Paper on Political Briefing

Prepared for DEA National Meeting November 2003 by John Coulter
It is a matter of both personal experience and observation that there is an increasing disillusionment with the parliamentary political process. A large number of people have also become very cynical about the role of the media in selecting what it chooses to cover and how it is covered. While many surveys of public opinion show a relatively high level of public concern about the environment, examination of either the Hansards of the parliaments or the daily newspapers does not reflect that level of concern. Sport and the ‘economy’ attract far more coverage than environment. Is it too cynical to suggest that the complex of social, institutional and economic factors that have distilled certain people and groups to positions of power in politics or industry are being strongly defended and buttressed by those people and groups. It is well known that many leading industries, companies and wealthy individuals make very large donations to the two major political parties. The political parties themselves hold expensive functions such as breakfasts and dinners which only the very well off can afford to attend.
While political parties and pollies generally deny that this gains these individuals or organisations any influence it is certain that there is a general influence toward support for the status quo. Thus the existing centres of power in our society tend toward mutual reinforcement. Those in the environment movement who want to bring about a paradigm shift away from continuous economic and population growth and toward environmental sustainability are outside these centres of power and have a very difficult job. Small gains within the existing paradigm are possible but the large shifts, while absolutely necessary, will take enormous and sustained effort.
But remember - when the people lead the leaders will follow.
Having been around in the environment movement since the mid 50s it is useful to note that the pattern of interacting with pollies has changed over the years. There are lessons from these early years which may be appropriate to today.
There were no departments of environment in the 50s and 60s -- action on environmental issues was through the media and the creation of a tide of public opinion. Departments of Environment were created from the 70s onwards. The creation of these departments and the incorporation of the rhetoric of environmental concern into government speak has profoundly changed the relationship between environmentalists, governments and the media. With the creation of these departments together with the rising tide of economic rationalism governments have become very clever at subsuming the environment agenda into their rhetoric. Have you noticed how everything now has to be ‘sustainable’ and the ultimate oxymoron “sustainable economic growth"? One now has to be very careful not to be coopted into the process. Example: the ACF and the Environmental Sustainability Working groups through the 1980s. When this process was first proposed by the Hawke government I was an ACF Councillor and argued against cooperation with the government process on the grounds that it would take a number of the most competent workers in this area out of circulation for some considerable time and thus remove them from more direct action. In the event, ACF decided to participate and as the process progressed, and especially when the final reports were published, I formed the view that I had been wrong – the reports were and are very good. However, I have now reverted to my first opinion for these reports merely gather dust and have had no influence that I can discern on any subsequent government.
The major parties have their agendas which are based on economic rationalism. There is really little to choose between them and it is very hard to make a dint in this consuming pattern from outside -- or indeed from inside. And it is the major parties that make the major part of the political agenda both within the parliaments and outside in the media. Both are the recipients of extremely large donations from private industry that benefits from a continuation of the status quo. The government constructs about 95% of the agenda. Each sitting morning the whips from the political parties meet and the government whip outlines the program for the day. In sitting weeks two hours are set aside each Thursday afternoon for '‘private members business'’. This time must be shared between the Opposition, minor parties and independents and this is usually worked out in proportion to the number of representatives from each group. Thus when I was in the Senate the Democrats got one 2-hour session about once every five weeks for something they wanted debated and among the seven Senators there was often a lively contest for this time. If the matter was a private members bill, the government or the opposition would usually talk out the two hours when the debate would be adjourned never to come back into the parliament. Opposition or minor party MPs thus have very limited opportunity to make major speeches on subjects of their choosing. In the main they must use opportunities created within the government’s own agenda.
As well as private members bills the Thursday time can be used to debate motions of which notice can be given on any day. There are usually many notices of motion given each day and while this gets a matter mentioned very few of these motions are ever debated.
Each sitting day an hour is set aside for Questions without Notice and this is the part of the parliamentary day which is more often seen by the public – unfortunately. There is a limit set by the time and again this is divided up according to the relative strength of the parties. As you will all have observed government members usually ask Ministers Dorothy Dix, pre-arranged questions. Questions without notice must be brief. After the Minister has answered there is an opportunity for a supplementary question based on the Minister’s reply and the Minister’s response to this must also be brief.
Questions can also be asked on notice. These questions are written and may be quite long and detailed. They are sent to the appropriate Minister through the officers of the relevant chamber. In the Senate questions on notice have to be answered within a limited time and the answers are often incorporated into the Hansard without being read into the record. Thus they don't receive the publicity of questions without notice. But they appear in Hansard and can be used – see below on privilege.
Committee inquiries. Again the subjects are mainly the creation of the major parties and government may or may not take notice. In deciding whether to make a submission to a parliamentary inquiry consider the matter raised at the head of this paper - the issue of diverting effort away from the public arena and burying it in a report which merely gathers dust.
The subject matter of lobbying may be of broadly two kinds. Narrow or broad-based. The former seeks a very specific thing such as no logging in a particular forest coup. That may be successful if enough pressure can be brought to bear and the appearance to the pollie is that there is more to be gained in electoral support by adopting the suggested course than money lost from the company or companies involved. Broad-based is an attempt to change the paradigm within which the pollie works. As Ian Lowe pointed out yesterday: changing from one in which the environment is a subset of society which in turn is a subset of the economy to one in which the environment is the big picture with human society a subset of the environment and the economy but a subset of society. One is not ever going to bring that paradigm shift around through one effort of conversion no matter how well argued. However, it is my belief suggestions of this type should always be woven somewhere into a discussion for, like water dripping on a stone, it is through constant repetition that this change in thinking can be brought about.
Pollies, like everyone else are guided as much by subjective reality not by objective analysis. Creating the impression that there is a significant body of support for the matter of your lobbying is important. It is more effective to talk to a pollie as a member of an organisation than as an individual. If the AMA could be persuaded to take a position on any environmental issue and you can be appointed to speak to pollies on that issue your efforts will carry far more weight than if you say the same things as a private individual. If you can get letters and articles into the media or a television presentation shown just before you see a pollie that also helps. Pollies have good media monitoring services and are generally aware of recent media coverage of an issue. Have several people see the pollie at the same time. If you're not a member of an appropriate organisation create one and be the President or Secretary. This also helps when writing to papers - have a handle to your name - being a doctor or a professor helps.
Have very clearly in mind what it is you want to convince the pollie about. When writing or leaving something for a pollie to read keep it brief preferably one side of an A4, certainly never more than two unless you have been specifically asked to provide more material. Contrary to popular belief pollies are very busy and lengthy things tend to finish at the bottom of the heap which just goes on getting higher. If seeking an interview try to get at least 20 to 30 minutes, send something beforehand outlining what it is you wish to speak about and leave a prepared summary of your points when you leave. Make it is easy as possible for the pollie to pick up your idea.
This also applies to other items. If giving evidence to a Senate or house committee prepare a brief the punchy paper beforehand, keep much of the supporting detail to your spoken presentation and then leave a summary of this with the committee.
Adjournment speeches. Any pollie can make a speech to the Parliament at the evening adjournment and these can be on any topic. In the Senate these adjournment speeches are limited to 10 minutes. If the pollie is inclined to accept your representations then write such a speech for him or her and ask that it be presented as an adjournment speech. If they agree and follow through this will be in Hansard and can be used in future publicity on the issue. Similarly with questions on notice. Any pollie can ask any number of these. They are written and submitted to the relevant Minister. They can be quite a bit longer than questions without notice that are asked during question time in the Parliament. Write them out for the pollie so there is less work for him/her or the staff
Privilege. One important point about using the parliament in any of these ways is that what is said in the parliament attracts parliamentary privilege. This extends to things which are not actually spoken but are taken as read and incorporated into the Hansard – such as questions on notice. Privilege means that provided you report what appears in the Hansard accurately legal action, such as a case for defamation, cannot be successful against you. In general pollies will be careful in saying things about individuals in the parliament and the protection of privilege should always be exercised with care and the rights of individuals protected. However, if in the course of a speech a pollie says that the clearing of a particular forest coup will likely cause the extinction of a species of animal, that can be quoted without any fear that the person or company that is threatening the coup can successfully take a defamation action against you. This is one of the advantages of getting what you say spoken in the parliament. It gives the words an added authority but more importantly, it provides a measure of protection in this increasingly litigious age.
Seeking to change opinion in a major way (bring about the paradigm shift is far more difficult yet it is what is needed if we are to establish a sustainable future) is much more difficult because of the investment of the political parties in maintenance of the system that brought them to power. A much longer and closer relationship with a pollie, preferably one in a position of authority is necessary. My long-time friend, Milo Dunphy, was very successful with several New South Wales Labor premiers, taking them with him on long bushwalks or camping trips into areas that he sought to have protected. Building these closer ties which allow longer and more intimate interaction is more likely to change the pollie in more fundamental ways. Try to get to know your local member and one or two of your state senators or state upper house members on a more personal basis. This will also give you an insight into their fundamental psychological drivers and how best you might twist these to your advantage.
But to return to the beginning. Like an increasing number in the community I have become ever more disillusioned with the prospect of changing the present political milieu from within the party political process. I think we need to return to the methods of the 1960s with the use of the Internet and Email to spread the word. I was very impressed with efforts, very largely through these media which so far has defeated the Multilateral Agreement on Investment, the MAI. Provided sufficient of what passes between those on these networks who share a common vision, gets out to the wider community, these media have provided a very powerful and global instrument for catalysing change.