civics and citizenship in Australia

How to make sure your vote really counts

Millennial voters and Australian citizens aged under 45 made up 43 percent of the voters in the 2022 federal election. Analyses show that their vote mattered in swings against the major parties and revealed just how discerning young voters can be.

But clearly, for their votes to count, and to ensure their most preferred candidate is elected, understanding how the preferential voting system works is essential. This requires civics learning, so that young people can be informed citizens, with experience of voting systems.

However, results reported in 2021, from the National Assessment Program – Civics and Citizenship (NAP-CC, 2019), conducted every three years since 2004, showed that the proportion of Australian school students with the skills and knowledge required to be active and informed citizens has not changed since 2016.

At the national level, only 38 per cent of Year 10 students, and 53 per cent of Year 6 students, attained the stated proficiency standards regarding core aspects of Australian democracy, and their roles and responsibilities as citizens. So, there is significant room for improvement in building understanding of civics and citizenship education.

The Australian Curriculum: Civics and citizenship includes developing understanding of the electoral system as part of the focus on exploring how the people, as citizens, choose their governments; how the system safeguards democracy by vesting people with civic rights and responsibilities; how laws and the legal system protect people’s rights; and how individuals and groups can influence civic life.  It also aims to develop students’ knowledge, understanding and appreciation of the values, principles, institutions and practices of Australia’s system of democratic government and law, and the role of the citizen in Australian government and society. There is a specific focus on the preferential voting systems. 

So, what is the preferential system, and how can students be engaged in effective learning about the processes involved?

The Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) explains that there are many different types of preferential voting systems in use across Australia and the world.

Some preferential voting systems make it compulsory for voters to mark a preference for all candidates on the ballot paper, whereas others require a defined number of preferences to be indicated. Australian federal elections use a preferential voting system where voters are required to:

·       mark a preference for every candidate on the green ballot paper (House of Representatives)

·       mark a preference for a designated number of preferences on the white ballot paper (Senate)

The AEC explains that the preferential voting system used for the House of Representatives provides for multiple counts of ballot papers, in order to determine who has acquired an absolute majority of the total votes (more than 50% of formal votes). During the counting process, votes are transferred between candidates according to the preferences marked by voters. 

The AEC provides multiple online, plain language resources that schools and community members can access. One document explains that at each polling place, when voting closes, officials sort all ballot papers by first preference votes, which are then counted for each candidate. Informal votes that are incorrectly filled in are identified and removed from the count. All the ‘1’ votes are counted for each candidate in an electorate. If a candidate gets more than an absolute majority – they are immediately elected. Even though they are elected, a full preference count is completed to show how the electorate voted. If no candidate has an absolute majority, the candidate with the fewest votes is excluded from the count. The votes for this candidate are then transferred to the candidate numbered ‘2’ on each of their ballot papers, the voters’ ‘second preference’. This process continues until one candidate has more than half the total formal votes cast and is then declared elected.

The National Electoral Education Centre (NEEC) at Old Parliament House in Canberra provides onsite experiential learning experiences for students visiting the national capital to engage and inform young people about voting and elections. Students meet DemocraBot and are immersed in DemocraCity, a brand new interactive virtual world, to learn about representation, enrolment, and voting and to experience the electoral process in action by running their own election in a dedicated polling place. Students vote, count the votes, and declare the election result, while taking on the roles of voters, ballot box guards, scrutineers and polling officials!

The NEEC also offers online education programs and resources for primary, secondary and adult groups.. One of these programs links learning about voting and the preferential system to Bloom’s Taxonomy of cognitive objectives that describes learning in six levels in the order of: knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis and evaluation. Students are challenged for example to: examine why sometimes the person with the most first preference votes is not elected in a federal election; debate different systems of voting (full preferential, partial preferential, first past the post); make a flowchart to show how the preferences flowed in a real election at your school, and construct arguments for and against full preferential voting. Understanding the preferential system also requires critical thinking and knowledge about who the candidates are and their policies and standpoints on critical issues.

Voters also need to know what to do when they get to the ballot box, so the AEC provides images of the ballot papers and simple instructions about how to make sure that your ballot paper is completed properly for the House of Representatives and the Senate.

The Get Voting resource provides a step by step guide to running a mock election in a school as a hands-on way of developing understanding of the preferential systems.  As the introduction to the Democracy Rules resource says: ‘Teachers play a critical part in shaping young people’s understanding of their role as citizens and future electors. In fact, the work of the teaching profession helps to guide the democratic development of our nation’.

There is no lack of resources available to teachers to ensure that young people can build their knowledge and skills. But since Civics and Citizenship is not often a designated subject in school timetables, the challenge is for schools to ensure that they do plan multiple opportunities for students to experience and learn about voting and elections.

 Understanding the preferential system matters, so that students can be active, participatory citizens, capable of thinking about their choices and registering their vote for the candidates that they most and least prefer. But this learning should also be part of whole school approaches to Civics and Citizenship education that empower young people to have voice and agency. They should not be citizens-in-waiting, but have opportunities to be citizens now. This involves learning about and participating in critical debates about issues they are concerned about. 

Results from triple j’s What’s Up In Your World survey, conducted in May, 2022, that surveyed more than 1,600 18-29 year olds, show that young Australians are highly politically engaged, but extremely disappointed with leadership from the major parties. Only two percent believe that politicians are working in the best interests of young Australians.

Ariadne Vromen (May 30, The Conversation)  pointed out that Prime Minister Albanese wants to change the way we do politics in Australia. With a new government there is an opportunity to re-engage citizens in policy-making and politics; and this includes young people in schools.   She reported the OECD’s view that ‘when citizens are more engaged in politics and involved in decision-making, the more likely it is that good policies will result that can address critical, difficult issues. Citizens will be more invested in the outcome when they see their views are heard and acted upon’.

It’s clearly a good time for a renewed focus on civics and citizenship in schools.

Libby Tudball is an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Education, at Monash University. Her research and publications focus on teacher education and the humanities and social sciences, with a particular focus on civics and citizenship education.

The insidious way the new curriculum undermines democracy

The public’s mind is focused upon politics in the final week of a bruising election campaign. The language of politics is drilled into for nuance and gaffes. But there are some keywords and concepts that are not mentioned in the main body of the Civics and Citizenship curriculum issued by ACARA this week and signed off by Federal and State education ministers. 

This formal document conveys the official view of how young people are to be prepared by schools and teachers for participation as Australian citizens and the following words are all missing:  social justice, human rights, care, empathy, truth, political literacy, discrimination, racism, mutual understanding, social change, climate change and advocacy. 

The words ‘compassion’ and ‘civility’ are in the current curriculum but are now excised.  

Year 9 students will no longer explore ‘How citizens’ political choices are shaped at election time, including the influence of the media (ACHCK076)’. 

This will surely limit young people’s understanding of democratic debate? When reviewing a curriculum we  need to look not only for sins of omission but also for sins of commission. But here there are plenty of examples of sins of commission too.

Citizenship education globally has been criticised for being more likely to focus unhealthily upon national contexts, but Australia as a nation has a proud history of demonstrating outward-looking and generous global involvement. Now, the Civics and Citizenship curriculum rationale states that ‘the curriculum strongly focuses on the Australian context’. It follows through on this statement by effectively omitting global education from primary schools. The Year 6 statement that students explore “The obligations citizens may consider they have beyond their own national borders as active and informed global citizens (ACHASSK148)”, which was also an important element of that age group’s achievement standard, is excised. Also removed from the Year 6 curriculum is the invitation to find out more about ‘The world’s cultural diversity, including that of its indigenous peoples (ACHASSK140)’. 

Also missing? The Year 9 content descriptor ‘How ideas about and experiences of Australian identity are influenced by global connectedness and mobility (ACHCK081)’. True citizenship education can contribute to building bridges between different groups of people around the world and create educational spaces to develop young people’s capacity to contribute to positive global social change . 

The revisions to the Australian Curriculum signal that this is no longer a priority.

The new curriculum valorises knowledge over skills, values and dispositions. For example, the curriculum rationale states that ‘a deep understanding of Australia’s federal system of government and the liberal democratic values that underpin it is essential’; ‘Emphasis is placed on the federal system of government, derived from the Westminster and Washington systems’. The curriculum aims to foster ‘responsible participation in Australia’s democracy’. The curriculum language leans towards viewing young people as passive recipients of knowledge more than active learners. In a self-congratulatory spirit, students are to imbibe how ‘the system safeguards democracy’ and ‘how laws and the legal system protect people’s rights’. Student responsibilities are referenced three times in the curriculum rationale.  Ten year olds are potentially stuffed with knowledge that they will not be putting into practice for another eight years including within elaborations which reference the secret ballot, compulsory voting, preferential voting and the role of the Australian Electoral Commission as key features of Australia’s democracy.

 Some fundamental skills and concepts fall by the wayside. 

  • From year 3: 

‘The importance of making decisions democratically (ACHASSK070)’.  Why? – seven and eight year olds can start to understand why fairness matters. 

  • From year 4:  the descriptor ‘Interact with others with respect to share points of view (ACHASSI059) – a fundamental attribute to value and nurture in nine year olds in developing their empathy and broader emotional literacy
  • From years Year 9 and 10:  Students are no longer required to ‘Recognise and consider multiple perspectives and ambiguities and use strategies to negotiate and resolve contentious issues (ACHCS086) (ACHCS099)’ or to ‘Reflect on their role as a citizen in Australian, regional and global contexts (ACHCS089) (ACHCS102)’.
  • The curriculum language supporting active citizenship – already cautious (Hoepper, 2014) – is further diluted. 
  • Year 6 students will no longer  “Work in groups to generate responses to issues and challenges (ACHASS130)”. 
  • The requirement that both Year 7 and Year 8 students ‘Use democratic processes to reach consensus on a course of action relating to a civics or citizenship issue and plan for that action (ACHCS058) (ACHCS072)’ is removed. 
  • The Year 8 statement that students appreciate ‘How citizens can participate in Australia’s democracy, including use of the electoral system, contact with their elected representatives, use of lobby groups, and direct action (ACHCK062)’ has become vaguer and more passive ‘how Australians are informed about and participate in democracy (AC9HC8K01)’. 
  • A curriculum aim for the early years of secondary education that currently enjoins students to explore “The freedoms that enable active participation in Australia’s democracy within the bounds of law, including freedom of speech, association, assembly, religion and movement (ACHCK061) is altered to the more anodyne ‘the characteristics of Australia’s democracy, including freedom of speech, association, assembly, religion and movement (AC9HC7K02). 

The political influence in this area is stark. 

Scott Morrison observed in parliament of students attending Strike4ClimateChange rallies in Australia that, ‘We do not support our schools being turned into parliaments…..What we want is more learning in schools and less activism in schools’ (AAP, 2018). 

And  acting federal Education Minister Stuart Robert insisted on the omission of a brief reference in an optional curriculum elaboration to the youth environmentalist Greta Thunberg (Baker & Carey, 2022). 

The progressive notion of educating young people for active and informed citizenship is qualified – rather schools and teachers are ‘building their capacity to be active and informed citizens’. The message to young people is clear – you are citizens in waiting not citizens yet. We expect you to be compliant and to keep your opinions to yourself,

It may be possible for committed and confident teachers to re-form policy through active interpretation as opposed to narrowly conforming to the letter of curriculum content descriptors (Jerome, 2018; Sim, 2008). The rationale for the Year 7-10 Civics and Citizenship curriculum still includes the claim that through:

 ‘The study of Civics and Citizenship, students develop inquiry skills, values and dispositions that enable them to be active and informed citizens who question, understand and contribute to the world they live in. The curriculum offers opportunities for students to develop a wide range of skills by investigating contemporary civics and citizenship issues and fostering civic participation and engagement.’

Unfortunately, revised content descriptors (which will be what most teachers look to first in their curriculum design) do not generally align with this vision. Values, skills and dispositions tend to go missing. Moreover, previously highlighted links (via the use of icons) to General Capabilities such as ‘Personal and Social competence’, ‘Intercultural understanding’ and ‘Ethical understanding’ also no longer exist. 

ACARA’s interpretation of what was represented as a decluttering administrative exercise might be seen as another person’s neutering and application of an ideological lens. It just became a whole lot harder for teachers to nurture a fuller achievement of democratic citizenship and human rights nationally and globally and more difficult not to promote a conservative political interpretation of civics and citizenship education in what is already a ‘Cinderella’ learning area lacking presence and status in many schools.

Peter Brett is an experienced History and Civics and Citizenship teacher educator and was involved in a variety of ways with the launch of citizenship education in England from 2002. He is a recent President of the Social and Citizenship Education Association of Australia [SCEAA] and a co-editor of Teaching Humanities and Social Sciences (Cengage, 2020). He is a senior lecturer in Humanities and Social Sciences education in the Faculty of Education at the University of Tasmania.

Image of Greta Thunberg in header: CC-BY-4.0: © European Union 2020 – Source: EP

How young people are changing the way Australians vote and act as citizens

My research interests are closely aligned to the development of civics and citizenship education. Specifically, I am curious about the kinds of educational activities that encourage young people to become active or ‘justice-oriented’ citizens.

Now that our marathon federal election is over I believe it is time for us to look more closely at what is happening in Australia.

How do our young people engage with their rights and duties as a citizen?

Traditionally, Australians as a whole, but especially younger Australians, have been characterized as suffering from a ‘civics deficit’. The assumption is they are either ignorant or apathetic about the way their country is run, or both. I think this assumption is an interesting starting point for wider discussion.

As part of my research, I considered ways that both young and old people express citizenship; that is, how they act as citizens in modern Australian society. I am particularly interested in places like Penrith, Windsor and Randwick. I am fortunate enough to live in Penrith, which is part of the Lindsay electorate. (I confess I was heartily sick of the western suburbs of Sydney being called the ‘key battleground seats’ by the end of the election.)

Young people ‘do’ citizenship differently

From speaking with young people about their interests and concerns, and gaining some understanding about the way they perceive both their local and global communities, it is clear that young people ‘do’ citizenship. However they often do it in ways that older generations might not recognize as citizenship.

I am reminded of the arguments around social media. Young people are seen as not really understanding it, not caring about privacy and likely to be engaging in risky behaviours around it. Similar arguments are used in the debate about active citizenship and young people.

On the contrary however, I believe young people are neither apathetic nor ignorant. Rather, young people are a diverse group, and their interests in politics are slippery and variegated. These interests are far more likely to be expressed in a focus on a particular issue or issues, rather than by belonging to an organization or party.

For example, while it is true that young people are less likely to join political parties, increasing numbers of young people are likely to attend protest events, the Occupy movement is just one example of that. They are also more likely to take an active role, for example by creating material like short films and infographics and posting it to social media. Of course, there has been much criticism of so-called ‘clicktivism’, but I would argue that this is an example of the misunderstanding of active citizenship that dominates much of the discussion.

How older people usually express their citizenship

 The way young people are doing it is clearly different to traditional models of ‘doing citizenship’. While there has always been a place for protest marches and filmmaking, older generations have generally been ‘joiners’. They are more likely to join an organization they feel is reflective of their own identities and seek to enact civics and citizenship through the organizational structures and representative mechanisms. In the past, once they had joined the organization, whether it was a community group, a trade union or a political party, then it was the norm to allow that organization to represent the individual and act in what the organization decided was their best interest.

It was a form of identity politics that allowed for little in the way of expressions of free will and only allowed limited roles for individuals to be empowered. It is still the structure that dominates the political arena in Australia, but for how much longer?

Traditional organisations are declining in popularity

It is well known that many traditional organisations are suffering a decline in membership. Robert Putnam, political scientist and Malkin Professor of Public Policy at the Harvard University, identified this as a key feature in his analysis of the decline in social capital in the US. Such a decline is replicated in many organisations in Australia. For example, there is a decline in trade union membership and the membership of political parties. At the same time many other organisations, such as environmental groups and charities have also felt the pinch.

This declining membership has been an ongoing concern for people who work in these organisations. The blame is often attributed to the fact that young people no longer seem to ‘care’ about the things that these organisations represent.

I don’t think that that’s the case. Rather, I think that the decline in membership is a signal that young people are much more likely to be ‘issue-based’ rather than ‘organisationally-centered’. Such a change is evident in the recent federal election, and is perhaps applicable to a broader segment of the population than just ‘young people’.

Are Australians changing their approach to politics generally?

Despite the frenzied nature of the campaign, and especially so in the ‘battleground seats’, both political parties recorded very low primary votes. The Coalition’s primary vote has decline to 42.1% from a high of 53% in 1975, and the ALP’s vote is down to 34.9% from a high of 49.6% in 1972.

This suggests that many people are no longer identifying with the major political parties. It is my argument that they are ‘shopping’ their political engagement, and so are far more likely to be motivated by a particular issue rather than identifying with a political party.

I believe individual political identities are becoming fragmented. People no longer support a political party’s whole platform or complete agenda, but instead will pick and choose the issues that matter the most to them and then cast their votes accordingly.

Issues based activism

here was ample evidence of this in the election campaign. As I stood at a polling station in Penrith, I could see a vast array of volunteers trying to encourage people to vote in a certain way. There were, as you would imagine, the normal representatives of the major political parties, but there were also a lot of single-issue groups. These were not political parties, but individuals trying to convince voters to act in a certain way based on a single issue. The most obvious were the bright green ‘Gonski’ supporters, but there were also Medicare campaigners, Animal Rights and Unions NSW groups (although the Unions NSW is a difficult case, as many unions are aligned with the ALP).

Even the fact that Unions NSW was campaigning separately to the ALP suggests that they are aware of this growth in ‘issue-based’ rather than ‘organisationally-centered’ identities. Conservative groups are also aware of these changes in the body politic. I believe the rebirth of One Nation is a direct result of people’s concerns (rightly or wrongly) about the single issue of Islam in Australia, rather than any broad support for its wider platform.

The rise of GetUp!

Of course, some organisations have already recognized that such changes are happening and are seeking to make use of this new form of engagement. GetUp! Is the most obvious example. It seems to have captured what it means to be an issue-based organisation.

GetUp! has more than a million people on their mailing list, which is a significant figure in a small country like Australia. Interestingly, despite its apparent appeal to a younger demographic, large numbers of GetUp! are from the over 50s demographic, a period of life that is often characterized by increased involvement in social issues. GetUp! has campaigned about a range of issues, including things like the environment, successfully leveraging the support for specific issues (like opposition to the Adani coal mine) to change public opinion and challenge decisions in court. It is feasible that GetUp! has had a direct effect on the outcomes of elections. Obviously Cory Bernardi believes so as he has suggested starting a conservative movement to challenge it.

Where is all of this going?

What does this mean for the future of politics in Australia? That’s a difficult question to answer. The most obvious development, I think, will be the ongoing growth of single-issue groups and third parties that directly campaign about particular matters.

It would be easy to classify this as populist politics, but I think that would be a mistake. Rather, I see it as the voting public recognizing that they are capable of making changes about certain issues through the expression of their collective will, rather than relying on elected representatives to make those decisions.

The other change that I believe we will see is a change in the way organisations like political parties, charities, unions and not-for-profits engage with the public. I think there will be less emphasis placed on an ongoing relationship, and more emphasis upon the idea of one-off events, like protest marches, for example.

It is, of course, early days for this newly empowered citizen body. What the federal election has shown us is that people are capable of mobilizing and acting in what they perceive to be the best interests of their communities, and that some organisations are already finding ways to leverage this activism.

It is the young people of Australia who seem to be leading the way in this new kind of civic engagement. They are exploring new ways to interact with each other and with wider communities, and by doing so, changing the political landscape for all of us.


Heggart-copyKeith Heggart is a Ph D student at the University of Technology, Sydney. He has previously been a teacher and school leader in Australia and the UK. He is also an organiser for the Independent Education Union. Keith works as a casual academic at Western Sydney University and the University of Sydney