Seven Things We Learned from Speaking Truth to Power

Seven Things We Learned from Speaking Truth to Power

Written by Cameron Price, chapter leader of the Victoria University of Wellington SSDP chapter in New Zealand. New Zealand is a nation of just four and a half million people and 121 members of parliament (MPs). As a result of our small size and relatively high number of politicians, access to decision-makers is better than usual.
Cam and Peter Dunne

Victoria University of Wellington SSDP chapter leader Cameron Price (far left) with minister for drug strategies Peter Dunne

This is particularly true for the Victoria University of Wellington chapter of SSDP, which is situated in the capital. So far we have met with the Minister responsible for the drugs portfolio, Peter Dunne, opposition spokesperson for drug policy, David Clarke, and 3 other MPs. Our plan is to meet with the health spokesperson from each of the 7 different political parties in parliament. Here is what we’ve learnt from our meetings so far:
  1. Don’t underestimate the power of the simple introduction
Our first goal in every meeting is simple: introduce ourselves and the organisation. Establishing a positive first impression is half the battle. Politicians are busy people who see heaps of groups about heaps of stuff and aren’t likely to remember every detail of what you spoke about. But they will remember their general feeling about you: was it positive or negative? That will determine whether they will work with you in future.
  1. BUT, don’t overestimate it either
It’s nice to schmooze with politicians, but there’s a temptation to to view the meeting as an achievement in itself. Without actions and outcomes, the discussion means nothing. The second goal of any meeting is to get the politicians to do something: change their mind about an issue, propose a new policy with their caucus, come to a speaking event you’re hosting, offer to help with a petition. Meetings are a means to an end.
  1. Know what you’re talking about
It’s vital to sketch out a general plan before the meeting, listing and prioritising the topics you want to cover. Having some prepared talking points will help structure the meeting and make sure you get to talk about everything you intended to. It will also add to the impression: we found that politicians are generally suspicious of groups with ‘drug’ in their title, but as soon as they saw that we were mature well-educated students concerned about drug policy, they were willing to engage.
Spend more time listening than talking – at least at the first meeting. It’s important to get inside the head of the lawmaker and find out where they stand. Once you have a sense of where each politician is coming from, you can start to tailor your messages to each MP. Also, we’ve found that politicians love the chance to talk at length about their opinions.
  1. Ask for help

Labour Party MP David Clark speaks to student at Victoria University of Wellington during an SSDP event on campus.

Politicians have generally been in the game for a long time, so they’ve seen how the system works. As students who are generally political novices, it’s important to get their advice on the best way to get results. They love giving advice – when we met with the opposition spokesperson he told us about a way that we can get a petition to force a select committee hearing on decriminalisation, and his office is helping us draft the wording. Another MP gave us some advice on how to approach campaigning. And the Drugs Minister put us in touch with the Ministry of Health, who gave us advice on a drug survey we are working on. Lawmakers are public servants there to serve the public, and should be used as resources. Also, offer to help them – they almost never take you up on the offer but it’s a nice gesture.
  1. Invite them to events
We were surprised by how willing politicians were to speak at our events. It’s been said that some politicians would attend the opening of an envelope – they enjoy the exposure to potential new voters. We managed to get the opposition spokesperson to speak at our launch, and we got the Drug Minister to speak at a question and answer forum, where students were able to get answers to their questions from the man in charge of drug policy. It’s a valuable thing to have lawmakers speaking directly to an audience of university students. It helps students formulate opinions and gives them a chance to question authority.
  1. Accept that there’s only so much you can get a politician to do
If there is one thing this exercise has taught us, it’s the uncomfortable reality that just being on the right side of the argument isn’t enough to win it. Democracies aren’t just about what’s right, they’re also about what’s popular. You can convince an MP of the merits of decriminalisation, say, but they’ll never vote for it if they think it will hurt their popularity. In order to win, then, we have to get better at selling the argument to lawmakers. This involves convincing them that reform is a popular option, not a radical one.