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Bringing people together to make a difference

John Warhurst  |  22 August 2018

over the rooftops - pic Maggie PowerCatholic Social Services Australia has shown how the Church can make a difference by drawing on the experience and passion of dedicated individuals at all levels of society.

What’s the best way to think about the lobbying and advocacy role of Catholic Social Services Australia and its predecessors? There are various useful images of the relationship between advisors and peak bodies in their dealings with government. I can think of four.

The main one that comes to mind is the well-known image of ‘Speaking Truth to Power’ which originated with the Quakers in the 1950s as a description of having the courage of your convictions when speaking to those in a superior position. Some also consider relations with government to be like an ‘Arm Wrestle’ between two equally powerful individuals, a test of strength. Whereas in the church-state relations field some critics would see churches as a superior sort of ‘Clerical Sledge-Hammer’ battering the secular state into submission.

Each of these three images has some resonance with CSSA history. First, the church can be a source of truth and insights into society which governments don’t want to hear when representing the voice of the voiceless. Second, it is undoubtedly politically powerful in Australia given the general perception that there is a Catholic vote which can be marshalled to be influential in politics. Third, it should always take a moral and ethical position when dealing with those in official positions.

But my dominant image, drawn from my recent historical research, is ‘Matching Wits’, where the senior figures match their brains with those ministers and bureaucrats in high government office. This means being creative, intelligent and engaged in the game of suggesting and finding solutions to policy-making dilemmas. They match wits with government on behalf of the vulnerable in society who are in no position to speak for themselves.

I’ve been teaching and writing about professional lobbying for more than 30 years. In that time I’ve come to the conclusion that such wit is the most underestimated ingredient in successful lobbying. Ultimately, it matters more than truth, muscle or moral superiority.

Advocacy and lobbying

‘Wit’ in advocacy and lobbying means bringing together many different ingredients in creative ways. It includes injecting new principles and new frameworks into public deliberations, researching and building a case, drawing on the practical experience of those at the coal-face, establishing the necessary relationships of trust with those in government, standing up to government when it appears to be heading in the wrong direction and suggesting win-win solutions that appeal to government. CSSA does all these.

Matching wits has meant different things for Catholic Social Services Australia. Sometimes it was an attempt to frame the debate in a new way, which could be derived from traditional church thinking or from Catholic social justice teaching. Sometimes it meant introducing new statistics into the debate, drawn from the experience of member agencies, or new ways of thinking about a problem as in the Dropping Off the Edge research.

Dropping Off the Edge

The death in 2017 of Professor Tony Vinson reminded all of us of the contribution of this great social reformer. Newspaper reports highlighted his report ‘Dropping off the Edge’, which was jointly sponsored by CSSA and Jesuit Social Services. CSSA pitted its wits against government in this partnership not just by commissioning the research but by selling it to Commonwealth and state MPs and to a wider public. This involved not just the most senior executive members but skilled media relations staff.

I attended the launch in Parliament House in Canberra in February 2007. The strategy was to put both an idea and a constituency on the political agenda in a way that government had no choice but to notice. It involved conducting quality research, selling the idea of concentrating on those postcodes with multiple disadvantages to all governments and promoting the general message through the media to the wider public.

Prof Vinson, Fr Peter Norden SJ, Policy Director of Jesuit Social Services, and Frank Quinlan, CEO, and Fr Joe Caddy, Board Chair, from CSSA did the face-to-face selling to policy makers. CSSA’s two professional public affairs and media directors identified and briefed key journalists, and messaged local media with stories about their postcode areas. They also mollified those MPs who objected to their own electorate’s troubled postcodes being publicly identified.

CSSA engaged church agencies across the country to lobby MPs in their electorate. Weeks later CSSA raised the same proposals at the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) meeting. The campaign was successful. Incoming Deputy Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, drew on the ideas for her new Australian Social Inclusion Board with the chair of Jesuit Social Services Patricia Faulkner as chair; Mons Cappo, a former CEO of CSSA, as vice-chair; and Prof Vinson as a member.

Those who want to match wits with government must be constantly striving. CSSA has done just that admirably but not faultlessly in various ways over 60 years. The thing about the game of matching wits is that it is a competition in which those representing government – that is big government and big bureaucracy – are often striving to outwit us too. We don’t have an equivalent-sized army to fight these battles. This really is a David and Goliath story. Like David we always must be cleverer and use our wits better.

This article is adapted from the 2017 McCosker Oration.

Image: Maggie Power


Topic tags: socialjustice-australia, healthycommunitylife

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