My idea is to create a free app to regularly assess and publish the Australian people's positions on topical issues. Policy makers, journalists and researchers will be able to listen to and check the pulse of Australia's views in real time.
Australians feel less and less like they have a say in community and national issues. This has led to a disconnected public debate: according to recent research, our perceptions of what the majority of Australians believe about many important topics are out of sync with the reality (source: IPSOS, 2015).
Without information about how our population’s norms and beliefs change, people’s beliefs can become biased and polarised, something that has happened on several issues in recent years. For example, individuals who are strongly for or against legalising marriage equality tend to think that their view is the majority one in Australia. The same phenomenon has been observed for issues like immigration, climate change and the constitution, as the Brexit vote recently showed.
This situation gives politicians, journalists and others with influence the temptation to argue that a policy is what most Australians want, without being held to account as to whether this is really the case. On the other hand, positions on matters that are genuinely important to the voting public can remain ignored because of the absence of an easy way to ensure the people's voice is heard, outside of the electoral cycle or expensive plebiscites.
To bring transparency and accountability to policy debates, and a clear voice to the Australian public, my idea is simple. Given that 80% of Australians own a smart phone, a free app will allow regular samples to be taken of the population’s views on different issues. For a person with the app, he or she receives a notification asking for their position on a topic once every six months. The person can choose which topic is most important to them.
If the app is distributed successfully, this will enable it to check the temperature of the Australian population on many subjects on a weekly basis, without being invasive or time-consuming. Signing up requires one-time proof of identity to prevent abuse, but both one’s details and survey answers are recorded anonymously to ensure people feel free to give their opinion.
Australia’s position on various topics can thus be updated and made public in real time. The aggregate responses allow us to publish a breakdown of opinions by state, gender, age and other general characteristics, so that people can share their views without having to worry about privacy concerns.
This is not a call for ‘representative democracy’, because the opinions will have no legal effect, much like a plebiscite in Australia. However, the public nature of the data means that opinion pieces and political statements can be held to account if they misrepresent the beliefs of the majority of the population. Moreover, it provides motivation for policy makers, journalists, researchers and other concerned organisations to get in touch with the public’s voice and take up its causes. Most importantly, it allows Australians the opportunity to regularly have their say on the issues that matter to them, and to all of us.