent from the major political parties.
Since it launched in 2005, GetUp! has faced three investigations by the Australian Electoral Commission, and director Paul Oosting says the group has been cleared each time.
“We’ve been found to not be associated with political parties every single time. So we’re extremely confident in our independence and in the sort of things we do,” he said.
“Will people attack us again? Probably, because we’re effective.”
Advance Australia’s national director Mr Benedet has worked for the Queensland Liberal National Party as both as a campaign director and a chief of staff. He also worked on Mr Abbott’s re-election campaign in 2001.
But he says Advance Australia is not connected to the Liberal Party.
Satirical superhero Captain GetUp! was created by conservative group Advance Australia. (Twitter: Captain GetUp!)
“I haven’t been a member of the Liberal National Party in a fair while. None of the board are members of a political party and some of our advisory council members come from a range of different political parties,” he said.
That advisory council includes Kerry Wakefield, who is married to former Coalition minister Nick Minchin; Sam Kennard, the CEO of Kennards Self Storage and a director of right right-leaning tank The Centre for Independent Studies; and Maurice Newman, the former chair of Deutsche Bank and the ABC, who is a well-known climate change sceptic.
Advance Australia’s chairman is wealthy Brisbane publican James Power, who was heavily involved in a campaign to stop women becoming members of the Brisbane private members club Tattersalls late last year.
Patterns in social media suggest more
The activity of both Getup! and Advance Australia on social media is revealing.
Policy analyst Dr Michael Jensen from the University of Canberra identified similarities when he compared the Facebook pages of these groups with those of the major parties.
“On April 22 for example, there’s a discussion about penalty rates going on on both GetUp! and on Labor’s page,” he said.
“And likewise you’ll see on the Liberals’ page they’re talking about how Labor would increase taxes and at the same time Advance Australia is also putting out various statements saying that Labor is going to increase taxes as well.”
He says while there was no evidence of coordinated action, it was clear “these outside groups definitely want to increase the vote for their favourite group”.
The Australian Electoral Commission says it has received “a number of complaints about electoral communications on social media by Advance Australia and GetUp!”.
“Some of those complaints alleged untruthful advertising by Advance Australia and GetUp!” it said.
But the commission says the ads were authorised and it has not issued any warning or taken any action, because it is not the arbiter of truth in political advertising.
Facebook does not regulate truth in political advertising either.
In Australia there is actually no law stopping lies in political ads or messages. There have been attempts to legislate for truth before, but politicians from the two major parties have argued it would be too hard to enforce and could undermine free speech.
But one Liberal MP, Jason Falinski, says this is not good enough.
“We definitely need rules in political advertising to make sure that people are not misleading the voters when it comes to making a decision about who to vote for,” Mr Falinski said.
“We have truth in advertising across the board. It just doesn’t apply to political campaigns.
“The bigger problem across Australia is that advertising these days is not making a political point, it’s actually changing the fact based on which people have discussions.”
He has agreement from Mrs Steggall, who says she will push for legislating truth in political advertising if she is elected next weekend.
Campaigners are disappointed with the direction of debate
For Anna Josephson, dirty tactics have been the most disappointing aspect of the election campaign.
Ms Josephson’s house has become the scene of cocktail and canape fundraisers for Ms Steggall’s campaign. (ABC News: Sophie Kesteven)
“People [from Zali Steggall’s campaign] have had phone calls to their work and business threatening to tell their clients that they’re political. And the little things like posters being egged.
“Pure lies about links between us and GetUp! has damaged us a little bit. There’s zero links between the two.”
Ms Josephson insists that there is no co-ordination between supporters of Ms Steggall and GetUp! (ABC News: Sophie Kesteven)