Strategy for campaigners

Presentation to Local Governemt Public Relations Conference, Picton 1997

I want to share with your some of the lessons I've learnt from being involved in two of Sydney's hardest fought and ultimately successful environment land-use battles.

First a quick background

In 1990 the State Government targeted Londonderry, 8km north of the rapidly growing City of Penrith, for a huge garbage dump. This dump, affectionately called a 'mega-tip' would have been the largest man-made object in Australia.

Brave groups of residents had been fighting it vigorously for many months. They'd done everything that could be asked of a residents group (list), but not dented the Government's resolve.

Finally Penrith City Council faced up to the likely impact of the tip, bit the bullet and got behind the residents, hired Social Change Media to develop a campaign.

Now we looked at the situation, a stubborn and determined minister, Tim Moore, with the full support of cabinet, a Government department, the Waste Management Authority, with this mega-tip the centre-piece of its metropolitan stratgey, ..can you win this? of course we said, and gulped...behind our confident exteriors the knowledge that we had never handled a campaign like this before.

Well, residents, Council (and us) working closely together, took ...months defeat the Government, with Tim Moore not only admitting defeat and promising to turn the affected bushland into a permanent nature reserve, but promising to create no new mega-tips.

But it was not to be, the Waste Management Authority lighted on the bright idea of expanding the Lucas Heights tip in Sutherland Shire to mega-tip status. In late 1991 Sutherland Shire Council approached us to help them pull another rabbit out a hat. The situation was remarkably similar...hard working residents groups, a 'campaiging'council, a rapidly growing residential region. But this time, the Waste Managment Authority had learnt a few lessons about public relationsand Tim Moore was likewise determined not to experience defeat again.

When it came, the defeat for the Government was not just about where to put a tip, it shattered the Government's will to make policy in this contentious area, and led to the current Green Paper process which may (or may not) lead to an entirely new and more radical waste regime for Sydney.

So what are the lessons?

1.Take the gloves off

Firstly it's important to get into the right frame of mind for campaigning. Public relations can often be a 'nice''s often about selling images, promoting positive schemes, getting the mayor into print as often as humanly possible...

But this kind of campaigning is different. It's about politics. And politics is not a nice game. When politicians and senior bureaucrats realise what you've got planned for them (and I'll come to that shortly), they'll fight tooth and nail to retain their power. They'll show no mercy. And you can't afford to show any either.

It is useful to think of the campaign as combat with a deadly, moving opponent. Military expressions such as 'taking the high ground', 'cutting off lines of retreat', 'ambushing', 'destroying morale', 'keeping up the pressure', 'troops', 'targets' and 'aliies' will prove very useful in gee-you into the right frame of mind.

2. Aim for power

The first and biggest rule is to think strategically.

You should know what your winning strategy is from the beginning of your campaign and work to it consistently.

So how do you formulate a winning strategy?

In this sort of campaign power is everything. They have the lawful power to force through their proposal if they really want. But we live in a democracy. There are kinds of power open to you to make the cost too great for them for them to proceed. So what is your power?

Well, it's not having truth or justice on your side. And it's not centimetres of newspaper columns or spots on the 7.30 report or sympathetic statements from the great and powerful (although all these things are useful).

Power is the ability to hurt your inconvenience them so seriously that it is in their interests not to proceed.In the case of politicians, it is being able to threaten their power.

Example: reading about the Kelly's Brush battle...the executives were having tea and cake with the residents, saying soothing things but making no real promises and walking away thinking they had them wound around their little fingers, while behind the scenes the residents had stitched up a deal with the Unions. Kellys Brush would be green banned. The residents had got power.

So, there are three kinds of power available in these classic land-use battles:

  • 1. Legal power
    Legal power often means an injunction in the Land and Environment Court followed by a full court case, or a commission of inquiry. Legal power is very expensive and often does not lead to permanent solutions. Often it results in quite short postponements (eg.Balmain).

  • 2. Political power
    This means demonstrating that you control the votes of a politically significant constituency. Marginal seats are great assests. Both the mega-tip campaigns were won by convincing the Government that it would lose marginal seats.

  • 3. Direct action
    The GreenBan is a very powerful and useful method of direct action and still occasionally used, although in a recession and with more and more non-union labour being used, it is harder to apply.
    Direct force is useful, but it can alientate your constituency. I would only recommend it when all else has failed, as a way of galvanising public opinion. eg. SE forests battle. both Penrith and Sutherland we were blessed with marginal Government seats. The strategy then, was top convince the majority of the electors in those seats that the issue went beyond politics...that it was about the future of their communities and lifestyles.

Recap: So, it's all about power. Politicians are the most sensitive creatures on earth to the state of their own power. Undermining the power by stealing their constituents is the surest way to take their minds off the importance or particular land-use proposals. In fact: it was quite funny how rapidly the local members recanted their firmly help pro-tip views.... Choose the highest vulnerable target Generally you're going to ask your constituency to carry out actions for you eg. writing a letter...but most people are only going to write one you need one clear target. This needs to be the most vulnerable person in the chain of power. In both mega-tip campaigns it was clearly the Premier. A simple power diagram can help make clear who you should target. Include everyone who has power over the project.

3. Take the intellectual high ground

Now, having truth and justice on your side may not be power, but it is absolutely essential to give your case credibility.. Having credible arguments means you can attract supporters, convince people you can win, and get the media on side.

Your arguments must include:

  • 1. a credible description of the likely impacts (outrage generation) to focus people's attention on the changes in their own lives.
  • 2. a credible alternative. This is crucial. The general public are practical people. No matter how shattering the impact on their lives, they will not take you seriously unless you can demonstrate a genuine, feasible alternative.
In both these campaigns we saw it as essential to start with clear idea of what alternatives we were offering in place of mega-tips.

We carried out a lot of research (eg. Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, international waste journals...) until we were waste management experts ourselves. We discovered that there were plenty of overseas examples of alternative waste management practices which could form a realistic alternative to the mega-tip idea. All our literature emphasised the existence of a practical alternative. So...recap: take the intellectual high ground..and keep it... be more credible than your opponent...and above all have a clear alternative...your supporters and the media just won't take you seriously without one.

4. Get the whole community behind you

Don't let the battle be seen as a sectional one. Don't give your enemy the chance to use the NIMBY argument ('Oh, it's just a bunch of greenies').

Demonstrate the community's support

Create clear demonstrations of support from the broadest cross-section of your community: churches, schools, sports clubs, local TV personalities, chambers of commerce, Aboriginal groups.... How we used the launches..and what the minister said (desperate times require desperate measures).

Involve the community

Create opportunities for public action eg: petitions, mass meetings, information nights, slide nights, demonstrations.

Empower the community Invite community representatives to be involved directly in campaign decision-making; especially reps from the activist groups they are the most important members of the campaign (eg. include them in the working party or steering commity which runs the campaign).

Stay in regular contact

Keep the lines open. Report back regularly to community leaders, and provide regular information updates to the public eg. newsletters and flyers.

Oh yes...Be humble

If people think the Council has taken over the case they will probably just let you get on with it. But if you want to motivate them to act you'll need to be honest about your weakness and ask them for help. eg. "We can't win this without your help". Recap: This is an important tactical point: your constituency are your best supporters you are nothing without them: always be enlarging your constituency and never give your opponent a chance to divide it.

5. Seven rules for good communication

WHAT to communicate
1. Communicate a clear theme and message. (slogans)

2. Bring the impacts and benefits home (one vehicle every 15 seconds....your lifestyle under threat....)

3. Communicate credible alternatives

4. Communicate actions (eg. problem - solution - your role)

HOW to communicate
5. Communicate in three directions (to decision-makers, allies, and supporters)

6. Communicate in depth (use a combination of face-to-face opportunities, tools and media)

7. Communicate regularly eg.meetings, newsletters, stalls (and have a presence)

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