I can’t quite remember the first time I met with a politician. When I was about 17 there was a group consultation event with Kate Ellis, MP for Adelaide and also Minister for Youth. It was at a cinema in Adelaide and I was late because I had forgotten about it altogether. After that I realised I should start using a diary.
When I began university I got more involved with the AYCC, a youth climate organisation. I started to meet different South Australian MPs and senators. In hindsight, I probably wasn’t very good at it: I worried too much about seeming like an authority, and I struggled to relate to the politicians as regular people.
Despite that, I think these meetings were very important. Rich corporations spend vast sums lobbying our politicians – they have lobbyists based in Canberra who are constantly in and out of the offices of Parliament. Clearly they think it’s worthwhile. And while politicians will typically vote along party lines, there’s still potential to make an impact on individuals.
Politicians are people too. The issues they care about will be affected by the people they meet, the conversations they have, the faces they remember when they think about an issue. We’ll never know what happens in party caucuses, but it could be that it’s your face, your story, that prompts a politician to take a particular side. Politicians also create change by the issues they prioritise and talk about in the media. Here, again, individual engagement can make a difference.
As the Founder and Director of Better Renting, I’m painfully aware that most politicians have no idea what it’s like to be a renter. Some of these politicians are actively undermining progress on these issues. But more commonly, it just isn’t on their radar. They don’t understand how it affects people, because they haven’t heard from the people it affects.
This is true of renting, but also other issues. By meeting your MP or Senator, you can teach them something. You can invite them to put themselves in your shoes, to try to understand for a moment what it might be like to be a young person today facing environmental crises, insecure employment, and a rigged housing system. This won’t change things overnight. But if we want our representatives to represent us, then we must ensure that they know us and hear our stories.
Joel Dignam is the founder of Better Renting, a community of renters working together for stable, affordable, and livable homes across Australia. He’s one of Australia’s leading community organisers with broad experience in non-profits, unions, and electoral politics in Australia and the UK. Most recently he worked as Network Organiser for Climate Action Network Australia, and he has also worked with United Voice, the Greens, and the Australian Youth Climate Coalition. Joel’s been renting for years.