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OPINION

Notes From The Mail Room

There is a woman who lives in Sydney’s northern beaches who owns a hearse. She lent it to my friends once, when they wanted to hold a mock funeral for higher education. It wasn’t the largest protest ever staged on the thinning green front lawn at the University of Sydney, but it got the media’s attention. Everyone loves a photo op.

Everyone, that is, except federal MPs Anthony Albanese and Scott Morrison, who refused to sit on a giant toilet parked out the front of Australia’s parliament in September last year, to make a point about water, sanitation and foreign aid. Their colleague Rob Oakeshott had no qualms.

The giant toilet was just one of the stunts MPs confront on a daily basis. Props range from cupcakes to placards, trucks and convoys, with senators donning novelty costumes among it all (I’m looking at you, former senator Steve Fielding).

<p>AAP/Alan Porritt</p>

AAP/Alan Porritt

Former Senator Steve Fielding, publicising a joint Family First-Greens scheme to establish a nationwide refund scheme for cans and bottles, March 2008.

So how do you cut through with maximum effect? Giving your elected representatives your opinion is important — but some methods of communication are far more effective than others.

This week protesters are launching a campaign to encourage people to forward their personal email correspondence Attorney-General Nicola Roxon in response to the federal government’s data-retention proposals.

They’ve called it “Nosey Nicola’s November Nightmare”.

“We encourage concerned Australians to cc Nicola Roxon on their day to day emails, email traffic the federal government shouldn’t be monitoring and retaining. We don’t want to crash government computer systems. But we do want to send a humourous but clear message to the Attorney-General that the government shouldn’t have their nose in the private business of either activists or the general public,” organiser Ben Pennings said in a statement.

It’s a cute idea. And the data-retention plan is a live issue. Privacy in the internet age is not something we should take for granted. But when I heard about this “November Nightmare”, I really just felt sorry for the Attorney-General’s administrative staff.

It’s not going to be “Nosey Nicola” who’ll have to wade through your shopping list or spat about childcare pickups — it's long-suffering Liam (or Lucy or Lionel), the low-level staffer.

<p>Mike Bowers/The Global Mail</p>

Mike Bowers/The Global Mail

While at university I did a stint working part-time for an MP, and one of my responsibilities was managing their email. If an email was a form letter, or part of an obvious campaign, I would mention that we’d received some correspondence on an issue, but it would be quite far down the priority list.

A good friend used to work for a state cabinet minister. She was in charge of opening the physical post, which in the post-September-11 world involved taking all the letters to a secure room and opening with gloves, just to make sure no mysterious substances were involved. Elected representatives are quite far removed from our efforts to correspond with them. There are systems in place to make sure everyone who needs a response will get one, but the decision-makers don’t tap it out.

NSW Labor MP Penny Sharpe blogged in September 2011 about this, giving tips on how to lobby effectively: Be original, target the right person and don’t expect volume alone will impress someone, she said.

“Sometimes email campaigns are a way that MPs get a sense of the public mood of any issue. Volume can be important and does have its place but if you actually want engagement on an issue, bombarding MPs with form emails and/or letters is considered very low value constituent contact and the time your [sic] spent sending it is wasted as it will often be deleted,” Sharpe wrote.

How community members voice concerns about legislation that will affect them is more important than a lot of people realise. Want to run an effective campaign? You need to convince MPs in marginal seats that enough of their constituents might yank their vote unless a policy change is made or, in this case a proposal to store your data, abandoned.

So make sure you're not just bombarding a helpless intern somewhere in the halls of power. Get smart, and pick your target.

Of course, if Nosey Nicola gets her way, we can just cut out the middle-man, because the government will be able to take the pulse of the nation without having to wait for us to email them.

1 comment on this story
by Kate Sommerville

Hey, you've just blown away my illusion that writing letters is one way we ordinary folk can let our elected representatives know what we think!

I write when deeply moved about something. Once I wrote to Julia Gillard protesting about her watering down of the pokie machine reforms. I got what I thought an ill informed response from someone who didn't really know the issues and realised that writing that particular letter was probably a waste of time.

Once I wrote to Ted Ballieu when he was the Victorian Opposition leader about comments he had made about the assaults on Indian students in Victoria and received a short but intelligent and courteous response, signed by him personally.

Another time I sent a very early morning email to Tony Robinson when he was Victorian Minister for Gaming and he emailed back almost immediately so I know I know I struck pay dirt that time. He didn't agree with me and didn't answer my second email.

Another time in another epoch I write to Tony Abbott ( about euthanasia) when he was Minister for Health in the Howard Government and got an intelligent and courteous reply from one of his staff. I didn't agree with the response but did feel that I was heard,

So I'll keep on writing when I feel I have to say something. I don't like the mobbing that Twitter does so crudely but acknowledge that in the Alan Jones case it was effective. Twitter bemuses me, actually . It is most effective, for me, as a mini news agency where you get lots of great references. I found the Global Mail through a reference from Eva Cox on Twitter for example. What a great find!

November 11, 2012 @ 8:16am
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