More than a million Australians have seen Facebook advertisements for a ‘bipartisan’ online group campaigning against Victorian state premier Dan Andrews. But few of them would realise the group’s close links to the government’s political opponents, the Victorian Liberals.
Victorian state politics is always heated, but 2020 has been particularly hard-fought. A battered Labor government is fighting battles on many fronts: over its COVID-19 response, its Belt-and-Road agreement with China and its treatment of volunteer firefighters. But there’s one unusual debate that’s riled up a very passionate community: brumby culling.
Brumbies are a pest. As an introduced species of feral horses, they trample natural habitats and compete for food with native animals. That’s why the Victorian Government planned to cull them by shooters into the Alpine National Park earlier this year.
But there was an immediate and loud backlash from brumby fans. Facebook pages and groups popped up to defend them, arguing that the (admittedly majestic looking) creatures are part of Australian heritage. Eventually, these offline efforts culminated in real world protests and even an unsuccessful Supreme Court challenge.
Both the page and group are framed as bipartisan— “it doesn’t matter if you’re a staunch conservative, a progressive, or a centrist,” the group’s website reads. However, people who are actively involved with both have strong links to Victoria’s Liberal Party.
Who is behind the anti-Dan Andrews group, Victoria Forward?
In the four years since that interview, he’s been busy. Among the smorgasboard of companies he’s registered, he’s launched his own political consultancy, 470 Bourke. He has told Gizmodo Australia he wanted to import US political culture by launching Victoria Forward, his own political action committee (PAC), earlier this year.
PACs are a type of political organisation that raises money and then either spends it or donates it to further a political cause or elect a candidate. And because they’re not political parties, they don’t have the same requirements like donation disclosures.
“When you only have political parties filling that party of political campaigning, it can be binary. People want a mix of views, and people want to go places where they don’t need to align themselves with a party,” he said.
Bourke wouldn’t say how many people have donated to Victoria Forward. He strenuously denies that Victoria Forward gets any assistance from the Victorian Liberal Party. It is, he said, completely independent from either major party and has supporters from both sides of the aisle.
The group’s links to the Victorian Liberals
But Bourke doesn’t deny his own conservatives views. Bourke confirmed he’s a member of the Liberal Party. His personal Facebook page lists him as starting a new job as Male Vice-Chair at the Liberal Party of Victoria’s Sunbury Branch on December 19, 2019.
On January 5, 2020, Bourke created the Victoria Forward Facebook group. Using slickly-designed images, the page has campaigned relentlessly against Dan Andrews. Over the page’s 425 posts, Victoria Forward has criticised the brumby cull, COVID-19 restrictions, the Belt-and-Road agreement and more.
Today, the page has grown to nearly 15,000 members and recorded 190,000 engagements on its posts, according to data from social media analytics tool CrowdTangle.
More than $1000 has been spent on Facebook advertisements for the page, reaching more than a million Australians. The promoted post has a graphic with the caption “Stand up to Daniel Andrews. Join Victoria Forward.”
Bourke capitalised on the interest about Victoria’s proposed brumby culling by sharing dozens posts from Victoria Forward to Facebook groups like Rural Resistance (23,000 members), Brumby Horse Group Australia (7,900 members) and more.
One group Bourke has frequently posted to is Project Rural. It’s a Facebook group run by Victoria Forward with 1,500 members that pitches itself as a space for members to “have [their] say about the future of rural Victoria.”
The group’s administrators include Edward Bourke’s personal account, the Victoria Forward Facebook page and an account in the name of Stephanie Bastiaan.
Bastiaan is a Liberal Party member who is part of the state’s conservative faction that’s reeling from allegations of branch stacking and corruption reported by Nine. She worked as a staff member for Federal minister Michael Sukkar and has organised party events. She’s also married to Marcus Bastiaan, the Victorian Liberal Party powerbroker who resigned from the party earlier this week.
Bastiaan didn’t respond to questions sent via Facebook and LinkedIn about her involvement with Victoria Forward.
But the account offers some hints. Like Bourke, Bastiaan’s account posted Victoria Forward content to different brumby-related Facebook groups. Additionally, Bastiaan — who is listed as a third year journalism student on her LinkedIn Page — appeared in YouTube videos promoting the anti-cull push.
There is no suggestion that Bastiaan was involved with Victoria Forward in her professional capacity.
Bourke told Gizmodo that he connected with Bastiaan over the brumby issue, and that she “does not hold an official position in Victoria Forward”.
Another common factor in Bastiaan and Bourke’s posting is their vocal enthusiasm for Victorian Liberal state politician Bev McArthur. Both shared posts supporting McArthur’s anti-cull stance.
McArthur reciprocated this support. She repeatedly shared content posted by Victoria Forward and Bourke on her public Facebook Page and personal Facebook account.
McArthur is a member of the same faction as Bastiaan. McArthur’s personal Facebook account is also friends with Bourke’s.
Bourke didn’t answer questions about what his relationship was with McArthur, instead saying that Victoria Forward has worked with “several MPs to advocate for Victorians.”McArthur’s office did not respond to questions about her relationship with Bourke or Victoria Forward.
Why does it matter who’s behind Victoria Forward?
There is no suggestion that Bourke or Victoria Forward have done anything illegal. But the nature of the group’s structure obscures the people who are actively working on their campaigns, while purporting to be bipartisan. It’s also unknown who has financially contributed to it.
This makes it difficult for the public to evaluate and contextualise the group’s widely viewed campaigns. And, given the page’s large organic and paid audiences, the group is a significant player in the online debate about Victorian issues, an area also warped by inauthentic actors.
Victoria Forward has posted frequently about the long-running tensions over the management of volunteer firefighters in the state, savaging Andrew’s handling of the issue.
What is not disclosed is that Bourke’s father, Mick Bourke, is the former CEO of the Country Fire Authority.
Bourke said this relationship affects his (and therefore Victoria Forward’s) stance — but in a good way.
“I feel my father’s experience in the CFA gives me a uniquely knowledgeable position on the issue, and allows me to better advocate for CFA volunteers and the wider community,” he said.
Bourke said the autonomy of Victoria Forward is important to him. He said his supporters appreciate that the group exists outside of the binary of the two major political parties.
“In Victoria, we’re not in a position where Dan Andrews numbers are going down. There’s no landslide against him,” Bourke said. “But I think there’s a great appetite in the community to have a campaign going at all times.”