What do you think exerts most influence on the major parties’ politicians? Scientific information? Being shown a problem first hand? Writing letters to them? Convincing them of the rights and wrongs, morality or immorality of an action? These are minor influences. Political donations and votes are their key persuaders. They don’t give a rat’s posterior about ethical decisions or what’s best for the greatest number – long or short term. They are dictated to by their party and the sad reality is that governments and parties are dictated to by large corporate interests and developers first and voters second.
The public opinion barometer is made up of many things but two main ones are talk back radio and letters to local papers. Their barometer of public opinion is constantly being tapped and checked. Their spin doctors are often called in if things seem to be going in a direction that doesn’t suit their agenda. Often public opinion and the government’s opinion don’t mesh. They need to keep their corporate bedfellows and donors happy while playing the public and manipulating facts for popularity points. Often the public’s wants and corporate wants conflict and their spin-doctors just can’t convince the public to give over. This is when they might consider making some decisions that will win votes rather than political donations. What good are donations if the messages they sell to the public aren’t being swallowed? This is where you, the public, come in.
Governments reckon letters in local papers better reflect wide public opinion rather than those few who get letters into the main papers. If you do write to a state paper, try the Herald Sun instead of the Age. It’s the Herald readers who pollies take more notice of (sad but true).
Talk back barometer
Talk back radio can be a bit intimidating for the uninitiated. You don’t need to have all the facts and figures ready to regurgitate. You don’t need any. All you need is to be able to express your emotions or thoughts in a reasonable way. You’re just the average person who feels strongly about something. If you have a personal story to recall, it’s even better to paint a word picture of how you’ve experienced something, what you’ve seen, felt and so on.
Local papers barometer
Local papers will print almost anything – if you hadn’t noticed. Here are a few pointers on writing a letter.
Stick to one or two simple points only. It’s tempting to spew it all out at once but short letters with a single, simple message have more impact.
Keep it very simple and clear. Write as if your audience is a class of 10 year olds. Letters are often skimmed quickly and anything with too many fancy words, sentences or concepts won’t be digested as well. You’ll lose over half the readers.
Keep it short. If you can say something in 50 words rather than 200, do it. It’s a good exercise to go over a letter a few times to cut out superfluous sentences or words. It’s easier for people to remember a short smart comment than a long rambling letter.
Use analogies. If you can’t quite say what you want, liken it to another situation. ‘Logging old growth is like harpooning the last of the blue whales’ or ‘calling Labor green is like calling George Bush a pacifist’.
Don’t get angry or use exclamation marks.
Try not to get personal. The editor won’t want a libellous letter. Attack the issue not the person. You can attack the decision of a person but don’t go calling anyone an idiot or a liar even if they are.
Send your letter in the body of an email rather than as a file. Always provide your name, address and phone number so the editor can make sure you are real and call if there are any queries.
Some papers allow letters to be published as ‘name and address supplied’ or under a pen name like ‘father of six’ but this is often criticised by the antagonists as being gutless.
Try to get your letter off early in the day and before the deadline. Weekly or bi weekly papers often have about one and half days between accepting letters and when the paper hits the streets.
Make sure the letter is well written – i.e. no spelling errors or grammatical boo-boos.
Introduce the letter with the most powerful or attention-grabbing paragraph first. “Dear Editor, I wish to comment on an opinion by a former correspondent who incorrectly assumed .” doesn’t hold people’s attention. Make it more like “Dear Editor, If we all put jobs before justice, we’d still have a slave trade and seal hunts”, and go on from there.
Humour or colourful language also helps grab people’s attention. People like witty comments and a bit of spice to a sentence. Colloquialisms lighten a letter, such as – stonkered, fisty-cuffs, more front than Myers, etc. However there may be times when casual language isn’t appropriate.
If an issue does generate a bit of discussion, try to keep it going so it snowballs. See if others are willing to wade in and send a letter the next week. Give them some ideas, help and encouragement if they aren’t sure. The more an issue stays in the paper the more politicians will consider it important.
Go forth and speak up!