Creating the Active Citizen? Recent Developments in Civics Education

Research Paper 15 1998-99

Kate Krinks
Politics and Public Administration Group
23 March 1999


Major Issues


Civic literacy surveys

Knowledge of government

Interest in Politics

Perceptions of Politics and Politicians

Parliamentary Responses

Education for Active Citizenship

Education for Active Citizenship Revisited

The Civics Expert Group

Discovering Democracy

Critical Responses

Political Participation and Citizenship Reconsidered

Formal Political Participation

A Different Approach?





Major Issues

Australians' lack of political knowledge has been reported regularly over the last ten years and has prompted expressions of concern from politicians, educators and other sections of the public. In particular, low levels of knowledge about, and interest in, politics amongst people aged between 15 and 35 has sparked particular concerns about the implications for the well-being of Australia's democratic political system. The government-appointed Civics Expert Group, set up in 1994, voiced this concern in its report:

Our system of government relies for its efficacy and legitimacy on an informed citizenry; without active, knowledgeable citizens the forms of democratic representation remain empty; without vigilant, informed citizens there is no check on potential tyranny.(1)

The results of surveys conducted during the last 10 years suggest that there is cause for concern. In 1994, for example, a study of 15-19 year olds reported that:

  • 90 per cent did not know what the Constitution covered
  • 83 per cent did not know what the Cabinet was
  • 79 per cent did not feel they knew what the rights and responsibilities of citizens were.

Another study of 17 and 18 year olds, conducted around the same time, found that:

  • nearly 50 per cent had 'not much' or 'no' interest in politics
  • only 8 per cent had 'a great deal' of interest in politics.

A number of educational initiatives were undertaken in an attempt to reverse the low levels of political knowledge as well as the apparent lack of interest in Australian political affairs. These initiatives took the form of civics education programs and aimed at producing informed and active citizens through teaching students about Australia's history, system of government and democratic values.

Many of the existing civics education programs came under attack for their narrow focus on institutions of government. It was argued that such a focus produced a limited notion of citizenship, according to which a good citizen was someone who understood the structure and function of government and who was aware of, and practised, their role within that formal structure. This view of citizenship downplayed or ignored less formal knowledge of how government works and the possibilities and limitations of political participation.

Critics pointed to the evidence which showed that, while many young people appear to show little interest in institutions of government and their functions, they are interested in and aware about broader political issues. For example, a 1997 study of 18-24 year olds found that:

  • 87 per cent supported a republic for Australia
  • 83 per cent supported a racially non-discriminatory immigration policy
  • 79 per cent supported reconciliation with Aborigines.

Furthermore, recent trends suggest that young people are becoming more involved in formal political institutions. The 1998 Commonwealth election saw six under-35 year olds enter parliament, three of them under 30. In 1998 the youngest ever Australian parliamentarian, at 20 years and 5 months, was elected to the Tasmanian parliament. Some of these young members, for example Senators Kate Lundy and Natasha Stott Despoja, are outspoken about their concern to address the needs and concerns of youth in Australia.

In the last two years educators appear to have recognised that the trends just described require a new approach to civics education. Consequently, in civics education programs there is less of a focus on 'dry' political facts and more emphasis on the values which help to define a good citizen. The forms of participation the traditional civics courses discussed, voting, involvement in community projects, voluntary work and so on, is also expanded in the new programs to include actions such as freedom rides, strikes, demonstrations and other forms of political activity.

Parliamentarians and parties have a dual role in fostering in young people an interest and willingness to participate in civic affairs. First, as community leaders and shapers of public opinion, parliamentarians can help to promote the new civics education initiatives. Second, individually or through their parties, parliamentarians can create more opportunities for youth involvement in the process of government, for example through party membership recruitment drives and Internet sites which encourage input and feedback on governmental and parliamentary matters. Given their high rates of Internet use, young people are in a good position to make use of this tool for political purposes.

Most parliamentarians want to see informed and active citizens who are committed to democratic values. Young people share this goal and the evidence suggests that they are keen to be given the opportunities to realise it.


During the last ten years, concern has been expressed by politicians and teachers at the lack of interest in citizenship issues shown by the majority of Australians. Particularly worrying is the lack of interest and knowledge about citizenship displayed by those between the ages of 15 and 35. This research paper traces the emergence, beginning in 1989, of a series of educational initiatives designed to remedy this state of affairs.

Civics education existed in Australian schools from 1901 to about 1930, when the nationalistic focus of the courses came under criticism and the courses were abandoned. Victoria retained civic education, under the heading of 'social studies', in the school curriculum and during the 1970s it was a taught as a separate subject known as 'politics'. It was not until the 1980s that civic education re-emerged at a national level, sparked partly by the looming 1988 Bicentennial and heightened interest in the nature of Australian identity.(2)

Current interest in civic education might be explained similarly, in light of the upcoming centenary of Federation. In January 2001 Australia will celebrate what is often regarded as a founding moment of a properly 'Australian' identity, when the states agreed to come together under a national (federal) government and the members of the states began to think of themselves as belonging to a nation. Celebrations of nationhood therefore also entail a celebration of the national identity.

The latest civic education initiatives can be understood, then, as an attempt to remedy young people's lack of understanding of what it means to be an Australian citizen. It is assumed that this will place them in a better position to appreciate and contribute, not only to the celebrations in 2001, but to the ongoing development of Australia's identity. While the concern with citizenship and national identity is not new, as the history of civic education in Australia indicates, what does seem to have changed in recent years is the approach to civic education.

In the 1980s and early 1990s, civic education taught students the structure of Australia's political system and the formal functions of its governmental institutions.(3) It was assumed that students would acquire the relevant knowledge to become effective practitioners in the civic realm. Studies seemed to indicate, however, that young people's levels of governmental knowledge were not improving and, according to certain measures, nor were their levels of civic participation (measured in terms of adherence to the principles of a political party, membership of a political party, or participation in organised political activity, such as voting, joining pressure groups and signing petitions).

There is not the space in this paper to ask why this might be the case. Sociologists and social researchers, however, have written widely on this topic. Hugh MacKay, for example, has found that young people are put off involvement in party politics partly because of its adversarial nature and lack of attention to what they see as the 'real' issues. Young people are also going through their school years surrounded by people of different ethnic and racial backgrounds. That this diversity is not reflected in Australia's political representation makes the formal political system appear even more out of touch with their lives.(4)

Since 1996, developments in civics education suggest that some educators are aware of these factors, and are tailoring their courses to take these into account. In addition to teaching students about these new initiatives, the new civics education programs address citizenship issues as they relate to the realities of young people's lives. The programs therefore might address issues such as the changing image of the Australian citizen, from white and British-born, to an image that better reflects Australia's multicultural make-up.

The structure of this paper is as follows. The first part presents the results of a number of civics surveys, conducted over the last ten years, that politicians and educators have used as evidence of the need for an emphasis on civics education. The second part discusses the parliamentary-backed education initiatives that have been undertaken in response to such survey results. These initiatives were criticised by some educators and academics for what was claimed to be a narrow institutional focus and one that aimed to produce pliant and unquestioning citizens. The final sections of the paper discuss these criticisms. The main argument presented in those sections is that the civic literacy surveys do not measure the kinds of political knowledge and interest held by many young people. Evidence to support this is found in surveys (such as the Australian Democrats' annual Youth Poll) which measure particular kinds of political interest and knowledge, with very positive results. Young people's engagement in various political activities, such as running for parliament and attending youth policy conferences, is further evidence that many young people are political interested and are motivated to act on that interest.

An underlying theme of the paper is that the values and issues on which many young people are prepared to act are often not addressed, either in the civic education courses that are intended to motivate them to participate in governmental affairs, or in the realm of government itself. Recent education programs attempt to remedy the first of these deficiencies. The second of these is the role of parties and of parliamentarians.

Civic literacy surveys

Knowledge of government

A number of surveys have been conducted in the last ten years that attempt to determine the levels of political knowledge and interest in politics held by young Australians (most surveys define 'young people' as between 15 and 35). These surveys have found that young people's knowledge of Australia's political history and of the country's political system is extremely limited.(5) Some surveys have found that, in addition to this lack of knowledge, the respondents had little interest in Australian political affairs.

For example, a 1987 Newspoll study revealed that only about 30 per cent of 18-24 year olds knew of the Constitution's existence.(6)

In the same year, a study of Year 11 students from a New South Wales high school was conducted for a submission to a Senate Standing Committee inquiry into civic knowledge. That study produced the following results:

  • only 34 per cent could name the Federal electorate in which they lived
  • only 50 per cent could name the House of Parliament in which the Prime Minister sat
  • only 21 per cent could explain what the Constitution is. (7)

In 1993 academic Ariadne Vromen conducted a study of the governmental knowledge of school students, this time final year students (aged 17-18). That study focused on formal knowledge of different strands of government, asking questions that ranged from who is the Prime Minister and Treasurer, to the policy platforms of different parties, and which part of government is responsible for services such as garbage collection and postal services.(8)

The results varied widely depending on which strand of government the questions related to, with students scoring well on leaders of the major parties and on the major policies of those parties, but poorly on governmental matters. (These results might be partly due to the timing of the survey, which occurred at the time of the 1993 election. Students would have been more exposed to party platforms than would otherwise have been the case). For example:

  • 46 per cent could not name the Treasurer
  • 57 per cent could not name the Minister for Foreign Affairs
  • 66 per cent and 88 per cent could not name the Leaders of the National Party and the Australian Democrats, respectively
  • 63 per cent did not know which party went to the 1993 election with a platform of free higher education
  • 44 per cent did not know which level of government was responsible for providing unemployment benefits
  • 62 per cent did not attribute responsibility for postal services to the Commonwealth Government (despite the service being called Australia Post).

The results of the 1994 survey of people between the ages of 15 and 19, which was carried out for the Civics Expert Group Report, echo these findings. These results suggest that young people in this age group are particularly lacking in knowledge of the structure and functions of the Australian political system. For example:

  • 10 per cent felt they knew what the Constitution covers
  • 10 per cent knew how the Constitution could be changed
  • 13 per cent knew what the Governor-General does
  • 14 per cent were aware of the voting procedure for the Senate
  • 15 per cent knew what was meant by 'the division of powers'
  • 17 per cent knew what the Cabinet is
  • 18 per cent knew what the High Court does
  • 21 per cent felt they knew what were the rights and responsibilities of citizens
  • 23 per cent knew the voting procedure for the House of Representatives.(9)

Interest in Politics

Other studies have focused on levels of interest in politics amongst young people. A 1997 survey of 18-24 year-olds, commissioned by Edith Cowan University, found that low levels of participation in formal political institutions, whether political parties or semi-institutionalised activities such as community protests or strikes, correlate with low levels of political interest. Consider the following figures in light of the comments above:

  • 19 per cent take an interest in politics only during elections
  • 17 per cent have joined a protest movement
  • 11 per cent have joined a community protest
  • 5 per cent have joined a strike
  • 2 per cent have joined a political party
  • 65 per cent have engaged in no political activity at all.

The authors of the study noted that the respondents conveyed:

a strong sense of powerlessness, a conviction that either they lacked the skills to understand the relevance of the system and/or that they lacked faith in its ability to produce tangible outcomes.(10)

Other findings suggested that those who had little or no interest in Australian politics had significantly less political knowledge than those who said they had 'some' or 'a great deal' of interest. Vromen's study, for example found that:

  • nearly 50 per cent stated that they had either 'not much' or 'no' interest in politics
  • only 8 per cent admitted to having 'a great deal of interest' in Australian politics.(11)

Perceptions of Politics and Politicians

Young people's perceptions of politics and politicians have also been studied. The Edith Cowan study cited above recorded the following remarks about perceptions of politics:

I do not have a great deal of interest because not much ever seems to really happen ... Interviews where people say nothing ... Politics seems very wasteful of time and money. Parliament seems a lot of talk saying nothing.

There is nothing you can do to change things.

A distrust of the whole process probably adds to some apathy.

I am disillusioned with the present, mainly two-party, system of politics in Australia. Neither major party interests me and the minor/independent politicians don't hold much sway.(12)

A 1998 survey of Year 11 high school students, entitled 'What's the Point?' Political Attitudes of Victorian Year 11 Students, focused on students' perceptions of how government works and the trust they have that their political representatives will represent their views, beliefs and values. The study also looked at how students perceive their opportunities for influencing and participating in governmental processes.(13)

The table below shows the responses to questions about trust in political representatives.

Table 1: Responses to questions about trust

Strongly Disagree




Strongly Agree


Most people in government are honest




People in the government care a lot about what all of us think




People in the government waste a lot of taxpayers' money




People who are in government can be trusted to do what is right for the country




I think that the people in government care about what people like me and my family think




People in government, running the whole country, care about the opinions of ordinary people




People running the government are smart and usually know what they're doing




These results show that a large majority of the respondents (68 per cent) did not feel that their representatives were honest (defined for the purposes of the study as someone who does what they say they will do once in office) or that they could be trusted to do what was right for the country (64 per cent). High percentages of respondents also reported the belief that politicians cared little about the views of 'ordinary people'. The overwhelming impression of this part of the survey is one of distrust: distrust that politicians keep their word; distrust that they pay attention to and act on the views of their constituents; and distrust that taxes are used wisely by those in government.

The survey then went on to question students about the efficacy of participating in the process of government, that is, the means by which students believe they can effectively participate in, and even influence, the political process. The following table shows the responses.

Table 2: Responses to questions about effective political participation


Strongly Disagree




Strongly Agree


Voting influences how things are run in this country




Signing petitions and joining demonstrations can influence government decisions




Only if enough people tell government officials they disagree will government policy change




Once we are adults we can have a say in how the government runs things




People like me and my parents can influence government decisions




My family has a say in what government does




Joining pressure groups and giving money can enable me and my parents to influence government decisions




The responses to questions about political efficacy were, on the whole, more positive than the responses to questions about political trust. For example, 72 per cent strongly agreed with the proposition that voting influences how the country is run, while 60 per cent strongly agreed that signing petitions and joining demonstrations can influence government decisions. However, it should be pointed out that these questions were framed in the abstract, that is they referred to the theoretical possibility of having influence. Questions which asked students about their political efficacy now, such as 'my family has a say in what government does' and 'people like me and my parents can influence government decisions' elicited less positive responses, with 32 per cent and 47 per cent, respectively, strongly disagreeing with the statements. Those who strongly agreed with the statements comprised only 35 per cent and 19 per cent, respectively, of the respondents. It appears that students feel that their and their families' ability to participate effectively in the political process is limited. However, a significant proportion (44 per cent) believe that their political effectiveness will increase once they are adults. Many also believe that collective action (signing petitions, joining demonstrations or when enough people tell government officials they disagree) is an effective way of influencing the political process. Nevertheless, a strong sense emerges from the survey results that, as young people and as individuals, they feel that there is little scope for them to influence the ways in which they are governed.

Another element of these findings is provided by surveys which show that parliament is seen by young people as a place where nothing much occurs that is of relevance to them. Comments to a 1994 survey included the following:

I think of two parties yelling at each other and calling each other names

They yell at each other and abuse each other

They can't come to a decision. They're just like children.(14)

The release of each survey provoked strong concern amongst teachers and politicians, who stated that without a sound knowledge of the history and current workings of Australia's political system, young Australians would mature not valuing the concept and practice of democracy in their country and would lack the knowledge and skills with which to participate effectively in their communities. It is these qualities-knowledge of the political system and a strong belief in the values that underpin it-that are traditionally thought to be at the centre of citizenship.

To many, the surveys discussed above seemed to suggest that young people lacked both the knowledge and the commitment to democratic values that are the hallmarks of good and active citizenship. A commonly expressed view was that one way to instil civic values in young people was through education programs in schools and in the wider community. The next section outlines a series of civics education programs that have been introduced in Australian schools over the last ten years.

Parliamentary Responses

Education for Active Citizenship

The Senate Standing Committee on Employment, Education and Training produced a report in 1989 entitled Education for Active Citizenship. The Report argued that the lack of political knowledge and interest amongst young people is tied to feelings of powerlessness. The Committee concluded that feeling powerless is a product of political processes viewed by many young people as not responsive to their needs and concerns, nor are they accessible and relevant in ways that allow them to act on their own behalf. The Committee's report therefore emphasised the need to counter the 'ignorance, apathy and powerlessness' amongst young people. This could be achieved partly by increasing levels of knowledge about political processes to help 'people understand and take part in decision-making structures'.(15)

The Report also emphasised that '[e]ducation for active citizenship is not equivalent to force-feeding students with facts about the political system which will either be forgotten because they seem remote and uninteresting, or remembered because they seem curious and arcane'.(16) So, for example, one practical recommendation was 'that the Australian Electoral Commission institute procedures which encourage people to place greater significance on their placement on the electoral roll and their access to the democratic right to vote'.(17)

Other recommendations addressed school curricula, teaching resources and the role of youth organisations. For example, the Committee suggested that, while citizenship education needed to be strengthened in Australian schools, the crowded curriculum meant that citizenship and civics should be introduced into existing courses. History, social science and commerce were examples of courses that, in the Committee's view, lent themselves to a civics approach.

Education for Active Citizenship Revisited

Two years later, in 1991, the same Committee produced a follow-up Report, entitled Active Citizenship Revisited. Its purpose was threefold: first, it drew attention to the initiatives begun since the first Report, in the hope that readers would make contact with others working in the field of active citizenship and share ideas, successes and failures; second, it assessed the changes that were underway since the previous Report; and, finally, the Report acknowledged criticisms made of the first report, particularly that the notions of citizenship, democracy and participation in that report were confined to the public or 'civic' realm.

For example, the Committee received submissions that emphasised the need to consider citizenship in the context of realms traditionally thought of as 'outside' politics. As one submission argued:

Politics, therefore, is not simply a matter of who occupies The Lodge or what issues are attracting public lobbying activity, but who (for example) decides and who accepts responsibility for the household chores and why one particular type of household 'agreement' on these matters is common. Personal life is undoubtedly political and any attempt to deny this must be seen as a political act in itself.(18)

Despite comments such as these, the Committee retained the view that 'the very concept of citizenship is grounded in the public sphere (without denying the nexus between public and private dispositions). To be a citizen is to participate in the public practices which sustain, and to a large extent define, a community.'(19) This concept of citizenship, defined in terms of the citizen's civic participation, rests upon what the Committee called 'participatory democracy', which it understood as:

A lived process of participation, a process in which citizens ... transform themselves through debate and contestation over public issues.(20)

In other words, the Committee maintained the view that citizenship and democracy are defined in terms of the public sphere, or those activities and interactions which are defined as public or civic. Participation in politics, for example as a member of a political party, is an obvious example of such public activity. Other examples are community-based activities such as meals-on-wheels, Land Care groups (work to improve environmental management) and involvement in community centres. The Committee seemed to assume that young people would be encouraged to participate in these kinds of activities when they acquired more knowledge about Australia's political system and their roles, as citizens, within that system.

The reasoning behind this assumption was spelled out in the first Senate Committee Report. There it was stated that:

Research indicates that there is a direct relationship between a person's degree of political participation and his/her political knowledge. This does not mean that efforts to raise a community's level of political knowledge--for example through traditional 'civics' education-will necessarily raise levels of participation ... It does mean however that political ignorance is a strong indicator of indifference and apathy towards political dimensions of experience.(21)

The Civics Expert Group

A series of education policy initiatives followed the two Senate reports.(22) Concern remained, however, about the levels of knowledge about democracy, government and citizenship in Australia. As a consequence of this concern, in 1994 the Civics Expert Group was formed and asked by Prime Minister Keating 'to prepare a strategic plan for a non-partisan program of public education on civic issues'.(23) The expressed goal was 'to ensure that Australians can participate fully in civic decision-making processes'.(24)

The ensuing report, entitled Whereas the People ... Civics and Citizenship Education, was based on the view that civics and citizenship education must encompass more than the formal systems and institutions involved in government. It must include knowledge of how government works in practice, and how its operations affect citizens, the role of non-government organisations in public affairs, the diversity of Australian society and the principles that allow Australians to live together with tolerance and acceptance. Civics education must also address what it means to be a citizen-rights and responsibilities and the opportunities for exercising them.(25) The goal of this education, the report made clear, was to instil in the public enthusiasm for the values and practices of good citizenship in Australia. A good citizen, in the eyes of the report's authors, required:

knowledge and understanding of Australia's political and social heritage, its democratic processes and government, its judicial system and its system of public administration. In the absence of an adequate understanding of how our society works, without the skills and confidence to participate effectively and the encouragement to do so, they simply cannot be effective citizens.(26)

The Civics Expert Group argued that an 'effective' citizenry is part of the checks and balances within Australia's political system. 'Our system of government', the Group wrote, 'relies for its efficacy and legitimacy on an informed citizenry; without active, knowledgeable citizens the forms of democratic representation remain empty; without vigilant, informed citizens there is no check on potential tyranny'.(27)

The Group therefore urged all Australian governments and political parties to support 'such a civics and citizenship education program as a national priority in the years 1995-2001).' Recommendations for the program included:

  • all states and territories should make provision for a sequential program of civics education across the compulsory years of schooling, as part of the key learning area of Studies of Society and Environment
  • opportunities should be available in all states and territories for students in Years 11 and 12 to study civics education in depth in subjects such as Australian History, Political Studies, Legal Studies and Australian Studies
  • the Commonwealth should fund a community citizenship education program through an appropriate non-government agency, preferably the Constitutional Centenary Foundation
  • the community citizenship education program should encourage Australians to take advantage of a wide variety of sources of citizenship education, both through the formal education sectors and through community-based activities.(28)

Discovering Democracy

The need to create and maintain an educated, active citizenry was behind a more recent initiative in the field of civics and citizenship education. In May 1997 the Minister for Schools, David Kemp, launched Discovering Democracy, a national civics education policy. Discovering Democracy aims to improve students' understanding of Australia's democracy and the history and workings of its government and legal system. Dr Kemp's ministerial statement declared that:

we can, indeed must, prepare students to act as responsible citizens in this nation and encourage effective participation ... Our young people, the future leaders of our nation, need a thorough understanding of the fundamentals of our political and legal systems and institutions and how these relate to those of other nations ...(29)

He went on to describe what students, as effective citizens and participants in Australia's democracy, should know:

Effective citizenship requires an understanding of the history and operations of Australia's system of government and institutions and the principles that support Australian democracy. Students should be able to identify and explain the essential characteristics of representative democracy and the nature, role and purpose of the Australian Constitution. They should be able to describe the operations of Commonwealth and State and Territory parliaments and understand the relationship between parliament and government. They should be knowledgeable about Australia's history and the role of leading Australian political figures who have shaped the direction of Australia's civic life.(30)

The program was not limited to the schooling sector. It targeted higher education, for example through Open Learning units (one of which is discussed in the final section of this paper) and vocational education and training courses that contained aspects relating to civics and citizenship education. Discovering Democracy also initiated adult and community education courses, in which students could enrol with a facilitator guiding discussion of specified materials. The courses covered topics such as the structure and functions of Australian government, concepts of national identity, the meaning of citizenship and its practice in Australian communities.

Kemp's outline of the education program appeared to be little different from those that had gone before. The focus remained on teaching students about the institutions of government, theories of democracy and the role of political leaders in shaping contemporary Australia. However, the courses that were designed for Discovering Democracy had more of a process-oriented approach than is suggested by Kemp's statement. That is, instead of teaching students only about the institutions of government, the program also taught students about the ways in which citizens have participated in political processes in the past and how they might do so in the present and in the future. This participation included forms of action that involved conflict between groups, including the government, such as the campaigns for an eight-hour working day, debates over welfare systems and the struggles for equal pay and equal opportunities for women. (31)

Discovering Democracy therefore taught more than dry political facts; it encouraged students to think about the changing meanings and practices of democracy and citizenship over time. Yet, its primary focus was on institutionalised political processes. For example, when considering the question, 'Who rules?', students were directed, first, to consider different forms of government (monarchy, aristocracy, tyranny and democracy) and, in light of these, how Australia is governed. Second, students were taught about the roles and ideologies of political parties in Australia and were encouraged to think about if and how they represent the people. The question of 'who rules?' was therefore limited to a consideration of government and political parties.

This limitation was also evident in the education programs that preceded Discovering Democracy. The governmental focus attracted criticism from educators and academics, and these are discussed below.

Critical Responses

Education programs such as those put forward by the Senate Standing Committees and by the Civics Expert Group have been subject to three kinds of criticism. First, from an educator's perspective, it was claimed that the success of the programs was always going to be limited because they lacked direct relevance to the lives and concerns of young people. The focus on 'dry' facts-the number of seats in each House of Parliament or what each section of the Constitution covers-was hardly going to inspire a new generation to show an interest, let alone to participate actively, in politics. The problem was therefore partly one of the presentation of the material: how to make it more interesting and relevant. These critics also argued that evidence suggests that knowledge of government does not necessarily lead to political participation.(32)

The second, and perhaps more fundamental, criticism of the civics programs was that they, and the surveys which provoked them, promoted a limited and circumscribed view of citizenship. Students were presented with facts about Australia's political history and political system, but were not encouraged to think critically about their political inheritance and what aspects, if any, they might think needed to be changed.(33) One change that surveys suggest young people might support, for example, is to the Constitution so that it includes a preamble which recognises Indigenous Australians' prior ownership of the land and the commitment of Australians to redressing the disadvantage that flowed from Indigenous dispossession.(34)

The third issue the critics considered was the way in which 'politics' was defined in surveys of political knowledge and interest. 'Politics' tended to be understood in terms of government, so that 'political activity' was activity relating to what government does (or does not do).(35) Some surveys, which are discussed more fully below, suggest that young people may be interested in, and participate in, issues that are not governmental, but are political in a wider sense. For example, they may be less interested in the role that the Constitution sets out for the Senate, and more interested in the social values and agendas for change held by the individuals and parties who occupy Senate seats. Surveys that aim to determine only levels of formal governmental knowledge therefore fail to pick up a variety of forms of knowledge amongst young people that is undeniably political.

For example, Rob Gilbert, an education specialist, argued that the first Senate Committee's Report presented a traditional and 'conservative' notion of citizenship. The Committee defined a citizen 'as one whose activity is circumscribed by the existing structures of government, who is in a position to approach government, offer views, and press cases, but not to demand rights, protest, litigate or campaign directly. Nor does it countenance direct citizen action in environment, industrial or social arenas'.(36)

Academic Hal Colebatch made a similar criticism of the Civics Expert Group's Report. He argued that, for the Civics Group, 'political knowledge' was defined in terms of an unstated model of 'the Australian political system'. This system consisted of 'identifiable institutions with clearly demarcated functions: the parliament, the Cabinet, the states, etc.'(37) But, he argued, the actual practice of politics can not be formulated so neatly. Sometimes the institutions charged with a certain function have little real involvement in its process, while institutions that do not have a certain demarcated function are instrumental in carrying it out. Colebatch provided the example of law making which, according to the Civics Expert Group, is the function of parliament. He points out that, in practice, 'the laws have already been made before they reach parliament-drafted by functionally-specialised interests, and approved by Cabinet.' He continued:

In those cases where the government does not command a parliamentary majority and parliament is able to change the legislation introduced by government or even introduce and pass legislation of its own, the 'insiders' of government-ministers, bureaucrats, journalists-are united in condemning this situation as 'chaotic' and 'unworkable'. Parliament may make the laws, but it is not supposed to choose which laws to make.(38)

Critics also pointed out that young people appear to be following the previous generation in their attitudes towards the agendas of the established parties in Australia. The last two decades has seen a decline in support for the major parties and an increase in minor party and independent representation in Australian Parliaments. Recent research by Scott Bennett shows that, in 1949, the three major parties won 96.1 per cent of the House of Representatives votes but, in 1998, the figure had fallen to 79.6 per cent.(39) Dean Jaensch also documents this trend in his book, A Plague on Both Your Houses. Jaensch's figures show that an increasing proportion of voters are swingers, that is, they are prepared to change their vote from one election to another. His figures also show that major party identification has dropped significantly (by 50 per cent) since the 1970s, a trend that increased during the 1990s. Jaensch calls these people, who have little or no party identification, 'floaters'.(40)

Recent elections have also shown increased voter support for minor parties and independents. In the Senate, for example, the Australian Democrats increased their share of Senate seats from two in 1977, to seven in 1987 and to nine seats in 1998. Meanwhile, every election in the 1990s has seen at least one Independent win a seat in the House of Representatives (and as many as five seats in 1996), despite none being elected between 1969 and 1990.(41)

Qualitative and quantitative research reveals that these trends are likely to continue, with many young people declining to make a commitment to any one political party. For example, Beresford and Phillips conducted a study of 18-24 year olds in 1997 and found that 72 per cent do not have a long-term commitment to the principles of any political party. They do, however, feel strongly about certain issues, as the following figures indicate:

  • 87 per cent supported republicanism
  • 83 per cent supported a racially non-discriminatory immigration policy
  • 79 per cent supported reconciliation with Aborigines
  • 66 per cent supported a more egalitarian society.(42)

These attitudes may stem less from lack of formal political knowledge and more from a feeling that political parties and politicians are not addressing the issues that young people believe are relevant and important to their futures. As the next part of the paper illustrates, many young people are knowledgeable about particular political issues and where the major political parties stand on these issues.

Political Participation and Citizenship Reconsidered

The Australian Democrats publish an annual Youth Poll that contains the views of young people aged 15-20 on issues such as the republic, unemployment, tax, racism and, more generally, their attitudes to parliamentary politics. The following issues emerged from the 1998 survey:

  • 65 per cent of young people believe Australia is a racist country and 54 per cent want the Government to apologise to the 'stolen generation'
  • They care deeply about the environment and 90 per cent believe that governments do not do enough to protect it
  • 67 per cent support a republic, with popular election of a President (72 per cent). Only 1 per cent supported Prime Ministerial appointment of a President
  • 63 per cent of young people believe it should be illegal to discriminate on the basis of sexual preference
  • 85 per cent believe that education should be publicly funded.

So, while young people appear to show little interest in government, in the formal sense of institutions and functions of specific areas of government, many young people are interested and aware about broader political issues.

A survey of students' perceptions of what it is to be a 'good citizen', conducted in 1994, asked 11-12 year old and 15-16 year old students to convey their views about characteristics of a 'good citizen'.(43) The findings challenged the view that governmental knowledge is at the core of citizenship. The following characteristics of a 'good citizen' were ranked by the students:

  1. Respects the rights of others
  2. Respects the property of others
  3. Treats people equally regardless of their gender, race, age or disability
  4. Is honest
  5. Obeys the community's laws and rules
  6. Works hard
  7. Buys Australian-made goods where possible
  8. Keeps fit and healthy
  9. Knows all words of Australia's national anthem
  10. Is well-informed about Australia's history
  11. Is well-informed about Australia's Constitution
  12. Is well-informed about Australia's political system.

The results of this and similar surveys should be read with some caution, however. The wording of survey questions and the agendas of survey commissioners can influence the responses given. Murray Goot, a commentator on the uses of public opinion surveys, was critical about the methods of the survey commissioned by the Civics Expert Group. He considered, for example, that many questions in the survey relied on self-placement by respondents, and that some respondents may be self-effacing, while others may be boastful about their levels of knowledge of Australian political affairs. Goot argued that this self-placement cannot be taken for granted, and the validity of the results was therefore questionable. Another limitation of the survey was the use of open-ended questions to determine levels of knowledge about a specific issue. Open-ended questions leave open the possibility that those who did not give an incorrect answer might have done so if they had been asked directly. It also means that those who gave an 'incorrect' answer (such as Australia's becoming a republic does not entail leaving the Commonwealth or changing the flag) were ignorant or were simply reporting what they suspected would happen in the future.(44)

Even taking into account limitations in their accuracy, surveys that were conducted during a period of ten years, and commissioned by different sources, produced similar results. It is therefore possible to draw some general conclusions based on these findings. For the purposes of this paper, the most significant finding is that, while many young people feel alienated from the political and decision-making processes in this country, and appear to show little interest in learning about its formalities, they seem to be an informed, articulate and concerned generation with a clear agenda for change. A number of developments in recent years even indicate that, when they believe that their actions might make a real difference, many young people will participate in the formal political processes that in the traditional view are truly 'civic' arenas.

Formal Political Participation

The 1998 Commonwealth election saw six under-35 year olds enter parliament, three of them under 30. The new members increased by almost 50 per cent the number of under-35s in parliament. In 1998 Michael Smith, the youngest ever Australian parliamentarian at 20 years and 5 months, was elected to the Tasmanian Parliament.

Not only are young people entering parliament in increasing numbers, once there many tend to be highly visible and outspoken members of their parties. Jackie Kelly is the Minister for Sport and Tourism and Senator Natasha Stott Despoja is the Deputy Parliamentary Leader of the Australian Democrats. Stott Despoja's areas of responsibility include Attorney-Generals and Justice, Employment, Youth Affairs, Higher Education, Republic and Trade. Senator Kate Lundy is the Shadow Minister for Sport and Youth Affairs and Shadow Minister Assisting the Shadow Minister for Industry and Technology on Information Technology, an important and influential portfolio in the 1990s.

The 1998 Constitutional Convention is another arena in which young people made their presence felt. Twenty-six out of the one hundred and fifty-two delegates were aged thirty-five or under, and fourteen of these were elected, as distinct from appointed, delegates. At the Convention many of these delegates spoke of young people's desire to express their views, to have these views heard and acknowledged by those who make decisions affecting their lives and, perhaps more importantly, to be able to participate in the processes by which these decisions are enacted. Elected delegate Misha Schubert encapsulated these feelings in her speech to the Convention:

Young Australians have a special claim on this [republic] debate. It is our future under discussion. In a sense we have the greatest stake in the future ... Young Australians are a political underclass. With too many too young to vote or too cynical to bother, we need to ask: who will own our system of government in the decades to come?(45)

A final example is provided by a 1994 youth affairs conference, sponsored by the Australian Youth Policy and Action Coalition (AYPAC). Around 300 young people and youth workers from around the country attended. The conference voted, inter alia, to pressure the Commonwealth Government to lower the voting age from 18 to 16. One of the arguments for doing this drew on the Senate Standing Committee's notion of 'active citizenship' and the Committee's point that an active citizen is someone who believes in the concept of a democratic society and who can translate that belief into action. The Australian Youth Policy and Action Coalition (AYPAC), argued that:

Currently young people under the age of 18 are not able to translate their belief in the concept of democracy into action as we exclude them from voting. People are prevented from being active citizens until they are 18 despite demonstrating strong opinions on the performance and general characteristics of politicians from as young as 14.(46)

Other arguments put forward for lowering the voting age included:

  • If the democratic process showed faith and an interest in young people by empowering them with a vote and voter education, young people would have reason to show faith in Australia's system of democracy
  • Voting is a human right, not a privilege of the well-informed
  • Young people pay taxes but do not vote
  • The views of people under 18 should be represented in politics
  • The UN Convention of the Rights of the Child gives anyone under the age of 18 who is capable of forming his or her own views, the right to express those views freely in all matters affecting him or her, those views being given due weight in accordance with the age and maturity of the person.(47)

Given that considerable resources are being outlaid on citizenship education in schools, many youth advocacy groups believe that it is again time to reconsider the issue of lowering the voting age to sixteen.(48) If they are old enough to be educated in the rights and responsibilities of citizenship, the advocacy groups argue that young people are entitled to a stake in society and the opportunity to influence its policies and priorities.

A Different Approach?

The evidence suggests that, to be effective, civics education programs need to move beyond conventional attempts to improve political knowledge and understanding. An example of such an approach is the latest in the series of government-initiated civics programs and comes under the auspices of the Discovering Democracy project. Called 'The Good Citizen', the Radio National series went to air in 1998 as part of Open Learning Australia (the series has a related website). The series explored what it means to be a citizen in Australia, looking at Australia's political institutions as well as social, cultural and economic issues that might help or hinder young Australians to become 'good citizens'.(49)

The host of 'The Good Citizen', Michael Dwyer, commented that previous government civics education programs had been criticised on the grounds that young people should learn about politics, democracy and citizenship through the pursuit of causes or values in which they believe rather than through civics education programs. Such programs, in this view, do not teach young people about active citizenship and meaningful democratic participation but instead teach them about how to be compliant subjects. As Dwyer summarised the argument:

I guess there's a suspicion whenever there's a government program in this area, that the government wants people to learn to be good citizens, to work within the system, to be good players, rather than maybe questioning the system.(50)

Dwyer pointed out that, in contrast to other government programs, 'The Good Citizen' series had explored questions such as the use of civics education programs if people do not have the capacity to take part in the system. For example, one program, 'The good citizen', discussed informal barriers to participation in society such as poverty, a non-English-speaking background and not being considered a citizen at all. Another program, 'Dissent and the rule of law', canvassed ideas about citizens' relation to the law, when it should be obeyed and when dissent is justified.

'The Good Citizen' was, therefore, an example of what surveys of students suggest would be an effective approach to citizenship education. It covered all the aspects that previous civics programs covered-the key features of Australian democracy, voting systems, the Constitution, the doctrine of separation of powers and the notion of representative democracy itself-and it explored these in the context of questions that encouraged students to think for themselves and to examine critically traditional stories of Australian identity. For example, students were asked to consider whether an Australian identity that is grounded in stories from the outback, the sporting field and the battlefield, marginalises women, migrants and indigenous people.

So, not only did the series aim to teach students and other listeners the important features of Australia's political system, it aimed to do so in the context of important issues that many students would face in their lives: questions of access, equity, representation, dissent and rule of law. In doing so, the series raised questions about what citizenship means and encouraged students to develop their own ideas about what it is to be a good citizen. As Dwyer said in the first program,

So, what is a good citizen? After thousands of years of political thought, there are many different ideas. It's not a question we can answer in just one program, but by the end of 13, we hope you'll have some ideas of your own.(51)

The creators of 'The Good Citizen' recognised that civics programs are likely to inspire further cynicism if they aim only to provide students with Australian political facts and a distant respect for Australia's political institutions. Civics education programs therefore need to be designed with the recognition that Australian youth places a low value on political literacy, and share with many of their older counterparts a cynicism towards the domain of politics and politicians. Developers of civics education programs need to recognise that young people subscribe to a range of values that are at the core of Australian democracy. Successful programs will be those that appeal to these values in ways that are immediately relevant to young people's lives.

Civics education is therefore not a 'neutral' exercise; if it is to involve more than just governmental facts, it is inevitable that education for active citizenship will raise value questions about a political system. But this need not be a cause for concern. The International Commission on Education for the Twenty-First Century, set up by UNESCO, held its 1994 conference around the theme of Education and Citizenship. The Commission stated that:

'civics education' is necessarily a complex process that combines acquisition of knowledge, the learning of practical skills for participating in civic life and the acceptance of values. Consequently it cannot be regarded as strictly neutral from an ideological point of view; it inevitably makes demands on the pupil's conscience.(52)


The recent launch by the Minister for the Arts and the Centenary of Federation, Peter McGauran, of a two-year campaign to increase awareness of the centenary of Federation is an indication that the Discovering Democracy approach to civics education is gaining ground on the traditional approach. The campaign, called the History and Education Program, revolves around the idea that there are many angles from which to document and to celebrate Australia's history and achievements, depending on the experiences of different sections of the community. The initiatives therefore target these experiences, for example through funding for the Royal Victorian Institute for the Blind to produce braille and audio editions of books relating to Federation. There will also be exhibitions and publications which address the history of surf-lifesaving, the stories of Australian scientists, of women and of young Australians who are children of migrants.

Other initiatives include national advertisements in cinemas, on buses and in magazines which ask questions such as 'What kind of country would put a woman in her place?' (which refers to granting women the vote) and 'What kind of country would forget its first Prime Minister?' These advertisements are designed to attract the attention of those, such as young people, who ordinarily might not look twice at a promotion for exhibitions or publications on Federation.

Initiatives such as the History and Education Program indicate the possibilities for innovation in civics education, for the general public as well as for young people. More can be done, however, to inform young people and encourage them to participate in events such as the centenary of Federation. Part of the responsibility for this lies with educators. It is through schools and higher education that many young people gain access to ideas to which they might not otherwise have been exposed. Other arenas that have a specific youth focus include, such as the Internet, youth radio (for example the national Triple J), youth forums and peak advocacy bodies. (53)

Political parties and parliamentarians, too, have a significant role in encouraging young people to participate in civic affairs. Political parties can play a positive role (and at the same time boost their memberships) by conducting recruitment drives which focus on the aspects of party involvement that young people might find attractive, such as the social dimension, the opportunity to contribute to policy discussion and the excitement of campaigning. Parliamentarians, meanwhile, could begin by listening seriously to the concerns of young people as they are expressed in forums such as the Youth Roundtable, and by supporting those groups that give a voice to young people, such as the Australian Youth Policy Action Coalition.

Some parliamentarians are already taking more active steps to generate input, particularly from young people, to the policy process. For example, Senator Kate Lundy's Internet site is designed to foster communication between her and the visitors to the site. Her home page states that 'I have designed my website to assist me to communicate with you'. It includes a section called 'Over to you' which allows visitors to send their names, e-mail addresses and comments to the Senator. Senator Lundy's concern to hear from young people is partly due to her capacity as Shadow Minister for Youth Affairs, and partly due to a belief that young people need to be included in political decision-making because it is their future that is being decided.

For example, in a speech to the National Convention of Republicans in February 1999, Senator Lundy spoke about the need to involve young people in debates about their futures, such as the debate about the republic. That many young people will be too young to vote in any referendum on the subject is unfortunate, according to the Senator, but makes it all the more important that their views are somehow canvassed in other arenas and taken into account. Senator Lundy argues that the Internet is ideal for such canvassing. She said at the Convention:

The Internet is the medium in which the language of youth is spoken and there is already a mass of activity utilising the exciting new information technology that the Internet provides, including world wide web sites that inform, provoke and inspire active participation in the republic campaign. It is here that young people will extract what they need to inform themselves on the issues. The opportunities for dialogue are vast.(54)

These comments suggest that listening to the views and values of young people is not just a 'feel good' exercise. The example of the republic campaign illustrates that parties and politicians can use avenues such as the Internet to mobilise young people to support and campaign for particular issues. Initiating and supporting programs that give young people good reasons to participate in civic affairs is therefore a worthy and wise activity for all parliamentarians.


  1. Civics Expert Group, Whereas the People ... Civics and Citizenship Education, 1994,

    pp. 15-16.

  2. Ian McAllister, 'Civic education and political knowledge in Australia'. Australian Journal of Political Science, vol. 33, no. 1, 1998, p. 9.

  3. In this paper, 'governmental' refers to the institutions and functions involved in governing. 'Politics' and 'political' have a wider meaning, referring to the informal, as well as the formal, practices by which people participate in government.

  4. Hugh MacKay, Young Adults 1995 and Born After the Boom, 1997. See also Susan Pascoe, 'Civics and citizenship education: the Australian context', UNICORN, vol. 22, no. 1, 1996, pp. 23-4.

  5. Australian research in this area includes international comparisons. These comparisons suggest that Australia is not alone, either in terms of the limited knowledge of government held by many in the population, or in terms of the concern expressed about this lack of knowledge. For more detail see: McAllister, op. cit.; and Phillip Hughes, 'International Best Practice in Civics Education', in Civics Expert Group, Whereas the People ... Civics and Citizenship Education, 1994, pp. 172-184.

  6. Newspoll, Australian Constitution Study, April 1987, cited in Senate Standing Committee on Employment, Education and Training, Education for Active Citizenship, 1989, p. 9.

  7. Education for Active Citizenship, op. cit., p. 12.

  8. Ariadne Vromen, 'Paul Keating is the Prime Minister, but who delivers the mail?' Australian Journal of Political Science, vol. 30, 1995, p. 79.

  9. Civics Expert group, op. cit., p. 47.

  10. Vromen, op. cit.

  11. Ibid., p. 80.

  12. Quentin Beresford and Harry Phillips, 'Spectators in Australian politics?', Youth Studies Australia, December 1997, p. 15.

  13. Suzanne Mellor, 'What's the Point?' Political Attitudes of Victorian Year 11 Students, 1998, pp. 52 and 58.

  14. Whereas the people ..., op. cit., p. 21.

  15. Education for Active Citizenship, op. cit., p. 15.

  16. Ibid., p. 17.

  17. Ibid., p. 34.

  18. Leftwich, quoted in Senate Standing Committee for Employment, Education and Training, Active Citizenship Revisited, 1991, p. 6.

  19. Ibid.

  20. Ibid., p. 7.

  21. Whereas the people ..., op. cit., p. 9.

  22. The details are found in ibid., pp. 9-40.

  23. Whereas the People ..., op. cit., p. 3.

  24. Ibid., p. 5.

  25. Ibid., p. 7.

  26. Ibid., p. 45.

  27. Ibid., pp. 15-16.

  28. Ibid., pp. 110-13.

  29. The Hon. Dr David Kemp, Discovering Democracy, Ministerial Statement, May 1997. Web site at:

  30. Ibid.

  31. DETYA, 'About the Discovering Democracy Programme'. web site at:

  32. For an example of this kind of criticism see McAllister, op. cit.; and the collection Citizenship Education for a New Age, K. J. Kennedy, O. F. Watts and G. McDonald, eds, 1993.

  33. Harry Phillips and Wally Moroz are examples of writers in this vein. See their 'Research findings on students' perceptions of political awareness and the characteristics of a "good citizen"'. Youth Studies Australia, vol. 15, no. 1, 1996, pp. 13-19.

  34. This and other survey results are discussed below.

  35. Hal Colebatch, 'Political knowledge and political education', Australian Quarterly, 1995, vol. 67, no. 3, pp. 13-24.

  36. Rob Gilbert, 'Education for active citizenship and the problem of identity'. In Citizenship Education for a New Age, K. Kennedy, O. Watts and G. McDonald, eds, 1993, p. 90.

  37. Colebatch, ibid., p. 16.

  38. Ibid., p. 19.

  39. Scott Bennett, 'The Decline in Support for the major Parties and the Prospect of Minority Government', Research Paper No. 10, 1998-99, Information and Research Services, Parliamentary Library, p. 1.

  40. Dean Jaensch and David Mathieson, A Plague on Both Your Houses: Minor Parties in Australia, Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 1998, p. 233.

  41. Australian Electoral Commission, Electoral Newsfile, nos. 77-8 1998.

  42. Quentin Beresford and Harry Phillips, 'Spectators in Australian politics: young voters' interest in politics and political issues', Youth Studies Australia, vol. 16, no. 4, 1997, p. 16.

  43. Phillips and Beresford, 'Research findings on students' perceptions of political awareness and the characteristics of a 'good citizen''', Youth Studies Australia, vol. 15, no. 1, 1996, p. 15.

  44. Murray Goot, 'Civics, survey research and the republic', Australian Quarterly, vol. 67, no.3, 1995, p. 30.

  45. Misha Schubert, Speech at the Constitutional Convention, 2 February 1998. In Report of the Constitutional Convention, Transcript of Proceedings, vol. 2, 1998, p. 38.

  46. AYPAC, 'Sweet 16 and able to vote?', Up2Date, February 1995, p. 8.

  47. Ibid., pp. 8-9. See also National Children's and Youth Law Centre, Should Children Have the Right to Vote?, Discussion Paper no. 3, April 1996.

  48. There is evidence to suggest that young people support the introduction of voluntary voting for those between the ages of 16 and 18. See, for example, National Children's and Youth Law Centre, op. cit., and the Australian Democrats Youth Poll 1997 and 1998.

  49. 'The Good Citizen', Web site at:

  50. Michael Dwyer, ibid.

  51. Ibid.

  52. ICE, quoted in Hughes, op. cit., p. 182.

  53. The Australian Youth Policy and Action Coalition (AYPAC) is an example of a non-government body which has been active on issues such as youth suicide, lowering the voting age to 16 and education, training and employment opportunities for young people. AYPAC, which had received Commonwealth government funding, was defunded in June 1998 and replaced by a national youth roundtable. The Government also introduced other means by which young people can present their views to government, such as through a site on the Internet called 'Have your say'.

  54. Senator Kate Lundy, Speech to the national Convention of Republicans, 7 February 1999. Website at:


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