On any view, this year’s referendum on whether to establish an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander
Voice in the Australian Constitution is a teachable moment. There are concepts of history (What has
been the experience of First Nations peoples in the period since colonisation?); law (How does our
system of government work?); political science (under what circumstances do voters opt for changing
the status quo?); and moral philosophy (what is owed, by whom, to those who have suffered
injustice?). There are very few teachers who would not see the potential for learning. And almost
every teacher would understand the challenges and potential pitfalls of using a real-time case study
to deepen students’ understanding of complex, interrelated issues of deep social concern.
The teaching team, (authors 1-3), with some initial advice from the Director of Indigenous Learning
and teaching (author 4), adapted an existing subject Law and Public Policy to create a new subject
(Referendum 2023: engaging in constitutional change). The idea was to anchor learning about law,
justice, and politics in the real-time debate about whether the Australian Constitution should be
amended to recognise First Peoples through the creation of a new institution in the Australian
Constitution. The overarching aim was to introduce students to the principles of deliberative
democracy by embodying its actual practice in a semester-long subject. In part, we were responding
to the well-documented disengagement, fatigue and sense of disempowerment that has afflicted
students since the COVID-19 pandemic. We wanted our students to understand that they are
important political actors, capable of giving, receiving, and evaluating reasons; that they are active,
autonomous agents whose perspectives matter; and that they have the right to demand justification
for decisions – including from their teachers. The subject we created was available to all students
across the university, not just law students.
We mapped the subject so that early weeks were spent examining the theory and practice of
deliberative democracy in a range of diverse contexts, drawing out connections between law, public
policy and social reform in areas such as gun law reform, end of life legislation, campaign funding,
animal welfare, the environment and intergenerational fairness. Students were encouraged to
debate, discuss and reflect upon ways to effect change, how to engage with opposing ideas, civility
in discourse, argumentation and logic, and political rhetoric – its uses and potential abuses. We then
applied the learnings to engagement with ideas about the Constitution and processes to change the
Constitution, developing an understanding of the social and political processes required for such
change. Students were encouraged to think about what it means to change our Constitution, their
roles and responsibilities as engaged and informed civic actors, and how they could be vectors of
information for their local communities and networks.
The major assessment for the subject was a community engagement project designed by each
student, to inform and engage local communities on the issues around the referendum. This
‘authentic’ form of assessment required students to creatively engage in change processes to
influence constructive debate about the Voice referendum, and to assist their communities to
understand and better engage with key proposed changes to be considered in the referendum. The
subject provided an architecture within which students could create forums for the exercise of
deliberative democracy at the local and community levels, which included discussions facilitated by
students at their mosques, local high schools and churches, as well as student-led information stalls
on campus, TikTok informational videos and engagement, Instagram live sessions, YouTube videos,
public art and even a submission to Joint Select Committee on the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice Referendum, under the teaching team’s guidance. The final assessment task was a
reflection on their learning journey and their project.
There was a very high level of interaction between students and the teaching team in relation to the
design of each project: first, students created a project proposal; they then received feedback from
teachers; they then revised the proposal; they then discussed the project and received feedback
from peers; they then evaluated potential challenges (eg negative responses from members of the
public) and role-played how these would be dealt with; they then presented their project formally to
the class. The intent of the subject was not to shift student’s thinking either for or against the
referendum question but to deepen their understanding.
Students were encouraged to think about how other people would or could respond to their
perspectives, and about how respectful dialogue could take place even when people held deeply
personal conflicting views. We were amazed by the student engagement on the topic and the
willingness to be open to difficult conversations. But we were also very mindful of potential
wellbeing issues, particularly for First Nations students. The University’s Centre for Indigenous
Education reached out at one point to make sure were aware of the level of feeling amongst First
Nations students taking the subject.
Students from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds also found the subject challenging,
because materials that dealt with the effects of colonialism and settler violence resonated with their
own and their own family’s backgrounds and experiences. The Western Sydney region is extremely
culturally diverse, with people from 170 nationalities, forty-two percent of whom speak a language
other than English at home. The types of community engagement the students undertook is
particularly helpful where government advertisements and other mass forms of communication may
not be effective enough to convey the context and importance of the constitutional change
proposed for the Indigenous Voice to Parliament. With more than 100 students enrolled, we
estimate that this subject has facilitated informed conversations about the Voice to Parliament
referendum involving at least 2,000 additional people in the wider community, from all religious and
cultural walks of life, and all ages, many of whom would not be easily reachable by current
campaigning by both sides of the debate.
The Higher Education Standards Framework (2021) requires Australian universities to be civic
leaders for the benefit of society. The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Voice referendum provides an
excellent opportunity for universities to demonstrate community leadership, by contributing to the
educating students (and staff) in preparation for the referendum. The last referendum held in
Australia was in 1999. Many of our students, whether school leavers or more recent Australian
citizens, are unfamiliar with how referendums work.
In requiring students to use their new and deep understanding of constitutional change and the
Voice to Parliament proposal to engage with their communities, and design and facilitate that
engagement themselves, we are promoting the real-world use of a key employability skills, team
work and engagement, as well as use of soft skills in their discussion of the law and constitutional
change in the community which will ultimately make students far more effective future legal
practitioners and citizens, in Australia, and better able to discuss contentious issues.
The benefits to the students, the legal profession and wider society are also evident as students are
gaining practical experience in taking responsibility not only to advocate for their clients, but to
engage in meaningful and informed discussions regarding real issues in Australian society.
From left to right:
Catherine Renshaw is a Professor in the School of Law at the Western Sydney University. Her research focuses on human rights and democracy in the Asia Pacific. She has been a Visiting Scholar at the Regulatory Institutions Network, Centre for International Governance and Justice, Australian National University. She acts as an advisor to several human rights NGOs in the Asia Pacific region. Catherine has ongoing research interests in Myanmar and Southeast Asia. Catherine is admitted to practice as a lawyer in the Supreme Court of New South Wales and the High Court of Australia. Fabi Fugazza is a lawyer with extensive experience in civic movements and not-for-profit leadership. She is currently COO and Legal Expert of the Italian Coalition for Civil Liberties and Rights which hosts several law-based human rights initiatives, and works with the National Justice Project in Sydney, which also does human rights work for First Nations clients. She teaches human rights law, business law, and human right strategy across Western Sydney University, Sydney University, and Roma Tre University. Tom Synnott is a casual academic at Western Sydney University and Privacy Counsel at Cochlear Limited. Since graduating from Western Sydney University with a Bachelor of Laws (Hons I)/International Studies, Tom has worked at top-tier commercial law firm, Allens, and as a Policy Lawyer and Executive Officer at the New South Wales Bar Association. Tom has experience in privacy and data protection, litigation, and corporate governance. He also has experience with First Nations students and clients, having completed a placement at a community legal centre in Broome and tutored at the Badanami Centre for Indigenous Education earlier in his career. Susan Page is a professor at Western Sydney University and Director of Indigenous Learning and Teaching, a national teaching award-winning Aboriginal educator and Indigenous higher education specialist. Her research focuses on Indigenous Australian experiences of learning and academic work in higher
education and student learning in Indigenous Studies. She has collaborated on multiple competitive research grants and is well-published in Indigenous Higher Education. Susan has held several leadership positions including Associate Dean (Indigenous Leadership and Engagement),Centre Director and Head of the Department and she is currently an appointed Indigenous representative for the Universities Australia Deputy Vice-Chancellor Academic committee.
Please read why the AARE executive support Yes on the Voice to Parliament.