Australian Astroturfing Inc.

Astroturfing denotes political, advertising, or public relations campaigns that are formally planned by an organization, but are disguised as spontaneous, popular “grassroots” behavior. The term refers to AstroTurf, a brand of synthetic carpeting designed to look like natural grass.”

It’s a clever play on words, but why am I bringing it up in the first place? Let me refer you to the latest blog post of Liberal Senator for South Australia, Cory Bernardi. For those of you not wanting to read the Senator’s contribution to the national discourse, allow me to sum it up for you; Progressives bad, conservatives good. GetUp! bad, new “Conservative Action Network” CANdo good.

So what exactly is CANdo? According to the Senator, “CANdo takes the campaign theme pioneered by the left and combines it with the free ranging grassroots activism of the American Tea Party Movement.” (Emphasis mine.) If by “grassroots activism of the American Tea Party Movement”, the Senator meant “funded largely by corporate America to push their agenda” he’s generally correct. But if he actually meant “grassroots activism” as defined by wikipedia (for consistency) “A grassroots movement is one driven by the politics of a community. The term implies that the creation of the movement and the group supporting it are natural and spontaneous, highlighting the differences between this and a movement that is orchestrated by traditional power structures.” he couldn’t be more wrong if he tried (and I get the feeling that he’s trying very, VERY hard in this case).

So what gives me the idea that CANdo isn’t some spontaneous uprising of conservatives in community? Partially, it’s the website. Here’s an image of the frontpage as it was today. For an interesting juxtaposition, here is an example of a real grassroots organisation’s first website (and that was after months of refinement. To be fair, CANdo may have some extremely generous conservative web developers donating their time to the project, so let’s not indict them just yet.

But the main thing that gives it away as a ridiculously contrived astroturfed movement is all the paperwork. Websites leave trails. Organisations leave trails. While it’s not always fair to judge a person by the company they keep, it does give you a little bit of an idea about who they are and where they’re coming from. So, who is CANdo metaphorically hanging with? Let’s find out.

First, a quick look at the WhoIs registry for Australian domains.

WhoIs result for

As you can see, it is registered to The Conservative Council of Australia and was last edited in August 2009. So who are they?

The Australian Business Registrar has them listed as an Unincorporated Entity that was first registered in August 2003. Its registration was briefly inactive between September 2008 and October 2009, but has been active since. You can view the history of The Conservative Council of Australia’s business registration details here. While not being able to get their exact address, they are listed as being registered in South Australia at the postcode 5081.

5081. Why is that postcode so familiar to me? Is it because it’s the same postcode as listed on the About page for CANdo?

CANdo About Page

Or is it because it’s the same postcode as listed on Cory Bernardi’s book order form? (PDF warning.)

Cory Bernardi's

Which the keen-eyed reader will see, not only shares the same postcode, but the same Post Office Box. Which means… what, exactly? All I’ve managed to demonstrate so far is that Cory Bernardi has significant ties to the “grassroots” organisation CANdo and its logical affiliated associations. The idea that any grassroots organisation would have such compelling and close ties with a Federal Senator, so much so that they also get their mail delivered to the same address as the people that manage his book orders, is interesting. Not necessarily damning, but eyebrow raising, and already putting a strain on the term “grassroots” to say the least.

As an aside here about why posting this information is relevant. A comment I posted to Cory Bernardi’s page was edited to remove this sentence: “Websites like that do not simply pop up overnight, and the domain was registered in August 2009 by The Conservative Council of Australia which was registered as an Unincorporated Entity in 2003.” So whoever moderates his site didn’t want other readers to know some of the finer details about the CANdo page. Again, not especially damning, but by removing those details from my comment it makes me wonder why they would bother.

But the easiest method to find out more about CANdo and its affiliates is just to remove the ‘network’ from the front of the address and replace it with ‘www’. It takes you to The Conservative Leadership Foundation. The CLF is the entity that receives your PayPal donation if you donate through CANdo. Incidentally, it also has the exact same mailing address as CANdo and Cory Bernardi’s book orders. The CLF is also the organisation with the following International Associations listed on their website: The Young Britons’ Foundation, The Leadership Institute, The Young America’s Foundation, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and The Clare Boothe Luce Policy Insitute.

Remember a few hundred words ago how I was talking about not always judging people by the company they keep, but rather, getting an idea of what they’re about and where they’re coming from? So who are they?

The Leadership Institute has listed as its former students US Senators, Congressmen (including Joe Wilson of “you lie!” fame) and women, Governors, the President of Americans for Tax Reform (a well-known front group for the tobacco industry) and former “W” advisor Karl Rove (who is currently funneling millions of untraceable and dollars into the American mid-term election).

The Competitive Enterprise Institute receives funding from the Koch brothers (who have spent more on climate change denial lobbying than Exxon Mobil), Phillip Morris (who famously funded the “Smoking as a civic duty” case study), Pfizer, and has on its senior staff former lobbyists for the aforementioned Exxon Mobil.

These associations with a demonstrated history of astroturfing for their collective corporate benefits are the peers of the “grassroots” site CANdo. Some would call me cynical in drawing such a connection, and they are right, I am cynical. Go make up your own mind. Make a login for CANdo and browse around, see if it feels familiar at all.

Then ask yourself, with all of the evidence at hand, is this actually a grassroots organisation?

Or is it something all too familiar?

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