Playing the Political Game

Great White Shark - Wikimedia Commons CC BY Terry Goss

How not to be a flake when you're swimming with the sharks

How can you navigate government and effectively make your case for change?

As National Director of the Australian Republican Movement in the early 2000s, I ran a lean operation that punched well above its weight in engaging with politicians. We had a solid representation of Parliamentarians from all parties amongst our membership, a couple of Senators on our Board and strong political support for our events and advocacy efforts. Admittedly we weren't any getting closer to an Australian republic (after all, the PM was then John Howard and he wasn't revisiting the question) but it felt like we were at least known and supported in political circles as we tried to keep the issue alive.

Frankly it was a bit of a shock when I moved to Canberra to be an advisor and discovered that there were hundreds (if not thousands) of organisations just like us: modestly sized groups with a cohort of fiercely committed and passionate supporters dedicated to bringing about social change of some kind. I remember in my first weeks being stunned realising just how much correspondence and promotional material Parliamentarians receive – and how well-resourced many outfits were, with their glossy magazines and flash invitations.

It made me quickly realise how canny organisations had to be in making their case for change to Governments.

In almost five years at Parliament House I observed all sorts of interactions between Parliamentarians and the organisations seeking their favour. Too often I encountered people who were ill-prepared for their opportunity to persuade a Minister or Shadow Minister that they had a great proposal worth supporting.

I came away with some key lessons.

Firstly, seeking to influence change in the Political environment requires organisations to be very sure of their purpose – what outcome they seek, and a sense of how they can get it, whether that be through funding for a particular initiative, or policy or regulatory change.

But more than a simple statement of aspiration, working Politically requires organisations to take their proposition and package it in a way that is attractive to those they’re seeking to influence – making it a proposal that fits with their values, their constituencies, their political needs, and sometimes their timing – in a way that compels their support.

In short, it’s about aligning good policy with good politics.

Getting it right also requires a fair dose of preparation: identifying not only who the key decision makers are, but who and what influences them – who their personal staff, bureaucratic advisors, allies and enemies are, and what values and constituency they all represent.

It means mapping out where opportunities may lie – during the budget cycle, through bureaucratic policy cycles or by making the most of parliamentary processes – and being ready when freak opportunities arise.

And it means identifying who your potential partners are outside the decision making circle – who else supports your proposition and can help get it over the line.

Many individuals and organisations struggle in their engagements with Parliamentarians – but with a few simple tools and some preparation, navigating Government can be a lot easier than it may appear.


Allison Henry the founding Director of Millwood Consulting, a niche agency focused on improving the effectiveness and impact of non government and not-for-profit organisations in their engagement with Governments. Between 2006 and 2011, Allison served as a political advisor in the Federal Parliament, as a senior advisor to the Prime Minister and advisor to the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship, the Shadow Attorney-General and the Shadow Minister for Health.

Allison will be presenting at Social Leadership Australia's new 'Thinking and Working Politically' 3-Day Masterclass in Sydney on 23-25 October, providing a day's learning focused on the technical skills required to work with Government and navigate the Australian Political system.