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Having a say in Australia is not just a matter of speaking to a local member of parliament. It’s also important to know who the right person is to take a complaint to and who is responsible for what area of government.
Australia has a long history of civic participation, yet many new arrivals are scared of speaking up in public and taking a stand on issues. Here are some ideas on how you can get involved.
Making your vote count
Of course the best way to have your say is to participate in the democratic process by voting to elect who will lead you.
All Australian citizens over the age of 18 are entitled have their say in their local, state and federal government elections.
To make sure you are eligible to participate in your next election, you need to be registered on the Australian Electoral Roll.
In Australia voting is compulsory. If you are eligible but don't vote, you may receive a fine. If accessibility is an issue or you will not be available in your home area on the day of an election, additional are options available for absentee votes, early votes, postal and overseas votes.
For more information visit the Australian Electoral Commission.
So what is the Postal Survey?
The current postal survey on same-sex marriage is not a "vote" such as in an election or a referendum. It is a non-binding, non-compulsory optional national survey conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics to canvass public opinion on whether or not the law should be changed to allow same-sex marriage.
Nonetheless, it is still an opportunity to have your say and make your voice heard by the government, so it is important for all Australians to take part.
Like an election, you need to be an Australian citizen aged 18 or over and be registered on the Australian Electoral Roll to participate. You will then receive a survey-form in the mail, including a reply-paid envelope
All survey forms for Australia's current optional postal survey on same-sex marriage have now been lodged with Australia Post, with the final 20 per cent of ballots on their way to households.
If people don't receive theirs by 25 September, they are encouraged to contact the Australian Bureau of Statistics. All forms need to be received back by November 7, with the result to be published on the ABS website on November 15.
Where can I get help in my language?
If you have any questions about the process that you need assistance with, the Australian Electoral Commission offers translated information as well as telephone interpreter services in 26 different languages.
Getting through to government
Australia has a representative democracy with three levels of government: local, state and federal.
Local governments are often called local councils.
They are usually responsible for building local roads, collecting rubbish or providing recreational facilities, such as sporting fields, libraries or community centres.
We all pay our council rates to cover the cost of running these services but councils can also receive funding from federal and state governments.
You can have a say in what your council does and how it does it
First of all you’ll need to find out which council area you belong to and which councillor represents your area. You can then email them or call them with your concerns. Council meetings are also open to the public, however, if you’re planning to attend one, please keep in mind that you can only observe and not speak during the meeting.
As an example, here you can access lists of different councils in various Australian states:
There are a number of ways you can participate in council affairs
- vote in elections, referendums or polls
- run for election as a councillor
- attend council meetings
- participate in council committees
- look at council documents and provide feedback to the council
- participate in the development of council plans or policies
- give feedback
How to contact your state MP?
You can have input into the decisions that impact your daily life without fear of punishment by contacting your local state Member of Parliament and voice your concerns.
It’s always handy to do a bit of research to find out what party your local MP represents and the party’s political stand on the issue you are concerned about.
State governments provide essential services, like education, hospitals, transport and the Police.
You can visit your state parliament’s website; enter your postcode or suburb to find your local MP.
A daughter of Greek migrant parents, Sophie Cotsis is currently the Labor Shadow Minister for Multiculturalism in NSW.
She understands how settling in a new country is one of the most difficult challenges in anybody’s life and says she is keen to hear from her constituents about what problems they’re facing.
"Many new arrivals are seeking information from their local members about housing, health and education” Cotsis tells SBS Radio.
“In our democracy you can have access to your local MP and not to be afraid at all to reaching out.”
Another local MP Daniel Mookhey was the first Australian of Indian origin to be elected to the NSW Parliament.
He says that most days, members of the community bring a variety of issues to his attention from what it means to have your electricity bills rising to how kids with disabilities are being treated in NSW schools.
"It’s important for new arrivals to realise that in Australia everybody gets treated the same, no matter how long they have lived in the country and that politicians work for them, not the other way around,” says Mookhey.
Some MPs are also active on social media, so you might be able to reach out to them or you can always organise a community event and invite your MPs to discuss the issue.
How to contact your federal MP?
The federal government plays a key role and is arguably the most important level of government in Australian politics. If you wish to contact your federal MP, first you need to know what federal electorate you live in, then you need to work out who is your representative in the Australian Lower House, known as the House of Representatives. The Australian Electoral Commission ‘find my electorate’ offers an easy step-by-step guide.
What works best?
There are certain protocols apply when contacting your member of parliament.
You should follow these guidelines to get the best outcome for your issue. While you can email or call your MP, handwritten letters are more personable and generally have a greater impact.
Do your research and know what you want
Whatever form of communication you decide on, you should be able to explain clearly your issue or concern and why it is important to you (and your community).
You’ll also need to outline your expectations - what exactly do you want your MP to do about your issue. Remember, your MPs job is to represent you, so in time you will get a response from them.
If you are not happy with the outcome, you can always send another one and ask for more explanation or request to meet face-to-face to discuss your issue further.
And if you are satisfied with the response, a nice “thank you letter” can do wonders for the relationship building between you (and your community) and your MP.
For more information on Australia’s federal system visit the Australian Government’s website.
For more information on how to vote visit the Australian Electoral Commission’s website.
Translated information on voting in your language.