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There sure are a lot of ways to express your opinion to someone "in power", including postcards, letters, petitions, polls and referendums. Amnesty International has been very effective in using the first three techniques to help people in dire circumstances all over the world. Polls are used by governments every day to test opinions, policies and most of all, the sales pitch. Referendums have led governments to change direction.
The petition is probably the weakest of these techniques, particularly the email or Web variety that take only 10 seconds to "sign". Petitions need to be carefully crafted for the government/authority they address, if there is to be any hope of success. Usually, at best, the petition provides a government with a vague sense of how many people may care about a particular issue. If enough are received, maybe a poll will be conducted to see how broadly the issue is supported in the general public. The petition can be more effectively used by frequent presenting at the Legislature. So, send your petitions in every week to a friendly politician you know will use the opportunity to maximum its value in the government chambers and keep the issue visible before the policy makers week after week.
I once witnessed the delivery of 60 million signatures to the United Nations, from a world-wide petition drive to stop nuclear weapons. The massive mail drop probably got a few inches of newspaper and a few seconds of TV back in Japan, but could never pack enough punch to help the UN ban nuclear weapons! Why undertake a massive effort for a petition that has no hope of success? Choose your petition well, if at all. Ask the government it is for, what the petitions rules are - and follow them.
Postcards and letters are another form of petition that carry more weight. They come in the mail individually, and are therefore handled on a daily basis. (Except for email campaigns, which probably get filtered, counted, auto-responded and tossed.) A hand-written note carries more weight than dozens of cookie-cutter letters. An in-person meeting will underscore your seriousness even more. Remember that letters to MPs while the House of Commons is in session are postage-free. Write "OHMS" (On Her Majesty's Service) where the stamp would normally go, and use this address:
House of Commons
Ottawa, Ontario K1A 0A6
You want to contact other governments? For Victoria, BC and Canadian activists, you will find a useful list at www.SunshineCommunications.ca.
One of the most useful things gained from the well-organized opinion campaign, is an expanding contacts/prospects list useful to fish for new donors and volunteers. So if you are making petitions, postcards or letters, design your campaign so that your organization ends up with a list that can be phoned, emailed and posted.
Interestingly, polls carry more weight with government than personal letters. This underscores the importance in all of our campaigns to educate the public, and move them closer to our positions. So sensible policies win at the polls. Because all politicians follow the polls.
No two polls are alike, and the only ones that carry any weight, are the ones that follow the statistical rules for scientific reliability. Repeat after me the polling mantra: "reliable within six percent, 19 times out of 20". (But which one is the 20th unreliable poll?) Policy makers are not going to pay any more attention to a "poll" run for a day on the Web, then they are to thousands of signatures on a Canada-wide petition. That's because such polls respondents are not selected at random from the general population. It seems I get an email a day from somebody somewhere urging me to "add my voice" to yet another Web poll on some media Web site. These are closer to double-sided petitions, than statistical polls.
It can be quite helpful for the movement to commission its own polling. A poll managed by a reputable polling firm carries weight with the government, media and the public. It provides a good opportunity to remind the media of your story by reporting the results of the latest scientific poll. It is also strongly persuasive when bound into your written policy submission.
Professional polling is not cheap. Work with a large organization to find the necessary funding.
If you must do your own polling, do it for internal information purposes only. No "credible" member of the media will write a report that will take your poll seriously. Select people randomly for polling (for example, by choosing a particularly-placed name on every 10th page of the phone book), and call enough of them (100 per 100,000 people) to eliminate the chance factor. You can learn some interesting things this way. I remember how accurately an election campaign was called a few days prior to the vote, using this inexpensive technique and our bank of phone volunteers.
Referendums are hard to ignore. But in most Canadian jurisdictions, they are next to impossible to run. In British Columbia, there are laws on the books that ostensibly allow the people to recall the politicians they elected, or to put a proposition to the voting public. Unfortunately these laws have been designed by cynical politicians to fail. As of this writing (Spring 2002), no one has yet been able to launch a recall or referendum under the onerous rules.
Still, even the campaign to launch a referendum or recall can be a useful educational tool for the public, such as the proposed BC initiative for a referendum on proportional representation. The threat of a recall caused one dishonest and dishonoured BC Member of the Legislature to resign.
From time to time, referendums have been "privately" held alongside recognized elections, by placing balloting stations near government polling stations. Like amateur polling however, special lobby polls are not taken very seriously by those outside the process.
I encourage all activists to promote meaningful recall and referendum legislation in their various jurisdictions, from municipal government on up. Along with proportional representation, such tools could do much to encourage participatory democracy over the sham of our one vote every five years to choose the next cabinet cabal. And once we have the power, exercise it!
The Activist Tool Kit is a project inspired by YAEC:
Youth Action Effecting Change
PO Box 34097 Station D Vancouver BC V6J 4M1 CANADA
The Activist Tool Kit was written and built by Al Rycroft of SunshineCommunications.ca.
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