Every citizen has the right and opportunity to play an active part in the decision-making processes of government and the Parliament. Most of the suggestions that follow have been referred to in previous chapters, but this summarises some of the forms of access to government and the Parliament that are available to citizens. To be effective in achieving your goal, develop an action plan and act within the law. Some of the methods below will be more effective than others on particular issues. Don’t waste energy - clarify the desired issues and the outcomes; select the strategies and time frames which seem most effective for the particular purpose. Try to keep the message simple, at least initially.
Voting, in state, federal and local elections and in referendums, is an important method of expressing one’s view in a democratic system. In Australia voting, using the secret ballot, is compulsory for citizens 18 years and above. Through this process, citizens freely exercise their choice and give the authority to their elected members to represent them in Parliament and to form governments based on the majority decision of the people. Voting for Parliament keeps the people at the centre of the democratic system.
Parliamentary committees are formed to investigate complex issues in society and their reports influence government and parliament decisions. Most committees undertake public inquiries and invite community submissions. Expressing views to a committee, either in writing or in person, is a direct way of having a case taken into account as new legislation, policies or decisions are being developed.
A traditional way of bringing an issue to the attention of parliament, and mobilising some public opinion in the process, is to present a petition to parliament through a member. Petitions have a set format which should be followed.
Any attempt by individuals, groups or organisations to make their views known to politicians in the hope of influencing political decisions can be called “lobbying”. It is a legal and accepted practice within a democratic system. Effective lobbying involves a clear understanding of the issues, awareness of the particular members’ politics and interests, understanding of government and parliamentary processes, understanding of how the issue could be resolved by parliament, and effective communication skills. Many worker, employer and particular interest organisations exist mainly to represent their interests to government and the media. Some individuals or firms operate as professional lobbyists, offering their skills and knowledge to organisations which want their case put effectively.
Contacting Members of Parliament
Phone, write, fax, email or visit a member of either house of parliament, especially local members, to express views, concerns and proposals. In many cases members can assist with problems, take action on behalf, or represent people or refer them to someone who can assist. Hearing from constituents helps them understand community feelings about issues and to make up their own minds. They will often pass the concern on to an appropriate minister or officer. In some cases, they will raise these concerns in the parliament. All parliaments have websites with full contact information for Ministers and Members.
On some issues people may wish to phone, write, fax, email or seek to visit the Premier or an appropriate Cabinet Minister. Written contacts are usually most effective, initially, as actually getting appointments to visit may be difficult.
Working through political parties
Political parties generally develop policies through formal and informal consultative processes at local, branch and state or local levels. These are often formalised at party conferences. Development of policies and issues can be promoted or influenced from both within (by party members) and from outside, by contact with members and officers of the party. This may involve supporting particular candidates who would promote the issue. Most political parties have websites with full contact information.
Working with independents and minor parties
Much the same applies as with other members or parties. However, while independents and minor parties may not be as well resourced or part of government, they are sometimes in a better position than major parties to promote particular issues. In particular, the proportional electoral system through which the Legislative Council (the Upper House of the New South Wales Parliament) is elected means that minor parties are more likely to be represented in that House.
Standing for Parliament
An option open to all citizens is to stand for parliament - either as an independent or as a party candidate. The New South Wales Electoral Office will provide advice on the process of registration and standing.
Freedom of information
New South Wales, like most Australian Governments, has legislation to make government more open. Information is the key to an effort to make a change or to take effective action. Many government decisions are made in secret, and certain documents (such as Cabinet papers) are exempted from release, but it is possible to access much information, particularly in relation to records held about you. Most government agencies have a Freedom of Information (FOI) officer to whom applications are made. Forms and fees are required.
Taking action through government departments
In many cases, the most appropriate way of resolving an issue is to directly contact the government department or agency involved (or the minister responsible for it) by mail, phone or personal visit. All agencies have personnel and procedures to assist or deal with issues, and all agencies have websites with contact information. The Internet and telephone book are helpful in locating appropriate departments.
Using administrative courts and tribunals
A variety of courts and tribunals exist which are accessible to the public and can deal with specific disputes with public bodies and agencies. The Equal Opportunities Tribunal, the Anti-Discrimination Board, the Administrative Appeals Tribunal and specialist compensation boards make determinations in the same way as courts after hearing disputes specific to their areas of concern. The Office of the Ombudsman, the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) and the Police Integrity Commission can be accessed by members of the public concerned that issues of injustice or corruption have arisen. The Land and Environment Court hears disputes in relation to planning, development, heritage and environmental concerns.
Taking other legal action
The legal system, particularly the Supreme and High Courts, can be used to challenge the actions of government. Courts decide whether the laws passed by parliament are valid, and interpret what these laws mean in practice. Whilst legal action can be very effective, it can be expensive and is usually a last resort when other approaches have failed. Under some circumstances, legal aid may be available.
Using the media
Newspapers, radio and television cover parliamentary and government affairs closely, and play a significant role in publicising issues or exposing problems. The media can influence government by reflecting or promoting public opinion. Taking issues to the media can provide effective publicity for an issue although it can also be frustrating or have unexpected results. Media consultants and advisers may be able to support effective publicity campaigns. The internet offers an important alternative which is open to most people and can be used to provide information and influence people, generate support and action on issues.
Reasonable freedom of speech and action within the law are an important and colourful aspect of traditional Australian democracy. Demonstrations, public speechmaking, pickets, street marches, public meetings, use of signs and banners, handing out pamphlets to the public, and so forth, are legal ways of attempting to generate and demonstrate public support for an issue and influence decision-makers. The action should stay within the law, respecting the usual rights of individuals and protection of private and public property. Such actions may gain media coverage (though not necessarily the kind of coverage hoped for) but rarely have much immediate direct impact on parliament or government. They will be most effective when part of a larger strategy.
Taking action on a larger scale requires building support through networking - to let others know what is happening, or to locate others likely to be concerned about the issue, in order to build support. Apart from all the other methods referred to so far, internet-based social networking is a powerful tool which is beginning to have a huge impact on public action. For instance, the role of social networking tools such as mobile telephones, blogs, Facebook, Twitter, etc, in maintaining communication and galvanising public opinion and action was graphically illustrated in Egypt in February 2011.
Other sources of advice
Most of the agencies mentioned in this material will provide advice on action that can be taken. However, many additional sources of advice are available, often free. These include the Legal Aid Commission, Community Legal Centres, trade unions and employer organisations, the Law Society and, of course, private solicitors and legal practitioners.