Tell the politicians what’s on your mind this federal election

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By Daniel Wilson

Ever wanted to directly influence debate and media coverage? You can during this years federal election through The Citizens’ Agenda project run by the University of Melbourne and the social media group OurSay.

The method is easy: Everyone has the opportunity to go to the OurSay.org website and post a question, and/or vote for their favourite questions. The top three questions with the most votes are put to the candidates.

Participants are encouraged to post their question on social media sites such as Facebook or Twitter in order to garner votes from their social circle.

OurSay first launched in 2010 during the last federal election, hosting a forum in the electorate of Melbourne. Since then it has hosted several forums that have included for example Prime Minister Julia Gillard, Premier Campbell Newman, Joe Hockey, Peter Garrett, Malcolm Frazer, Professor Noam Chomsky, and Telstra CEO David Thodey.

Now that OurSay has teamed up with the Centre for Advancing Journalism at the University of Melbourne, it is currently running 10 forums simultaneously around the country for the upcoming election.

The participating electorates were chosen because they broadly represent the diversity of Australia, and include a mix of marginal seats and safe seats, urban, rural and regional, and a mix of incumbent political parties.

They include Melbourne (Vic), Corangamite (Vic), Bradfield (NSW), Fowler (NSW), Longman (Queensland), Oxley (Queensland), Brand (WA), Grey (SA), Denison (Tasmania) and Fraser (ACT)

OurSay CEO and co-founder Eyal Halamish contends this project is a paradigm shift. “If you are cynical about politics and the media agenda, this is your chance to turn it around and get involved. We have created a landmark opportunity which puts you in the driver seat. You set the questions, you vote for the ones you like the most, the media and politicians respond to you.”

Beyond providing the online forums, OurSay is physically travelling to the ten participating electorates to run workshops encouraging citizens in each electorate to set the agenda on OurSay.org.

Mr Halamish told The Australia Times, “We want to get individuals in each community to run their own workshops and get as many people involved as possible. We hope these workshops will go viral. Every time you run a workshop with 10 people, hopefully 1-2 ambassadors will emerge who want to run a workshop and they will identify 1-2 ambassadors through their workshops and the opportunity will spread. We want every citizen in these electorates to have a chance to post a question and vote for the questions they want answered.”

The Citizens’ Agenda project is being used to test some theories about the public sphere. University of Melbourne researchers are using the project to test whether the use of social media to detect a ‘Citizens’ Agenda’ can be used to improve civic engagement, and alter how journalists report politics.

The Director of the Centre for Advancing Journalism, Dr Margaret Simons, said the project will empower voters, through social media, to truly help shape political debate.

“Voters in a democracy shouldn’t be passive. On the contrary, with powerful new tools of communication all around, we should be telling politicians what matters to us and forcing them to engage,” she said.

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