The media’s performance in the federal election campaign was under scrutiny in this session, WTF – Why the Farce? Election Reporting, at the New News conference in Melbourne on Saturday.
Mental health, housing affordability and climate change were identified as some of the issues that are important to the community that have not been getting enough media or political attention (you can see more about the wider issues discussed at the session in this Storify).
Mental health and climate change also emerged as issues of community concern in this other New News session, which heard some preliminary findings from The Citizen’s Agenda, a project run by the University of Melbourne and the social media group OurSay.
The project has involved a series of public “town hall” meetings in ten key electorates, where candidates have been asked to address questions identified as important by voters.
Any political party that offered a good mental health policy would meet with voters’ approval, says Dr Margaret Simons, Director of the Centre for Advancing Journalism at the University of Melbourne.
Thanks to The Citizen for allowing republication of the report below.
“Any political party that came up with a good mental health policy would be winning votes in the places that I’ve been”
Ania Dutka writes:
Mental health and climate change have emerged as key issues in a series of “town hall” meetings held in the lead-up to next Saturday’s Federal Election.
Voters nominated the issues ahead of the supposedly “hot-button” election topics of asylum seekers, jobs and economic stewardship in meetings held in 10 electorates as part of a world-first social media research project, the Citizens’ Agenda.
Despite a relatively low profile in the election campaign so far, mental health came to the fore in several of the voter forums.
Climate change, which had been slipping in voter priorities according to recent opinion polling, was also prominent in the meetings, which were sponsored by University of Melbourne researchers and the social media website OurSay.
One of the researchers, Margaret Simons, of the University’s Centre for Advancing Journalism, told the New News conference on Friday that mental health appeared to be a “sleeper issue” in a number of different electorates.
“Any political party that came up with a good mental health policy would be winning votes in the places that I’ve been,” Dr Simons told an audience of more than 200 people.
But the town hall meetings had also provided voters with an opportunity to raise myriad issues for discussion by panels made up of local candidates and incumbent MPs.
As part of the project, OurSay fielded questions posed by people in the diverse range of electorates, chosen according to demographics, Internet penetration and other factors. Citizens were then able to vote for the questions that they most wanted to put to their candidates at the town hall meetings.
The project aims to see whether social media can be used to identify and promote a “citizens’ agenda” of issues, thereby lifting political engagement and better informing media reporting.
Dr Simons said she was struck by the parochial nature of voters’ concerns, which ranged from youth unemployment, to solar power plants and the legalisation of marijuana.
She said these issues had been largely neglected in mainstream reporting, which had a “presidential focus on the leaders”.
Melbourne University’s David Nolan told New News that nine out of the 10 electorates had so far held town hall meetings, with the results varying greatly.
Dr Nolan said voters in metropolitan areas tended to “spectate politicians via media” but in rural and regional areas voters were “bailing up local members and engaging with them in conversation”.
Another member of the research team, Denis Muller, of the Centre for Advancing Journalism, said the researchers had expected the social media experiment to attract the “overwhelmingly young”.
But he said those involved in most electorates were older, particularly the Tasmanian electorate of Denison, the NSW electorate of Bradfield and the seat of Grey in South Australia. However, first-time voters dominated in the ACT seat of Fraser.
The research team saw social media as providing an opportunity to engage on an “intense level” with local candidates. Surprisingly, many of the people attending the town hall meetings had not registered with the OurSay website or taken part in the social media part of the project.
The last Citizens’ Agenda forum will be held on Wednesday in the seat of Melbourne. The candidates – Adam Bandt (Greens), Sean Armistead (Liberal), Cath Bowtell (Labor), James Mangisi (Sex Party) and Michael Bayliss (Stable Population) — will respond to voters’ top questions at the Wheeler Centre from 7.45pm, with the session moderated by The Age editor-in-chief Andrew Holden.
Final results from the project are some months away but the researchers plan to repeat their investigations during Australia’s next federal election.
• Ania Dutka is a Master of Journalism student at the University of Melbourne. She studied politics and international relations at the Australian National University and the Freie Universität Berlin.
Read more about The Citizen at the Public Interest Journalism Foundation (declaration: Melissa Sweet is involved with the Foundation).
In related news
Meanwhile, an alliance of 46 mental health sector organisations and stakeholders are calling on all political parties to commit to five specific and sustainable reforms to mental health services:
• An end to the confusion of accountability for funding between federal and state/territory governments
• The development of a national service framework and model of community based mental health care
• The development of a national workforce plan for mental health
• Funding directed to evidence based services and research, and
• Accountability for the money spent on services to see if they are actually working.
The alliance is asking members of the community to sign this petition in support of their campaign.
For Croakey’s coverage related to the federal election, see here.