When Both Major Parties Ignore The Public, The Public Rises Up

If there’s one tired, meaningless word we need to expunge from the English language in 2018, it’s ‘slacktivism.’

When Mike Woodcock rocked up at NSW Parliament Tuesday, weighed down by almost a quarter of a million petition signatures asking to defend our Opera House from being a racing billboard, his efforts were anything but slack.

Neither were the efforts of his petition signers, many of whom accompanied Mike to his petition delivery to NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian. Two revealed they’d got up at 5am and travelled from Windsor to attend and make their voices heard.

So when Sky News host Chris Kenny tweeted dismissing it as ‘slacktivism’, the only truly lazy thing was his ill-informed opinion.

Let’s educate him, and anyone else who derides online activism using the misnomer portmanteau ‘slacktivism.’

When the public feel ignored by major politicians or big aloof institutions, they increasingly make their voices heard online. Yes, online tools make it quicker to do so than ever before -- but why apologise for making it easier to hold the powerful accountable?

During my three years as Director of Communications for Australia’s largest social change platform, Change.org, I saw petition starters successfully free innocent journalist James Ricketson from a Cambodian jail, introduce Australia’s first ever blind-accessible bank notes and cut the waiting list for a stomach cancer operation, saving 26 lives.

These were all everyday Australians, like Mike -- frustrated with feeling unheard and unrepresented. They fell back on that age-old adage: if you want something done, do it yourself.

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Here’s the top reason it’s not slack: signing the petition is just the first step. It’s the actions that follow that make all the difference.

A petition signer starts by sharing their personal story -- which takes guts.

So James Ricketson’s adopted daughter Rox shared how he’d saved her life when she was a troubled, abused street kid -- and now she wanted to save his in return.

Blind teen Connor shared on his petition that he wanted to be independent when he was older and not ripped off because he couldn’t tell a fiver from a fifty.

Cancer patient Galy shared that she’d become terminally ill unless her stomach cancer op waiting list was urgently cut.

Once trust has been built by the petition starter taking that leap of faith and sharing their story, signers become far more engaged with their instructions than those of any politician.

So when Roxanne Holmes asked her 107,000 petition signers to call new Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne as her dad got a six year sentence in Cambodia for simply doing his filmmaker job, thousands called her. They’d previously called or written to other MPs too, leading to a meeting with former Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who shirt-fronted for James’s release.

Australian filmmaker James Ricketson (C), with his daughter Roxanne Holmes (L), arriving at Sydney Airport. (AAP Image/Danny Casey)

When Galy O’Connor persistently directed her signers to the NSW Health Minister and Premier, her cancer op shortlist was cut. It saved her life, and arguably the lives of 25 others. She recorded this emotional video the day she discovered her Change.org petition signers had, quite literally, saved her life.

These actions happen at key pressure moments, giving decision makers no choice but to finally listen and act.

Such actions result in tangible change. On 18 October, the new $50 will be the first to include tactile markings so blind people like Connor can read them, following his tireless campaign targeting the Reserve Bank of Australia.

Which brings us back to Mike. At the time of writing, he sits across an engaged audience of 307,000. That’s more than the broadcast audience of Sunrise. If just 10 percent of signers follow his actions, such as an email in to the Premier, that’s thousands of people making their voice heard, giving her a sense of the depth of feeling out there.

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This campaign was about a much deeper malaise than some lights shining onto the Opera House.

The PM saying it's just "lights flashing up there for a brief moment in time" shows how out of touch he is with the public mood.

Demonstrators protest against the decision to project The Everest onto the sails of the Sydney Opera House. (AAP Image/Paul Braven)

People are angry because this is really about light uncovering the dark, dodgy ways policy is formed, bullies rewarded, public property sold off to the highest bidder, small cashed-up lobbies prioritised and the public ignored.

When the voice of the people is ignored by both the NSW Premier and NSW Labor leader Luke Foley, the people turn to someone like Mike who actually hears them and isn’t controlled by narrowly defined, greedy, commercial interests. He’s fair dinkum. They trust him to speak for them -- a whole lot more than they trust the backroom deals of MPs.

Not all petitions win. That ad shone onto the Opera House last night.

Meanwhile, Berejiklian continues to dismiss the 91,000 who've signed indigenous woman Cheree Toka's petition to fly the Aboriginal flag permanently on Sydney Harbour Bridge. Luke Foley made it Labor’s election launch promise, citing Cheree’s campaign as the impetus.

When the gambling lobby can win in a matter of days but an Aboriginal woman's two year campaign is sidelined, our elected representatives show where true power lies -- and who is really heard.

But no democratic politician can stay in office if they ignore the people consistently.

If a petition can save 26 lives, it sure as hell can get a flag up on a bridge. And it’ll happen because online activists are anything but slack.