Outside of writing and blogging, I work for a charity here in Sydney, the Prostate Cancer Foundation of Australia. One of the perks of the job, if you’re a political nerd such as I am, is that we occasionally work with politicians for lobbying and awareness work, and host a yearly event at Parliament House in Canberra. (Canberra is Australia’s capital, with Parliament House being the center of national government, a la the US Capitol Hill).
Our event is generally well-attended by MPs (Members of Parliament, or elected representatives) Senators, and legislative staff, as well as the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition. It’s also one of my favorite days of the year, from a work perspective. It’s a great opportunity to reach such an influential audience on a health issue that’s of importance to all Australians.
(For a quick rundown on how the Australian Parliamentary system works, check this out.)
If you’re ever in a position to attend an event at Parliament House with the Prime Minister, your local representative or Senator, it’s an awesome moment to have your voice heard. Here’s a few tips on what it’s like, and to know what to expect. All opinions are based solely on my own personal experience.
Politicians are people too
To me, Australia seems to have less ‘career politicians’ than America. Many elected officials run for office without having a government background. This, combined with Australia’s tall poppy syndrome, tends to make politicians more down to earth and perhaps less elitist, compared to the American system.
Not naming names, but I recall sitting down at the airport once, and doing a double (probably triple) take, when I realised a former Australian Prime Minister was sitting at the table next to me, relaxing alone, waiting for a flight. In the US, where even former presidents, and their families, receive Secret Service coverage for life, it was slightly refreshing to see a former world leader suffering the pains of flying economy, just like everyone else.
You’ll see the wave of media before you see the Prime Minister
A literal wave of media, cameramen, and journalists follow the Prime Minister (and often the Leader of the Opposition) as they go about their day. You’ll see a throng of cameramen, walking backwards to film, as politicians make their way to an event. So, if everyone at the event stops to look at the approaching media, it probably means it’s because someone important is entering the room.
Be respectful of the office, even if you disagree with the individual’s politics
I am a firm believer in that, whether you are Liberal, Labor, Green, etc., it’s of paramount importance to be polite, respectful, and considerate of the person you are meeting, even if you secretly think your labrador would do a better job in elected office. This is especially true if you are representing your business or organisation, rather than just yourself.
Time is of the essence
Everyone in Canberra has to be somewhere 10 minutes ago-politicians have insanely busy schedules. Outside of Parliamentary sitting times, they are constantly being shuffled by their aides from one function to another. Stay cool if your appointment gets rescheduled, and be direct and to the point when you do meet.
Everyone likes free food (Refer to point one.)
What’s the biggest draw card for our event? A free lunch. Would people come without this? Probably, but the smell of barbecue wafting through the courtyards of Parliament House definitely doesn’t hurt.
How to address the Prime Minister
A full guide to addressing elected officials in Australia, including the Prime Minister, can be found here.
Personally, I think it’s a massive honor to meet the leader of just about any country, and must admit I was slightly nervous. But hey, it’s not every day a random girl from small-town Maryland finds herself meeting a Prime Minister, albeit extremely briefly, so I considered myself lucky. It’s funny the places we end up in life.
Differences in security
Again, in America, everywhere the President goes becomes a media circus, complete with Secret Service, armored cars, and media. US politicians are insanely protected (for good reason). However, the Australian approach is less intense, which I think speaks to the safety of Australia generally. Elected officials are not trailed by security detail, and this seems to work well here. It also makes the whole political system feel more accessible, coming from an American perspective.
Media coverage is key
Media are everywhere in Parliament House, and politicians know this. There is often an effort by politicians to get noticed by the media, in the hopes of making it onto the evening news. This is especially true if they are not front benchers or well-known nationally.
So, if someone stuffs up, says something ridiculous, or you find yourself in a position where you have to stand behind the Prime Minister while he’s giving a speech, holding for dear life onto a pole, so the massive winds don’t blow a banner over on top of him, just go with the flow. (True story- I literally did that once.)
Had I failed, and the Prime Minister had a banner fall on top of him while giving a speech, yes, it would have made the news on every channel. But, it also would’ve been really embarrassing for everyone involved- so, I held on for dear life.
But generally, any news coverage from your event is also great publicity for your organisation.
If you do find yourself at Parliament House during a sitting, definitely try to sit in on Question Time, which occurs daily at 2pm, both in the House and Senate. Tickets are free and first come, first serve, and Question Time is a chance to sit in on the discussions and the burning issues of the day. Question Time is a daily opportunity for members to ask questions of ministers, which they are then obligated to answer. It can get heated, and not even politicians are immune from swinging around insults from time to time at their opposition.
Interested in other differences between Australia and the US? Check out this post.
Have you been to Parliament House? What did you think of it?