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.

“Any political party that came up with a good mental health policy would be winning votes in the places that I’ve been” — Margaret Simons

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.