On advocacy

Publish date: 
13 Mar 2017
Alice Cannon

My entire professional career has existed within the era of the Commonwealth ‘efficiency dividends’, which were reported on in the last AICCM eNews.1 These are effectively an annual budget cut, and have been the state of play for Commonwealth agencies for nearly 30 years.2 My sense of conservation and the cultural sector more widely has always been one of contraction, erosion, and pressure.

Throughout 2016 there were regular news items about the service reductions and staff losses that have been the results of the latest ‘dividend’. As Daryl Karp, director of the Museum of Australian Democracy said in February of last year, ‘we've cut fat, we've cut muscle, now we've got to look at what we stop doing’.3 This, and other things (e.g. similar cuts undermining the work of the Australia Council and CSIRO) made me feel even more pessimistic about the future of arts and science and learning in Australia.4

So I started to wonder more about what I could do about it. I’ve never been a very active political person—and when I have acted, it hasn’t seemed like the protests, petitions, and the odd letter to my MP did any good. I’ve felt helpless, on this and so many other fronts.

But recently—and provoked very much by US politics—I’ve found a few things that have given me hope, and direction. Though it would be hypocritical of me to urge you all to activism, given my less-than-admirable efforts to date, I thought I’d share them in case you find them useful also.

Firstly: an analogy that activist and author Rebecca Solnit wrote about in one of her essays.5 In Hurricane Katrina, hundreds of boat-owners went out to rescue people stranded by the floods. She writes: ‘None of them said, I can’t rescue everyone, therefore it’s futile; therefore my efforts are flawed and worthless, though that’s often what people say about more abstract issues…’. In other words, none of us can possibly hope to single-handedly ‘fix’ anything—of course my single letter to an MP isn’t going to change anything on its own—but that shouldn’t stop us from trying to do what we can. As a friend and colleague once told me once, activism is a long game. Every letter and phone call adds to the tide.

Secondly: Indivisible, a guide written by former US congressional staffers, on how to best make Congress listen during the Trump administration.6 One of their main recommendations is to act locally—politicians pay more attention to the views of people who can vote for them. Sign up to your MP’s email newsletter, and write or call (especially call) them about any issue that is of concern to you. Is a bill up in parliament? Tell your MP how you hope they’ll vote. Even better, start a local group and ALL make sure you tell your MP how you hope they’ll vote. (This approach would apply to State and local governments as well). Indivisible is really interesting, very practical, and gives you something to do.

I’d already used Julian Burnside’s guide to writing to your MP on refugee issues (again, focussing your action within your own electorate) and I’m sure his approach can be used for others.7 Essentially he recommends asking your MP a question or two about what they think rather than telling them what you think (‘they are not listening’). Perhaps, in our case, this might be something along the lines of ‘do you believe the government has a responsibility to preserve our nation’s heritage? What is the risk to our heritage from the government’s continual funding cuts?’ though you can probably think of others. This keeps it short, and harder for them to disguise it when they don’t answer your question and just send you a form reply. If they don’t answer your question, write back and say ‘you still haven’t answered my question’ and ask it again.

A podcast I listened to earlier this year—You Are Not So Smart—featured some fascinating US research about the values held by progressives and conservatives.8 Progressives tend to value caring for people and things, protecting them from harm, and maintaining fairness and reciprocity. Conservatives value in-group loyalty, respect for authority and protection of ‘purity and sanctity’. We all instinctively frame our arguments according to our values, but the trouble is that neither side is inclined to be persuaded by the values of the other. So, if we’re trying to persuade someone, we could try framing our argument in a way that is more likely to mean something to them. (This may be difficult, because the argument you come up with mightn’t seem very persuasive to you). An example given in the podcast is that pollution was more likely to persuade conservatives to act on environmental issues, as it is essentially framing the problem around issues of ‘purity’.

Lastly, a wider awareness of arts (and science) funding in Australia is critical for us all, I think. The arts community was in an uproar last year when over $104 million was stripped from the Australia Council (the Government’s arts funding and advisory body) and redirected to the new Catalyst program. Catalyst funds are under direct ministerial control, rather than allocated through the independent and peer-reviewed system of the Australia Council. The move was heavily criticised in arts circles.9 I’m not proposing a boycott or anything—funding is too limited for that—but I feel it’s important that we try and keep in touch with and advocate for our wider networks. As we sit at the intersection of the arts and the sciences, this means we have a lot of friends to look out for.

It seems, paradoxically, that to feel more hopeful about the future is to lessen your expectations about what your personal activism can achieve—but, to also keep in mind the enormous changes that collective, sustained action has brought about. Rebecca Solnit writes of these, and describes them as issues ‘inexorably succumbing to a tidal wave of change’. I’m going to contact my MP about these ‘efficiency dividends’—who’s with me?

Note: public servants must always be careful to separate their personal politics from their workplace, but advocacy can even affect those working for universities and in private practice—witness the (temporary) suspension of Safe Schools founder Roz Ward in 2016 by La Trobe University, over comments she made about the Australian flag on her personal Facebook account. Social media has made the separation between professional and personal even muddier, but it seems advisable to try and keep them as separate as possible...so, needless to say, I’ll just note that the opinions expressed in this article are mine, not those of my employer.

  • 1. ‘Resourcing of our National Collecting Institutions’, AICCM eNews, December 2016. At https://aiccm.org.au/national-news/december-enews-editorial.
  • 2. The ‘efficiency dividends’ commenced in 1987, introduced by Prime Minister Hawke. There have been various reviews of the program over the years, including one by the Commonwealth itself in 2012. Many commentators note no clear connection between the cuts and any actual efficiency measures. See Horne, Nicholas, 2012, The Commonwealth efficiency dividend: an overview. Parliament of Australia, Political and Public Administration Section, 13 December 2012. At http://www.aph.gov.au/About_Parliament/Parliamentary_Departments/Parliam...
  • 3. Reinfrank, Alkira, 11 February 2016, ‘Senators urge Federal Government to reverse funding cuts to cultural institutions amid job loss fears’, ABC News. At http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-02-11/senators-urge-federal-government-t....
  • 4. Though it has also made me even more thankful for my colleagues and employers who’ve made all the business cases and budgets that have kept me employed for many years. They’ve argued to make conservation part of special projects funded by philanthropic groups, juggled bits of money from here and there, and kept track of when governments are receptive to bids for ‘ongoing status’. You are the best!
  • 5. Solnit, Rebecca. 2016. Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities [updated edition]. Haymarket Books. She also writes: ‘cause-and-effect assumes history marches forward, but history is not an army. It is a crab scuttling sideways, a drip of soft water wearing away stone, an earthquake breaking centuries of tension’. These sound like forces conservators know a lot about.
  • 6. Indivisible: A practical guide for resisting the Trump agenda. Available at https://www.indivisibleguide.com/web/. Also fascinating is that these are essentially the strategies of the Tea Party. I heard somewhere that Republican voters contact their representatives directly much more than Democrats, but now I can’t find the reference.
  • 7. Burnside, Julian, 27 July 2015, Write to Federal MPs about refugee policy. At http://www.julianburnside.com.au/write-to-federal-mps-about-refugee-policy/
  • 8. McRaney, David, 4 November 2016, ‘How to bridge the political divide with better moral arguments’, You Are Not So Smart, episode 88. At https://youarenotsosmart.com/2016/11/04/yanss-088-how-to-bridge-the-poli.... See also Feinberg, Matthew and Robb Willer, 2015. ‘From Gulf to Bridge: When do Moral Arguments Facilitate Political Influence?’ Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 2015. Pdf available at http://media.wix.com/ugd/2f07d4_546b1b3a850a4271a3b3d2283609e6d9.pdf
  • 9. See Dow, Steve, ‘Arts companies hit hard by Australia Council funding cuts’, The Saturday Paper, 9 February 2017. At https://www.thesaturdaypaper.com.au/news/politics/2016/05/21/arts-compan....