• Overcoming your politicophobia

    Posted by Ben

    15 August, 2012

    Have you ever thought of visiting your politician, but have never had the courage or the time? Or have you ever wondered if meeting with a politician is really effective? Or perhaps you're a seasoned electorate campaigner who is sick of the sight of your politician and wondering if you can even stomach another visit?

    This blog post is for you. Yes, all of you. It's time to take courage, renew commitment, and plan your visit with a politician because it is, beyond doubt, one of the most effective forms of campaigning action that we can take. If we're serious about influencing Australia's commitment to tackling poverty and global challenges like climate change, then it's a step more of us need to take.

    The cause of tackling dehumanising poverty needs more voices raised. You can be sure that well-paid lobbyists are constantly raising the concerns of their corporate clients with politicians. These politicians desperately need to hear from passionate community advocates also, people who "raise their voice on behalf of the voiceless, who defend the rights of the poor and needy" (Proverbs 31:8).

    With Voices for Justice around the corner and a new season of campaigning on the horizon, we thought some fresh encouragement and reasons for visiting your politician might be in order.

    Meeting a politician may seem daunting at first, but it's really not that hard. Politicians are, despite appearances on occasion, just ordinary people, so there's no need to feel intimidated. They also really want to hear from people in their electorate, at least if they're serious about their re-election. Mostly, people report how pleasantly surprised they are about how easy it was after their first meeting with a politician.

    So what about effectiveness?

    At a certain point, A lobby group meets with Senator Lee Rhiannon at Voices for Justice 2011A lobby group meets with Senator Lee Rhiannon at Voices for Justice 2011A lobby group meets with Senator Lee Rhiannon at Voices for Justice 2011campaigning really does come down to an effort-effectiveness equation. The more effort you put into a campaign action, the more effective it is likely to be at influencing politician. Of course, the path to effective influence can be a winding one, and most individual actions (such as petitions, postcards, or email campaigns) are – or, at least, should be – part of a broader strategy for achieving change.

    Politicians know that signing a petition or clicking "send" on a mass email takes virtually no effort, and so these actions have a pretty heavy discount applied to them when it comes to influencing the politician's opinion. Now, I think you should always sign a petition you agree with, but bear in mind that it'S what you do to advance the cause after signing the petition (like sharing about it with others, or signing people up to the campaign, or writing a letter to the local newspaper, or [insert your creative idea here]…) that will make the biggest difference.

    A personalised email or – even better – a handwritten letter, packs a lot more punch. Politicians know that this represents a bigger commitment to become informed about the issues, to share your opinion, and to ask the politician to take action. They start to think about the numbers of people in their electorate who may share your concerns. You can even help nudge their thinking along these lines by mentioning in your letter or email how you have been raising awareness about this issue in the community: "When the social justice group at my school began to explore this issue…" or "Many people at St Albert's Community Church feel the same way…".

    More effective than any of these, though, is a face-to-face meeting with politicians. Politicians consistently rate the concern of constituents, along with media coverage of an issue, as the strongest influence on their support for an issue. Which is not really surprising since their jobs depend on it.

    But if they never hear about an issue from their electorate, many politicians let it slip down their priority list, or never work up the courage themselves to stand up in the Parliament. I have heard a number of politicians say something like, "Well, I personally support Australia increasing aid to 0.7% of Gross National Income, but I never hear about this from my electorate." One politician, freshly-armed with handwritten letters from his electorate about their support for the Millennium Development Goals, stated that, "Now I can raise this in the party room."

    So, it's effective. And where one meeting might not revolutionise their thinking and attitude, a long-term relationship in which a politician hears consistently from groups in his/her electorate about their support for tackling global poverty, can bring about such a revolution.

    Unlike rocket science, anyone can master the basics of an effective meeting with a little bit of effort and practice. (Oh, and on a side note, if anyone is, or knows, a rocket scientist, can you tell me what they say about things in their field that are easier than you might expect? Because for them, of course, it is all rocket science.)

    There are heaps more resources on the Micah Challenge site (http://www.micahchallenge.org.au/budget-response), but here are some simple tips for an effective meeting:

    1) Involve others. Before you make an appointment with your politician, get others involved in helping prepare for the meeting. Although you can really only bring 4 or 5 people into a politician's office, if you've got a range of people from different groups in the electorate, that helps demonstrate widespread support. If you can link your meeting to some local awareness-raising you are doing about the issue, so much the better.

    2) Know your stuff. Know what you want to say, know some key facts and at least one persuasive case study or story that is relevant to your issue, and practise answering any critical arguments that may be raised. Your aim is not to win an argument, but to show your politician that there are reasonable answers or solutions to any objections they might raise.

    3) Know your MP or Senator. Has she spoken about your issue before? Does he have any particular portfolio responsibility about the issue? The Australian Parliament House website is invaluable here (www.aph.gov.au) but Micah Challenge can also help you out (please don't hesitate to email or phone us for support).

    4) Know your objectives. What do you want out of the meeting? What specific task will you be asking the politician to undertake in response to your meeting? MPs and Senators can be asked to support certain legislation, move a Private Members Bill, speak to the Treasurer or PM, raise an issue in the Party Room, make a speech or ask a question in Parliament, attend a community event, table a petition, and so on. Be clear about what you would like them to do, and by when you would like them to do it.

    5) Be punctual, polite and positive.  Be respectful of a politician's perspective, but don't allow him to hijack the meeting.

    6) Follow up. Make an agreement with the politician to call or email about anything she agreed to do. If she made a speech in Parliament, make sure to thank her for it.

    Oh, and plan your next meeting. The politician will be terribly disappointed if they never hear from you again, and it's a tough enough job being a politician without community campaigners breaking their hearts.


    Ben Thurley is the Political Engagement Coordinator for Micah Challenge Australia. Ben previously worked with TEAR Australia and has just spent four years in Nepal volunteering as an advocacy advisor to a local Nepali organisation.