This deep dive is a special request. Part of Slow News Weekly’s ethos is the understanding that ordinary people aren’t just passive consumers of news. Our democracy implies that we actually have a say in all issues of Australian government. You have power over matters like the tax, immigration, health and education. But most Australians, particularly the young, don’t understand how our democracy works.
The latest results from the National Assessment Program for Civics and Citizenship show that less than 50% of year ten students have ‘proficient’ knowledge of how our government works. Many young Australians are engaged in political issues, but unsure about how Australian government actually works. Around half of eighteen year olds aren’t on the electoral roll.
Think that politics isn’t for you or not something you care about?
Do you care about how much you’re paid?
Do you find your rent or mortgage easy to pay?
Is your local area safe and clean?
Are you satisfied with the schools, hospitals and other facilities in your area?
Do you worry about how the future’s going to work out with issues like climate change or immigration?
Do you or someone you know have a disability? Are you or someone you know a racial minority? Do you believe society treats you fairly?
You have more power in changing these things than you might think.
With that in mind, here’s a clear and simple guide on creating change.
Step One: It’ll Take Time and Work
If you care enough about an issue to want to see it changed, it’s important to realise that it’s going to take some of your work and time. It isn’t enough to simply complain about an issue – or even to sign a single petition or write one letter. You’ll need to do some research, gather some forces, and engage in a consistent conversation with stakeholders to get some traction.
Like everyone, I spend a lot of time getting frustrated with our democracy. It often doesn’t feel like it’s moving quick enough. An interview with Barack Obama actually helped to change my mind about this. As Obama points out, national democracies are enormous, multi-billion dollar beasts. It’s like trying to turn a cruise ship – they can’t turn right angles instantly. If they did, the ensuing volatility would mean chaos. Countries that tend to have overnight changes aren’t exactly pleasant places to live. They’re dangerous and unstable.
It’s easy to overestimate the amount of change that can happen in a year, but it’s easy to underestimate the amount of change that can happen in a decade. Think of how far away same-sex marriage seemed in 2007 or 1997.
The first step to becoming an engaged and active citizen is to understand that you won’t get what you want immediately. There’ll be defeats, compromises and it’ll take a lot of work. Eventually, however, amazing things can happen.
What to do: Pick an issue you feel passionate about. Treat this issue like a new year’s resolution – this is something you’re going to work at over the course of a year. Just committing to an hour once a fortnight for a year will make you more passionate and active on the issue than 95% of other citizens. This commitment alone improves the chances of you making a substantial change on the issue enormously.
TAMMY: Tammy’s tone deaf and a real bore at parties, but she’s not letting that get her down. She’s decided she gives a crap about climate change and wants to see something happen.
MICHAEL: Michael spent a night in jail once for being drunk and disorderly. It’s a long story and he doesn’t want to speak to you about it. But he’s pissed that his local dog park doesn’t have a seperate section for smaller dogs. He wants to do something.
PATRICE: Patrice cries into a glass of wine every night and thinks angel cards are a thing. She’s decided she wants to see better food served in hospitals.
Step Two: Research to find a specific goal
Knowledge is power. Spending some time on the internet to look at your issue in the nitty-gritty will make a pathway to victory visible. The less you know, the less likely people will be to listen to you. Smart people – good, evil, indifferent – are the ones that get the shit done. So be smart.
Research will help you define a specific goal. The more specific, the better. Tammy cares about climate change, for example, but sending a letter to the federal environment minister saying she’d like them to care more about the environment won’t do anything. If Tammy puts in a few hours of research, she’ll find a heap of specific causes that may peak her interest.
What to do: Link your issue to the most relevant level of government. Australia has three levels of government: federal, state and local. Your local government takes care of things like parking metres, water rates, pet registration, waste collection, local parks, libraries and much more. Your state government takes care of your health system, education system, your roads and much more. Your federal government takes care of things in the national interest: immigration, defence, taxation and more. Obviously, there’s a lot of cross-over between the three. However, there’s an embarrassing amount of petitions that never make it past the front line, simply because they’ve been sent to the incorrect level of government.
If you’re a complete newbie, or a political nerd like me, I thoroughly recommend the series ‘The House’ on ABC iView, which gives you a comprehensive tour of Parliament House, and takes you inside the political process.
Look at a wide range of websites to see what has already been done or is currently underway. The Guardian is a free and well-respected news site with a dandy search engine (similarly, the New York Times has limited freebies and has international news). Wikipedia is remarkably useful for an overview on a specific issue. Go to change.org and see if there are petitions already running for your issue. If so, who are they run by? Do they have a Facebook group or a community already set up?
Beyond government, are there small businesses or other stakeholders that have a say in what’s happening? Are they likely to support your goals, or disagree with them? What’s their argument against your argument? And how does your argument beat theres? Do your best to completely understand their point of view. Spend more time listening than talking in this step. You’re a sponge, take in the information.
From all of this, create a list of precise goals. These are specific things that you want changed.
TAMMY & CLIMATE CHANGE: Tammy spends a few months doing a lot of research about climate change and Australia. She realises that some of the biggest issues right now are the Murray Darling Basin Plan and the Adani Coal Mine. Her family is from regional Queensland, so both issues strike a chord with her. She spends a lot of time reading and finds a heap of other groups online who are currently campaigning. She’s so happy she could sing. Except she doesn’t. Because she’s tone deaf.
MICHAEL & THE DOG PARK: Michael realises that the dog park is a local council matter. A few of his friends at the park say they’d be keen to have a small dog section. There are nasty memories of a big dog attacking a small dog last year. That was part of the reason why Michael ended up drunk and disorderly, but seriously it’s a long story and he can’t get into it right now.
PATRICE & HOSPITAL FOOD: Patrice figures out that health is a state matter, but there are a lot of stakeholders, including individual hospitals, their kitchen, their staff and more. She can’t find anywhere online that talks about the existing guidelines for food in hospitals, and she figures this means it probably hasn’t been looked at for ages by the government. There’s a heap of international studies on food standards in hospitals. She pours herself another glass of wine as a reward for so much research. But it’s 10am on a Thursday Patrice. Get a grip.
Step Three: Make a Plan. Be Persistent. Talk.
Ready for me to crush your dreams? Online petitions don’t do a whole lot. Sad but true. change.org is a brilliant site, and they boast that ‘nearly every hour…a petition achieves victory’ – but the parameters of what this actually means amongst the volume of their petitions overall is unclear. Online petitions are good at raising awareness on an issue. They have sexy clickable links that make them excellent social media fodder. They can draw people to your cause. They’re unlikely to change anybody’s mind, but they are good as a magnet for people who believe in you.
Believe it or not, the Parliament of Australia’s House of Representatives actually has its own petition system. You can go online right now and create a petition there. But remember, this is the federal government, so it’s only going to be useful if you have a specific goal in which the federal government has the power to act. It’ll also help if you’ve already spoken to your local member about it so they push it along to the appropriate committee. But if you actually want federal governmental change on a national level, go to that site, not change.org.
If you get a politician on your side, things tend to move faster and you have greater legitimacy. You need to find out who your representative is. You can check your voting enrolment to figure out your federal, state and local electorate here. Once you have those names, you may be able to click through to see some details, including who your representative is in the state or federal parliament. If not, simply googling the name plus ‘Australian Federal Parliament’ or ‘Victorian State Government’ (or whatever’s relevant) will draw up some responses.
Once you have your person, contact them. Write coherently, reasonably and concisely about your concerns. They may even have a sit down meeting with you. Most politicians, if they’re smart, have a policy of at least replying to every single person who writes to them or contacts them. If they’re doing their job, their reply will help you understand where they stand and how they will help or hinder the change you want to bring about. They are more likely to listen to you if you’re in a group, or have properly completed step two and know what you’re talking about. This initial response may be a simple ‘I’m working on it, promise’ type answer. It’s important that you follow-up with them to get updates and hold them accountable. Remember, you’re their boss.
If the politician doesn’t reply to you, respect you, or in any other way listen to what you have to say, make sure to vote for someone else at the next election. That’s how it works.
Reach out to form groups united for a cause. Get talking and set small goals. Democracy moves when people come together, despite differences, and commit to making a change.
TAMMY & CLIMATE CHANGE: Tammy goes to a few meetings and events with people who are campaigning to stop the Adani coal mine or are concerned with the Murray Darling Basin Plan. She meets a whole network of people and seriously starts to consider joining a political party. She examines the environmental policies of The Greens, The Liberal Party, The National Party, The Labor Party and a few smaller parties. She picks one she likes and starts going to local branch meetings to vote on new environmental policy as it comes up. Within a year, she sees federal politicians legislating around party policy that she voted on when it first arose at her local branch meeting. She meets new friends, and they all go out to a pub to celebrate. She has a great time. They make an unfortunate decision to do karaoke. Tammy sings and things get awkward because she’s tone deaf.
MICHAEL & THE DOG PARK: Michael collects a bunch of signatures from local people who want a small dog section. He tracks down the owner of the dog who was attacked and gets them to write a letter detailing how shit the whole thing was. He figures out that the nearest small dog park is over twenty kilometres away from their suburb, so it’s unreasonable to expect people to travel. He goes to his local councillor, who’s rude and incompetent. At the next election, Michael stands as his opponent. But his drunk past comes up and questions are asked. He’s forced to move away in embarrassment. He now has a big property and the dog can run wherever it wants. Problem solved.
PATRICE & HOSPITAL FOOD: Patrice gathers the evidence from the international studies on hospital food and writes a succinct summary of a few hundred words. She posts this online to start a petition. Through this process she gathers hundreds of signatures and hears stories from other people who believe in her cause. She’s able to form a small group of people who organise a meeting with a few of their state representatives. They sense that the government aren’t too keen to change the food guidelines because of budget constraints, but the opposition think it’s worth the cost. They gain political allies and eventually get the matter tabled in the State Parliament. It takes time and a lot of persistence, but food standards eventually lift for hospital food. Patrice celebrates with a glass of wine.
Come on, Patrice.
An hour a fortnight. Sending that letter. And then another one. Talking to people who you wouldn’t otherwise socialise with. Listening to people on the other side and figuring out how you can come together. A little goes a long way.
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