Kitchen Table Activism: How to Host a Letter-Writing Party

I’m in the fortunate position of knowing a lot of people who are deeply upset about what has been happening on Nauru, and would like to do something about it.  And many of these people are already doing great things – going to protests, working with refugee support services of various kinds, ringing MPs, and so forth.  (Incidentally, if you are not tied to a 9-5 job, there are some amazing non-violent actions taking place across Australia this week – the list can be found here.)

But one thing that I’ve been hearing a lot recently is that if you want to show politicians that you are serious, actual paper letters are the way to go.  Now, I write a fair number of letters, and I feel as though most of the relevant ministers have a pretty good idea how I feel about asylum seekers by now. (Or perhaps not – but I do start to wonder at what point one makes it onto the crank list.  Shorten, for one, must be pretty tired of me by now, and I’m sure I’m just one more reason Kelvin Thomson feels happy to have retired.).  It’s hard to think of new ways to say the same thing, and it can be rather demoralising to make the attempt.

So on Sunday, I invited a handful of friends around for a Tea and Letters Party.  The plan was simple: I provided the location, writing (and printing) supplies, stamps, envelopes, and rather copious amounts of baked goods (because once I start baking I find it hard to stop), and then we sat around the kitchen table for a few hours, writing letters over afternoon tea.

There were a few things about this party that I thought worked very well.  Over the course of the afternoon, people read out bits of letters, asked for advice, and discussed how particular politicians might be approached.  I found this useful on two levels – first, it was good for pooling information, and second, it was extremely helpful to see how other people phrased things, or how they approached particular letters. I tend to err on the side of writing far too much, and so seeing the ways that other people condensed their letters into only a few sentences was really useful.  On the other hand, I tend to try to ask for quite specific actions (repeal that secrecy act!), which others hadn’t necessarily thought of.  While we all wrote quite different letters in quite different styles, we definitely benefited from borrowing ideas, approaches and even phrases from each other.

Another thing which worked quite well, though it wasn’t something I’d planned for, was that of the nine people present, two actually didn’t write any letters.  My husband was largely on printer duty, as well as being in charge of tea and doors and things like that (I’m great at baking, but I never remember that people might want to drink something other than water).  Another friend of ours came intending to write letters, but realised after half an hour or so that he was too enraged by the whole situation to write anything that wasn’t so bitingly sarcastic as to be counterproductive.  He moved onto research duty, and became our looker-upper, responsible for answering questions such as ‘what was that act of Parliament called that said doctors weren’t allowed to talk about what was happening on Nauru?’ or ‘who are the Victorian Senators again?’.  He also did a lot of addressing of envelopes, and the final run to the postbox at the end of the day.  This was actually pretty useful, sufficiently so that I might plan to have an official looker-upper next time I host something like this.  But I do want to mention these roles as worth bearing in mind if you have people who would like to contribute but for one reason or another do not want to write letters themselves.

I think the tea and cake and social aspect helped, too.  It’s a little bit of incentive, and honestly, I think it’s helpful, if one is writing letters about terrible things, to have the company of like-minded people, as a reminder that really, one is not alone in being upset about this.

There were other things that I think could have worked better.  The first – which in retrospect is quite amusing but was a little distressing at the time – is that by turning letter-writing into a social occasion I managed to create a situation in which I was almost incapable of writing anything at all, due to the noise and conversation and interruptions!  After a while, I decided to view my role as facilitating letter-writing for others, rather than writing lots of letters myself, and that helped.  In future, I think I will draft at least a couple of letters ahead of time.  Once I actually had a few reasonable paragraphs that I could modify or recycle for other letters, I was able to write quite a bit, but I achieved almost nothing in the first two hours.

The second was that I really should, I think, have started by printing out some possible talking points, or even examples of good letters that I’d seen.  Several people asked if I had anything like that, and I didn’t – and I think it would have given us a starting point, and helped us get going in those first few hours.  So that’s something I’ve learned for next time.  I also should have printed out a list of politicians’ postal addresses before starting – I had them on my iPad, but it wasn’t as useful.  Fortunately, that was a fairly easy problem to fix.

The third was that occasionally everything got really noisy, and it made it hard to concentrate.  I think next time, I’ll try to set up a bit of a break-out room for people who want to chat more (about letters, or about other things, because this is a social event as well as a political one, it’s not a homework session), and be more active about chivvying people into it if need be!

But for a first attempt, organised on 24 hours notice, it was a pretty good effort.  We had a total of nine people, including me and our two non-writers, though a couple of them could only stay long enough to write one or two letters, and by the end of the afternoon we had written and posted twenty-seven letters to the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition, Peter Dutton and his opposite number, Shayne Neumann, our various local MPs and a wide selection of Victorian Senators.  This may not sound particularly efficient, but for at least one person in the room, it was the first time he had written a letter to an MP, and he would not have done so now without this impetus.  So that’s three or four letters that certainly would not have happened without our afternoon tea – and I think 27 letters from 7 different people is a lot more valuable than fifty letters from one person in terms of showing politicians that the community feels strongly about an issue.

And I can’t stress enough how simple this was to organise.  Really, if you have friends, and live reasonably close to a post office, and can drop past the supermarket to buy some tea bags and some Tim Tams, you are more than halfway there.  I’ll definitely be doing this again.

Check-list for a Letter Writing Party

  • A reasonably sized table, or other writing surfaces
  • Pens
  • A4 paper (preferably the kind that can go through a printer)
  • Envelopes
  • Stamps
  • A printer (optional, but helpful – many people prefer to write on their laptops)
  • Wifi access so that people can look up things (you may want to appoint an official Looker Upper)
  • Tea and Coffee (don’t forget milk and sugar – I always do!)
  • Cake or biscuits or both (you can bake, or ask someone else to bake, or you can buy Tim Tams and a punnet of strawberries at the supermarket and everyone will still be happy)
  • A printed list of postal addresses for your target politicians (you can find a list of the Senators here, and can download a list of MPs here)
  • A few talking points, or sample letters, for inspiration

I like smallish groups and inviting people to my house, but this is probably something that you could run with a larger community group, if your community felt strongly about something.  Though the noise levels might become prohibitive, so that’s something to think about.  Also – and this is probably obvious, but still – pick a topic for the day.  I think one of the most valuable parts of this Tea and Letters party was hearing what other people had written, and that only really works if you are largely writing about the same thing.

I’d also recommend trying to keep it reasonably fun – yes, you want to get stuff done, and it’s important, but you also don’t want to make everyone feel as though this is a chore.  In fact, half the point of this is to make letter-writing less of a chore.  I suspect I err on the side of being a petty dictator, so this reminder is for me as much as for anyone else who wants to hold a Tea and Letters party.

Finally – and I know I said this already, but it bears repeating – if you are hosting a party like this, please, please, go easy on yourself and don’t feel bad if you, personally don’t write as many letters as you meant to write.  You are hosting, and answering questions, and helping people find things, and sorting out tea, and cutting cake, and making sure people can find the bathroom, and helping with whatever else they need, in order to create a space in which other people can write the letters that need to be written.  You are empowering other people to write letters!  It’s OK if you don’t get around to writing many (or even any) yourself.  Besides, I bet if you are hosting this, you’ve written plenty of letters in the past.  It’s someone else’s turn!

Nauru

I didn’t read Amnesty’s report on Nauru last week.  I knew it was bad, and I signed yet another petition, but I didn’t read the report because some things, once seen, can’t be unseen.  My imagination is vivid and I am prone to nightmares – I don’t need more fuel.

I haven’t read the full Nauru files, either.  In fact, I spent yesterday consciously avoiding reading anything about them at all.  I know they will hurt to read.  I know they will detail endless abuses, ignored and even encouraged by a system in which there is no transparency, only secrecy, with deterrence and stopping people drowning at sea being held up as the cardinal virtues, the only solution, the moral response before which all other moral imperatives must bow.

I didn’t read them because I have read so much already, and written so much already, and the only thing that ever seems to change is that I lose more of my faith in humanity.  I have signed petitions and I have written letters, and it doesn’t matter, because the Government isn’t listening, and the opposition is afraid to look weak.  (The Greens may care, but they have no leverage, and I don’t think that One Nation is my natural ally in this particular battle.)  I did, finally, read this report, but I could not bring myself to click on all the links.

I didn’t want to know the details.

Of course, I – like most Australians – can make that choice.  I can choose not to read these articles and files – to prioritise my own mental health over knowing absolutely everything that I can know over how my country is abusing vulnerable people.  And, incidentally, there is nothing wrong with making that choice.  I think there is a point where reading too much horror is so overwhelming that it actively saps the energy we could be using to act to counter the horror. I can choose, for that matter, to ignore the whole situation.

The people on Nauru – men, women and children – don’t have this choice.  The violence, the abuse, the fear, is a constant for them at all times, and they have no hope for a future in which they will be able to escape this abuse.  Their choices are to remain and endure, or to return to the countries they fled, in fear of their lives.  (And let’s not pretend that these people are not genuine asylum seekers. Though, frankly, at this point, it doesn’t matter whether they are or not – nothing can justify abusing people and denying them medical care, let alone the indefinite detention of children in unsafe circumstances.)

Honestly, I’m no expert on any of this.  I don’t know, really, what a sustainable immigration program looks like, or how much we can afford to spend resettling people in Australia.  I do know that we are paying a huge amount of money to imprison people on Nauru or to resettle them in Cambodia, while refusing New Zealand’s offer to re-settle people there (because God forbid that we actually allow the people we have been systematically abusing to settle somewhere that they might be safe from harm).  I am fairly sure we could process asylum seekers more cheaply and more humanely in Australia, and I am not the only one who believes this.

I freely admit that I don’t know the best long-term strategy.

But the situation on Nauru and Manus Island and Christmas Island is one we have created ourselves as a country.  We are turning scared, desperate people into scared, desperate, traumatised people, and sometimes into scared, desperate, dead people.  This is absolutely immoral.

To me, the only moral response now is to close the camps and bring everyone in them to Australia.  We have deliberately damaged people, and we owe them restitution, regardless of their status.  No exceptions.

We can afford this – we’re talking something in the realm of 1,500 people, less than 0.01% of the Australian population.  Even if we put them all straight onto unemployment and provide them with access to psychological and medical help and case managers, it’s still going to cost less per person than we are spending on Nauru.  We don’t even have to worry about what message we are sending to people smugglers – this isn’t a long-term policy change (much as I might like it to be!), this is making restitution to a specific group of people because we stuffed up.  We aren’t going to do the same for everyone who comes here.

Going forward, we need to come up with a better strategy for helping asylum seekers.  There is so much war now, in Syria, and South Sudan, and elsewhere, that the flow of refugees is not going to stop any time soon.  Australia needs to join with countries throughout the world to figure out a compassionate and practical response to this situation.  It’s a global problem, and it needs a global solution.

But Nauru?  That’s local.  We did that ourselves, and it’s our responsibility to fix it.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

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Bothering politicians about Abyan and Nauru

What are lunch breaks for if not to ring the Prime Minister’s office and mumble in a somewhat tongue-tied fashion about the need to bring Abyan back to Australia for treatment?

Well, one thing they are for is letter-writing!  As is my usual habit, a copy of the email I just sent to the PM is below the cut.  It is not perfect, and yours doesn’t have to be perfect, either.

The important thing, if this is something you care about, is to write *something*.  Keep it polite, and probably try to be briefer than me because I always write way too much, which may not be the best way to get read.  But the more people who write, or who ring, or who tweet, however incoherently, the louder the message. And feel free to borrow any phrasing that appeals to you from what I’ve written.  That’s the other purpose of putting this letter here.

I’ll write to Peter Dutton, Bill Shorten and Richard Marles (Shadow Minister for Immigration) after work, and if their letters are significantly different, I’ll post them below.

Edited to add: My friend P wrote a really excellent letter to both Malcolm Turnbull and Peter Dutton, very different to mine, and considerably better worded, in my opinion!.  She has given me permission to post it below as another handy example.  I am also adding a link to a very thoughtful article by Julian Burnside on how to write to MPs.  He mentions several things that would never have occurred to me, and is collecting replies – and non-replies – from MPs.  Definitely a strategy to consider.

Handy contact details:

Malcolm Turnbull – (02) 6277 7700; malcolm.turnbull.mp@aph.gov.au ; @TurnbullMalcolm
Peter Dutton – (02) 6277 7860 or (07) 3205 9977; minister@border.gov.au ; @PeterDutton_MP
Bill Shorten – (02) 6277 4022 or (03) 9326 1300; Bill.Shorten.MP@aph.gov.au; @billshortenmp
Richard Marles – (03) 5221 3033; richard.marles.mp@aph.gov.au @RichardMarlesMP

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