Communicating with your current MP will help you achieve the best representation possible at this point, and will also help you to learn more about them, so you can help voters to be better informed about the candidates when voting at the next election. And after the election one of the other candidates may be your MP, so you’ll be better off if you have already talked with them about your group and its aims.
This section first addresses how to communicate with your current MP and then looks at communication with other candidates.
Initial communication with your MP
We suggest that, as a newly forming electorate action group you make initial brief contact with your MP to introduce yourselves. This may consist of an email or letter to the MP, and you may also seek a brief meeting. Some things you might cover in this communication are:
- your broad aims
- that you want to work with the MP
- that you recognise that representing such a large and diverse population is complex and difficult, and you aim to assist in this regard by bringing individual and collective views and needs of constituents to the MP’s attention
- your immediate plans to arrange kitchen table conversations and then produce a report on what participants say in these
- that you will get in touch again to provide the MP with a copy of this report, to seek their response, and to have further communications from then on.
If the MP at that point wants to know what particular issues are concerning you, we suggest you say that your group (and other groups) are being formed out of a general concern that Australians are losing faith in politics and politicians. Many voters don’t like how politics is being conducted, and they don’t feel that MPs, parties and governments are responding sufficiently to their needs and views. You might add that you believe that citizens in each electorate can work with elected representative to address these issues. It’s best at this point to avoid discussing specific policy areas because you haven’t yet arranged kitchen table conversations to hear what constituents have to say.
You may dislike your MP and think they are doing a terrible job. But we strongly suggest that, whatever you think of them, you act civilly and be open to the possibility that they care about serving constituents. Acknowledge good things they (or their party) have done if you can truthfully do this. If you are openly hostile they will probably just refuse to meet with you from that point.
It’s also important to convey that your group is something more than a sectional interest. Rather, your goal is to strengthen democracy and to increase voter participation in the political life of the electorate, and you intend to be around for some time. But don’t overclaim your reach or influence based on what you would like it to be, as the group may not be taken seriously if you don’t live up to this.
Do your homework before each meeting or communication with your MP. What do you need to know about the MP for that specific occasion in order to make it successful? For example, you may need to research their publicly stated views and voting record on a particular issue to be discussed. This section can help you do this.
Protocol for communicating with MPs, and what you can request of them
There are accepted protocols and procedures for communicating with MPs. These are well described in this online guide produced by Oxfam Australia, so we strongly recommend you read this before making contact with your MP. It also tells you what you can ask of your MP. For example, you can ask them to raise an issue on your behalf with the relevant minister or shadow minister, or to raise it in a party meeting. Here is some other useful information about contacting MPs from the Australian Parliament website.
However, it should be added – so that you don’t have unduly high expectations of such meetings – that party MPs are very unlikely to do anything that openly challenges their party’s policies and procedures, even if they disagree with them. But change is very possible in two ways. First, party MPs can speak up for or vote for change within their parliamentary party meetings, and if this occurs then all the party’s MP will vote for it in parliament. And second, in a longer time frame, electorate groups (individually and collectively) can campaign for parties to adopt broader changes, such as systematically consulting voters when formulating policies and preselecting candidates, and generally behaving more civilly and respectfully. We may face strong resistance to such changes along the way, but if our movement is big enough and coherent enough we will have a good chance of succeeding in the end.
In the shorter term, though, there are things you can expect your MP to do. Whatever their attitude may be to issues you raise, it is their job to represent you. Thus, you can request that they ask specific questions of a minister or shadow minister on your behalf, or raise specific issues in their party room, guided in your choice of issues by constituents’ priority issues expressed in the kitchen table conversations.
Communicating with other candidates
One of the other candidates may become your MP after the next election. They can also help to decide who wins through the way they distribute their preferences. Your group needs to inform voters about other candidates: the policies they support, their work and life experience, their knowledge and skills, and what sort of people they are, so that voters can then make a more informed choice at the ballot box. And by being in communication with them you may also influence how they see and do politics.
Many candidates don’t declare their candidacy until a short time before the election, so the time within which you can work with them may be limited. Also, it’s reasonable to give more attention to those candidates who have more chance of winning, or whose preferences may be more crucial.