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The Zone: Eyal Halamish

Eyal Halamish explains OurSay, a democratic media organisation that connects the public to people in positions of power.

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DEMOCRACY depends on participation. It is nurtured by ideas and debate and protected by accountability and transparency. And democracy is strengthened by activism, and by the realisation it offers citizens much, much more than simply a vote in general elections.

Politicians are elected and employed by the people to make laws in the interests of the people. The more the lawmakers know of the people's needs and desires, their hopes and concerns, the better will be the outcomes for the community.

Technology is buttressing democracy; never before have people been so able to publicly express their views.

  • Chat live with Eyal Halamish from noon today. Leave your questions and comments here.

Monday's guest in The Zone, co-founder and chief executive of OurSay, is harnessing technology to, as he puts it, "democratise democracy". OurSay is a burgeoning online forum that connects citizens to politicians.

Throughout our interview, the full transcript of which and a short video are at theage.com.au/opinion/the-zone, Eyal Halamish, a US-born political scientist and activist, underlines the potential to improve the political process by allowing citizens to, en masse, directly tell lawmakers of their most pressing issues.

"We bring the people in charge to the table. We make sure senior ministers and senior politicians agree to answer questions. We make sure the media is reporting issues as they trend on the website. It really starts with people taking the initiative to ask hard questions and campaign behind them.

"If you have an issue that you want to see changed, or you are pissed off, don't get angry, get on OurSay and ask a question. Once you've asked a question, mobilise people behind it and set the public agenda, rather than just pointing fingers."

Anyone can post questions on the site (oursay.org) then campaign for support for those questions. Participants are allowed seven votes. The questions that garner the most votes are then put to politicians who have consented to take part.

OurSay is only two years old, having been launched just before the 2010 federal election, yet it already has more than 40,000 members. This is more than the entire national membership of the ALP, and somewhere around the membership of the Liberal Party, which does not reveal how many paid-up supporters it has. OurSay's members range in age from 10 to 95.

The momentum OurSay has gained is evident in the seniority of the politicians it has managed to engage. A pivotal moment came some months ago when Prime Minister Julia Gillard participated in a forum that culminated in a one-hour "hangout" on Google+, an online meeting place where people communicate via live video.

So far, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott has declined to take part, citing other commitments, but will be invited again before the next election. Mr Abbott recently put forward Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey, whose OurSay event is under way. The issue gaining most support on Mr Hockey's OurSay is same-sex marriage.

Another OurSay event, in which 4500 school children took part, was with Education Minister Peter Garrett. The top-voted questioners were flown to Canberra to interrogate Mr Garrett directly.

OurSay was born in a pub in Melbourne, when Mr Halamish and his associates, Gautam Raju and Matthew Gordon, were pondering how to give citizens a greater say in politics and policy. The idea has been influenced by his university days and his time in Washington DC, where he worked in various roles within the political system, including in the public service and in political offices.

"When I was at university, I was constantly campaigning and working within student government and at the city council and even worked in Washington DC with a lobby for a while.

"Learning the ins and outs of the political structure, I saw there was a constant gap between the voices that we were hearing in the streets while I was campaigning and those who were making big, bold decisions.

"I noticed it was those who were at the very bottom, or the most marginalised in our societies, who had the greatest insights about how we could improve our policies, how we could improve our democracy.

"And so I have always believed that if you took the people from the very bottom and put them in touch with those at the very top, you could actually start to develop a feedback loop that radically transformed the way in which we govern and create a better society."

OurSay's debut was in the seat of Melbourne. Mr Halamish and his colleagues had audaciously announced they were going to put questions to the then member, finance minister Lindsay Tanner. At first, Mr Tanner's office was aghast. They resisted, but before the situation was resolved, Mr Tanner announced he was quitting politics. OurSay swung its attention to the two main candidates, the Greens' Adam Bandt and the ALP's Cath Bowtell, who both took part.

Such is OurSay's surging potency that politicians have started coming to the organisation for insights into community concerns.

"We have more and more politicians coming to us and asking us to find those passionate few or those passionate many with views on issues they care about so government can do a better job of responding to them and actually addressing the issues that matter.

"Most recently, Minister Jenny Macklin, the Minister for Families, has really been a leader in this space and come to OurSay asking 'can you find me the five most passionate people who care about family issues, and provide insight to the government about how the federal government can support families in this country?'

"That is running right now, and family members or any person who is interested in family issues in the country can post and vote for the questions they care about."

The messages get through, and have from the outset. For example Sam Pitman, a British ex-pat who had never been particularly politically engaged, took part in the event for the seat of Melbourne, and organised enough support to make his question the top-rated one that went to Mr Bandt and Ms Bowtell.

"The political candidates running for office came to us and said 'do we really have to answer this question about whether or not there should be a legalised age on caffeinated drinks?' " Mr Halamish says. "And I said 'yes, those are the rules of the game and you have to answer them.' "

"So suddenly we had influenced a bunch of advisers and potential policy- makers to go and research what their positions would be on an issue they had not thought of before. And we'd brought someone who had been very much outside the political spectrum to be at the forefront of a conversation that was happening before the federal election."

There are going to be many more such conversations before the next election. OurSay is teaming up with the University of Melbourne on a research project called The Citizens' Agenda. This will take OurSay into every marginal electorate, giving citizens there an opportunity to publicly pose questions to candidates.

"We are encouraging citizens to set the political and media agenda and getting our candidates to respond and the media to report on it."

OurSay is expanding internationally, too. The first event is under way in the world's most populous democracy, India. Others are planned for the US and the UK.

OurSay's catchcry is "let's not leave politics to politicians and media; get involved with democracy, it's not a spectator sport".

At a time of widespread cynicism about, and even disdain for, politics and politicians, OurSay has created a way for people to be actively involved in setting the national agenda.

Participating meaningfully in our democracy has never been easier, and can involve so much more than attending a polling booth every couple of years. And it gives us all the option of easily becoming an activist, rather than simply bitching and moaning. It might even help us get the politicians we actually deserve.

TWITTER twitter.com/shortmsgs

EMAIL mshort@theage.com.au

ONLINE The Zone's online home: theage.com.au/opinion/

the-zone — for an edited video and full transcript of the interview

FACEBOOK: facebook.com/michael.j.short

LINKEDIN: au.linkedin.com/in/michaeljshort

CHAT Eyal Halamish will be online for an hour from noon on Monday.

NEXT Luke O'Connor of the Melbourne Drug and Health Alliance

LINKS oursay.org