A Guest Post from Emily Murray: Ten Tips for Engaging with Politicians

For several months this year, an ANU student by the name of Emily Murray worked as an intern in my office, via the ANU ANIP program. During this, she interviewed 41 politicians, political advisers and campaigners. At the end of it, Emily has produced a report titled 'Pressure Politics: Why Australian Politicians Support or Ignore NGO Policy Campaigns'.

I'd encourage anyone who has the time to read Emily's full report. But for the busy types who frequent Capital Hill, she has also written a guest blog post, listing ten tips for pitching your ideas up to us pollies. Take it away Emily...
Ten Top Tips for Engaging with Politicians
By Emily Murray

Almost all of us have had a bit of a whinge at one point or another about our politicians. I can’t open a newspaper or visit my Granddad without hearing how the country’s going off track and how it could be fixed. It’s easier to throw stones than build bridges.

Have you ever tried taking your ideas and concerns to your politicians, and engaging them in a respectful discussion about an issue? The politicians I’ve met welcome meeting with their constituents and genuinely want to learn more about the issues that they face.

I’ve spent the last semester researching why politicians say yes or no to policy proposals from their constituents. Here are ten top tips to help you get your ideas on board!

1)  Do your research.

Know how things stand. What does the politician think about this issue? What have they written or said publicly about it, previously and recently? How have they voted on this issue in the past? What is their party’s position? What do their constituents want? What has their party already accomplished on this issue?

Also be sure to check whether your issue is within this politician’s area of responsibility. If you’re not sure, you can always ask their office staff. Don’t be embarrassed- the division of power is complicated, and government power is more limited than most people believe. Just ask which political representatives (e.g. council, state or federal) have responsibility for this policy area and how you can contact them.

2)  Go to the meeting in a group of one or two people.

Any more people prevent a good conversation from developing - and this meeting should be a respectful, persuasive conversation, not a one-way rant.

3)  Clearly and concisely explain why you want the politician to change the policy.

Show statistics (ideally from the Australian Bureau of Statistics or from peer-reviewed research) and tell personal stories from their constituents, to explain the human impact of the current policy and how their constituents would benefit from the proposed policy. New evidence, or evidence that the politician hasn’t seen before, is vital for persuasion. Don’t make arguments that go beyond what your statistics can support, and avoid emotional pressure. Politicians are looking for an informed, respectful debate, not negative emotions without statistics and reason.

4)  Explain to your politician why this issue could be relevant and important to them.

  • What are your politician’s personal and political values? How are these values served by the proposed policy?

  • In their life before becoming a politician, were they interested in your issue or did they work on your policy issue?

  • What did they go into politics to achieve? How does your policy proposal fit in with their personal motivations?

5)  Acknowledge their work so far and explain what you want the politician to do, immediately and in the long term.

If they’ve already worked on this issue in the past, say thank you for what they’ve done and give some examples of the human impact of their work. Then, make a respectful request for what you’d like them to do next.

E.g. would you like them to write to the relevant Minister, make the policy proposal in a party forum, move a private member’s bill, or meet with you in one month to discuss the result of their efforts?

6)  Show the politician any evidence you have that their constituents care about your issue and agree with your proposed policy.

This doesn’t have to be a poll: politicians will probably be skeptical of your capacity to accurately poll their constituents. Instead, mention the numbers of attendees at a recent local rally, letters to the editor, public meetings or lectures on the issue. Demonstrate growing momentum in public support.

Don’t expect constituent concern to be enough to move the politician to action. Most politicians won’t do something just because their constituents think it’s a good idea. They will need to think it’s a good idea too.

7)  Ask the politician what they think of your proposal: do they agree with the proposed policy? Do they agree with what you want them to do about it?

This is a two-way discussion: what are their thoughts? Be honest about the shortcomings of your proposal. Don’t over simplify your issue: it’s nuanced, with many stakeholders, and you are doing them a disservice by taking a black and white stance. Try to see all sides of the issue.

If they don’t seem willing to help, find out why. Is it because they don’t agree with the proposed policy? Their fear of separating from their party’s position? Their fear of not being re-elected? If you know the real reason why they’re unwilling to act, you have a better chance of finding a way around it.

Just because your politician has worked on this issue in the past doesn’t mean they’ll automatically lend it their support now. This could even have the opposite effect: they might think they’ve done enough and other priorities need the government’s time and money now. They might think their party has no political capacity to take this issue any further at the moment, due to opposition from the public, other lobby groups, or other parties.

8)  Ask the politician what they need you to do before they add their support the campaign. How can you support them?

Do they need you to find more evidence of how the proposed policy will improve the lives of their constituents? Gather pledges of support for the proposed policy from a wide range of groups? Increase the issue’s profile in the media or on social media to demonstrate community support?

If they ask something of you, settle a definite date by which you’ll give them an update on how it’s going.

9)   Give them a summary.

When you leave, give your politician a printed one page summary of why the proposed policy is a good idea and what you want them to do about it, now and in the long term.

10)  Thank them.

Of course, say thank you to them and their staff for holding the meeting. But also thank them publicly. Acknowledge their support at your events, on our website, in your printed publications, mention it in your op-eds. If your politician knows you’ll acknowledge their efforts publicly, they’ll be more willing to help you.

If the politician already has a view on an issue, then it’s unlikely that your meeting will change their view. Seventy-five percent of politicians and political advisers that I interviewed said that a policy campaign had never changed their opinion of a policy. But that’s not your only goal: you can raise the issue as a priority for them, and you can inform them of the arguments and counter-arguments on the issue. And if they haven’t yet formed an opinion, this discussion could be instrumental in winning them as a champion of your cause.

Emily Murray recently completed an internship with Andrew Leigh MP within the Australian National Internships Program. Her research report, Pressure Politics, can be downloaded here.

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Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.