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Vincent Lingiari's advocacy for the Gurindji people led to a turning point in the Aboriginal land rights movement. Picture: Mervyn Bishop /© Commonwealth of Australia (reproduced with permission)

Explainer: How to change a law in Australia

by Chris Borthwick, thinker-in-residence

You've got, you think, an unanswerable case. You can demonstrate to a high level of probability that the government's position on a significant issue is inefficient, ineffective, or even self-defeating. You drop your evidence in the mail to the minister. All you have to do then is sit back and wait a month for the parliamentary draftspeople to put it all into proper legal form, then a few weeks more to have it pass both houses unopposed, and it's fixed.

Well, none of us believes that for a moment, but it's worth analysing the mechanics of our instinctive cynicism to see why.

The starting point for any discussion of the difficulties of bringing about change is Newton's First Law of Motion. An object at rest will remain at rest until operated on by a force, and an object in motion will continue in the direction it's currently going unless operated on by a force.

In politics, inertia accounts for almost everything. To get things moving, you have to push.

If there is to be change, the people in charge of the status quo are going to have to do some extra work to adapt their old habits to the new situation. Those other people have long lists of urgent priorities on which you don't feature. In addition, they might be lazy and uninterested, if they're not ignorant, bigoted or misguided.

And that's the easiest possible scenario. Most actual political exchanges concern the more complicated case where the object at rest - the status quo - isn't just sitting there humming quietly to itself. Generally things are where they are because they're being pushed and pulled hard from all sides, and this here is where those countervailing forces balance out.

The basic problems, then, are:

  • People in power don't really want to do anything they don't have to
  • Specifically, they don't want to do what you want done - if they did, they would have done it already; and
  • Various other people are pressing them not to do it.

To get around these problems, you'll need:

  • a good argument, and we'll assume you have one
  • resources - at the very least, time taken away from whatever else it is you do - and we'll assume you have those.

From there, you'll have to achieve:

  • Pressure. As it stands, you're one voice in 23 million. The question, then, is "You and whose army?" It helps if you can demonstrate that a lot of other people care; for example, if you have lots of members who joined up because they care and are willing to make sacrifices for the cause. Failing that, you can fall back on figures about the proportion of people who are harmed, or affected, or indirectly affected, every year, or over a lifetime.

    If lots of people will sign your online petition, that increases your clout slightly. If they'll write to the minister, that's better. If they'll write to their local member saying they're switching their vote based on this issue, even better. But be warned: motivating people to this extent is hard, which is why politicians care about it.

  • Salience. Salience is the degree to which your cause stands out in the blooming, buzzing confusion of modern Australian media. You have to stand out. You have to have a story, and a poster child, and a slogan, and a short clear heartfelt explanation, and a Youtube presence, and a cry of pain.

    Not only must your cause be important, but for a few moments it must be the most important thing, the thing that demands to be done now. What matters here is your relationship with the media - both the old media of newspapers and TV and the new smartphone-based horizons. This you can affect. Get better at it.

  • Alliances and oppositions. Whose clout can you borrow? What groups can you recruit in your support - either because of shared values, or in expectation of future reciprocity? Can you spare time to go to the source, joining up with one or another of the major parties and doing the hack work to get on to their policy committees?

    Who's against you? Can you conceivably dissuade them? If not, how can you counter their influence? Will they come out in the open to debate with you? Who dislikes them enough to join up with you just to spite them?

Governments tend not to be in favour of changes, or at least of changes that aren't on their own agenda, and so tend to look sulkily on advocacy for change. The present government loathes advocacy with a vengeance, but luckily the High Court and the numbers in the Senate combine to allow you to do quite a lot of it without risking your tax status. Still, advocacy will always be a high-stakes game. The larger the change, the smaller your chance of success - in the short run. If you're entering the political arena, you're taking on hardened gladiators with a lifetime's experience in changing the subject, passing the buck, losing the file, and delaying the inevitable. Getting past their guard is not easy.

Above all, the indispensible feature in not-for-profit advocacy is patience. As Max Weber said, "Politics is a slow boring of hard boards." You must expect delays, and setbacks, and occasional defeats. A good advocate combines strategic optimism with tactical pessimism. Be ready for everything that can go wrong to go wrong, without ever letting go of your belief in ultimate victory.

If enough people bang their head against a brick wall, the wall will fall down.

MORE: The Community Leadership & Advocacy Centre helps community leaders, and potential community leaders to develop the skills they need to provide true community leadership and influence change in society. Find the helpsheets here.

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