A few simple tips from John Sinclair
Originally written in 1975 but the basic tips are just as valid in the 21stCentury
1) When in Doubt, Ask Questions: If you are not satisfied with something but you are not yet in a position to say something about it in an informed way, ask questions. This is probably the most important rule to remember, particularly by people without much expertise about issues or the politics of the situation. We can never ask too many questions. One extension of this policy is to make sure that we get answers – adequate answers – promptly. One means of achieving this is through Parliamentary Questions.
So often lay persons face government policy developments which they intuitively feel are wrong. However, they lack sufficient grounds to object outright, and risk looking foolish if they do. In such cases, do not let the issue pass for lack of expertise. In such cases, ask questions. Write off to relevant people or agencies asking relevant questions about the proposed development to again force the respondents to give you information so that you will be in a much better position to pursue advocacy over the development or to satisfy yourself. It works, although it does not always produce rational and sensible answers.
If a proposal seems to be unsatisfactory but a submission cannot be sent off with absolute assurance – ask questions. When you get replies to submissions and questions, circulate the replies as widely as possible.
The technique has a salutary effect. Once public authorities see that people are questioning and scrutinizing, they are normally more careful than they would otherwise be. It has even led them to have a second thought on the proposal. It often causes delays which provide breathing space for better proposals to be developed. However, it is a technique which is not used enough.
2) When Someone Boo-Boo’s, Do Not Let Them Forget: Ineptitude is a frequent trademark of sloppy proposals. When some great guffaws have been discovered which have worked against conservation, they must be constantly focussed on. Opponents of conservation are not backward when it comes to pointing to any flaws in our submissions, and we should do the same.
When a bad decision or the wrong decision is made, do not just count it as a loss; just keep gnawing away, keeping the issue alive so that the mistake is less likely to be repeated. That helps to avoid further defeats. There are excellent examples of how such persistence has paid off. The most outstanding example is that the determination never to have another feature like Lake Pedder drowned gave a great impetus to the formation of the Wilderness Society and the Gordon below Franklin campaign.
3) Never Concede Defeat: You may not win every battle, but if you can still win the war by being such a formidable opponent every time you are engaged in battle, your opponents will be hesitant about confronting you again. If you are seen to surrender too early, it will encourage your opponent not only to take you lightly but also the people who may have to campaign on similar issues in the future. And if you lose, never let anyone be allowed to forget the injustice and inappropriateness of the decision.
4) Follow Issues Through: When you have been fobbed off by a lack of reply, then write again to request an early reply. If a Minister does not answer within a reasonable time, ask for the Opposition to raise the issue in Parliament through question or parliamentary debate.
Do not be satisfied with unsatisfactory replies. Do not be satisfied with NO replies. Publish in your newsletter lists of how long it takes for some people to respond to letters and/or submissions. :Letters which say “Your submissions will be borne in mind when the matter comes before me” are a polite fob-off. The respondent should be written to politely asking “What is your attitude to the matters we have raised?”.
5) Put Your Submissions in Writing: And record when and how you sent them. If somebody is doing something wrong in your view; if you have not written to an appropriate authority protesting, objecting or commenting about the matter, then you have no legal standing and no more rights. If you don’t have it in writing there is no hard evidence of any submission
Always keep written records, even of meetings (informal), important telephone calls and oral communications. It is important not to rely on memory.
6) When You Make Submissions, Always Go to the Top: The pecking order is:
- Premier/Prime Minister
- Relevant Minister
- Head of Department
- Anyone else in the Department.
If you are uncertain which Minister, always write to the Premier/Prime Minister. Write to a Minister rather than some person in the Department. If an issue isn’t addressed to a politician, then there is every likelihood that the politician will never learn about it and it is probable that if the matter needs a political decision then politicians need to have issues presented to them direct
7) Copies are Cheap: When I first wrote this I said, “Carbon paper, photocopies, extra duplicated copies, are cheap in comparison with time spent drafting and typing a letter.”
In this digital age of the information revolution People’s responses can be Emailed multiple times or even placed on a website. Do not hesitate to send duplicates to all relevant people. Keep other voluntary groups informed of your group’s actions and initiatives; and see what they are up to.
8) Do Not Deal with One Person or One Political Party: It is important not to become dependant on only one political contact or one political party. Politics is the about the art of change, and frequently due to factors extraneous to your position a change could occur so that one promising conduit you were using to effect change suddenly is closed off and you are powerless to do anything about it. Therefore try to have as many options as possible open and working simultaneously. Keep Opposition Parties and Government backbenchers informed about all-important issues, and don’t just rely on the one letter. Send several letters or photocopies of the original.
9) Give Praise whenever Praise is Due: If somebody is doing the right thing, they should be told about it as soon as possible. Many a good decision has been overturned because opposing interests protested and public interest groups have failed to support the decision strongly enough.
10) Maintain a ‘Corporate’ Image: Pay attention to your organization’s corporate image. Stationery and letterheads are a relatively minor cost, but these can have continuing significant impact, as every businessman recognizes. It is as valid for public interest groups as it is for vested interests.
Transparency: Another tip is to be as open and as transparent as possible. Too many campaigns are lost because nobody knows the issues and many of them are not brought into the public arena. It should only be vested interests that try to keep a lid on discussions and outcomes. The use of “Commercial–in-confidence”banner used to protect so many vested interests needs to be challenged. If people sincerely believe they are representing the public interest then they need to take the public into their confidence.
Voluntary Effort wins Respect: Make capital out of doing what you are doing as volunteers. Make sure that the audience you are addressing understands that you are not motivated by money or greed — just a desire to advance the public interest.
Politicians particularly are impressed that people will spend their personal time and money for no personal gain when most lobbyists they meet are seeking financial gain. Don’t be coy about emphasizing the sacrifices that people without any vested interests are making to advance their cause.
Remember: Conservation battles can never be completely won. They can only be complexly lost.