• Political Engagement: Keys to effective lobbying

    Posted by Micah

    1 June, 2010

    By Guy Barnett, Liberal Senator for Tasmania

    Political engagement is an important part of the advocacy process - but often an intimidating one. Lobbying our political representatives at various levels can help bring about policy changes that push governments to lead our society to becoming more just. Most ordinary Australians, while having the opportunity to engage with their political representatives, do not engage politically beyond voting - often feeling a sense of powerlessness about being able to bring any change to the system. However, the story of one politician - Tasmanian Senator Guy Barnett, shows that ordinary people committed to building a relationship with their MP can indeed make a difference and help take their MP on a journey. In 2008, Senator Barnett made an Adjournment Speech, explaining that just a few years ago, a young campaigner asked him if he knew about the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and what he was doing about them. At the time he had no knowledge of the goals. Over the years and several meetings later, Senator Barnett is now a champion for the MDGs and Micah Challenge. Here, Senator Barnett shares tips from the inside on how campaigners can get their message heard.

    Effective lobbying is important to any person or organisation with a cause to advance. Understanding how the political system works and what makes key decision makers tick is important. Understanding the different levels of government, partnering with other likeminded organisations and individuals, winning over public opinion and then getting the pitch right are all steps in the process.

    As a lobbyist, you need to have a clear idea of what you are requesting from the decision maker. Short, concise submissions with an executive summary are good, offering brevity but also detail to back it up if necessary. You won't always know how much or how little the decision maker knows about your issue, and this approach will work for all cases. But it's the groundwork, the research and the relationship building that gets you into a position of being able to make a request from a decision maker.

    In the Australian Federal parliamentary scene, there are a few basic principles that should be noted. When you are lobbying a Government Minister or the Prime Minister, you are dealing with the fully empowered decision maker. They have the power. As such, a clear succinct request for support or funding may be in order, and remember you are likely to be dealing with an adviser who you will need to persuade in the first instance. When you are dealing with a Shadow Minister or a backbencher from either side of Parliament, the brief is different. These people are not the decision makers at the highest level but they are people of influence. Your approach should be more along the lines of seeking their support, trying to get them to lobby within their respective party, to support an event you want to hold or to have them move a motion or deliver a speech in the Senate or the House drawing attention to your issue. These principles apply to pitching your asks in the right way to all levels of Government.

    Demonstrating public support for your ideas is also important to strengthen your argument, and there are various ways to do this. Media reports, petitions and references, plus reference to research can all help. Consensus among representative organisations is also powerful. Where a decision maker can see that key stakeholders agree on the way forward, confidence grows to support what is being proposed.

    Follow up after making your pitch is also important. All decision makers need some time for consideration, and they may need further information as questions or issues come to mind. Providing this kind of 'after sale service' can be critical and goes to your overall credibility and commitment. Most organisations now have websites which provide general information for a range of needs, and this is recommended. Lobbying can also benefit from building relationships with people who share your passion. One of the people I met along the way was Tim Costello, one of the co-chairs of the Make Poverty History campaign. In 2006 I was involved with Tim in launching the film Amazing Grace in Parliament House. The movie tells the story of William Wilberforce, the British anti-slavery campaigner, a story that we both believed was worth telling. Wilberforce's tale of tenacity and conviction, built upon his Christian faith, also happens to be a great example of lobbying and a personal inspiration to me. Through involvement in Micah Challenge and Make Poverty History, I was motivated to become co-convenor of the Parliamentary Friends of the Millennium Development Goals, which led me to help promote the terrific campaign in Parliament. Lobbying and advancing a cause can take many forms, and mixing with like-minded people is a big part of it.

    The other great thing about this curious discipline of lobbying is that it does not require a university degree or specific work experience. Anybody can utilise lobbying skills and techniques to ensure their views are heard by the key decision makers or at the highest level. Lobbying is a skill that can be learned.

    In my time as an advocate, a lobbyist and in politics, these are some of the principles I have observed and sought to apply, and you'll find more detailed discussion of these issues in my book Make a Difference: A Practical Guide to Lobbying. Apart from the techniques and principles of lobbying, there is one thing that takes the efforts of any lobbyist to the next level, and that's conviction. You will always be more effective if you believe in what you are doing, and decision makers will sense this. Aligning your values to your activities can be a powerful combination. The verse "ask and you shall receive" (Matthew 21:22) comes to mind, as does the popular saying "be careful what you pray for, you just might get it!"

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    This article originally appeared in TEAR Australia's ChangeMakers Journal