Voice referendum

Why spectacular slogans and perfect pop ditties will never work

The phenomenon of moral politicking around an issue rather than a political party has been a key part of my research over the last five years. That’s been the case in many things to do with education – and education policy. Our social relationships now have a strong influence on our reality. Politics no longer works the way it did back in 1967.  Let’s look at what happened on the weekend as we voted on the Voice referendum.

On Saturday the No Vote for an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice to Parliament ( commonly called the Voice referendum) won in a landslide. It was a referendum clean sweep. All of the States and more than half the population voted No. There have been many over the weekend who have been deconstructing why. What did the Yes campaign do wrong? Whether there should have been a constitutional convention to avoid spending billions on yet another unsuccessful referendum. Whether there were truth or lies. 

We can analyse the should and the shouldn’ts for days. But in the end, voting on the Voice referendum should never have been the foundational mechanism for having a much needed national discussion about something so important. Maybe once it was. Maybe. But no longer. 

A national discussion

As I said, politics no longer works the way it did back in 1967. 

Back in the 1960s politics had the veneer of a powerful institution that could morally progress the nation. And I say veneer because it’s not like misinformation and politicians behaving badly didn’t exist back then. They absolutely did. But the social agreement was that the political system was represented as something that could be moral. Or at least held to account when it wasn’t. 

Today morality is politicised. In other words, the public are encouraged to gather around an idea because it is moral, not because a political party is moral. We saw this in the distribution of No and Yes votes in the Voice referendum. The Australian Labor Party (ALP) were campaigning for the Yes vote but traditional ALP seats resoundingly voted No across the country. 

Moral politicking around issues rather than  political parties has been a key part of my research findings since 2018. I’ve published a couple of times about it recently with my colleagues (here and here). We discuss how education issues are used as moral barometers in election campaigns and how education publics now tend to align themselves with a moral position attached to an education policy. An earlier finding showed that people are also more likely to make decisions that agree with their friends and family

Moral politicking

This is because our social relationships have a strong influence on our morality. 

The standard response to this phenomenon is ‘media literacy’ or ‘do your research’ or ‘google it’. Be critically literate. This is a great response and absolutely what should happen in the classrooms, in teaching reading and responsible authorship/creation. 

But, when morality is politicised, being critically informed as a moral position is simply not working. We should know that by now. Morality polarises. You can’t teach someone away from the opposite pole with snappy slogans, comedy and clever use of pop songs. They just make your pole feel good (and shocked when you lose). The most successful political actors (politicians/lobbyists etc) today are those who know that spreading misinformation is the best way to run interference – especially on a campaign so deeply concerned with telling the truth. And they are really, really good at it. 

Conservative political actors

These actors tend to be conservative. Conservative political actors, who are intent on wedging issues, do not care whether their descriptions are accurate or not. Indeed their whole purpose is to sow confusion and muddy the water to the point where people have no choice but to vote with their feelings. Meanwhile progressive political actors interested in accuracy, media literacy and fact checking spend all their energy correcting the misinformation or getting frustrated about people not researching. Finding the positive emotional register in “gotchas” when they evidence a flaw. This is a very normal reaction to misleading and inaccurate information. But while this critical energy is spent correcting information, no campaigning for change is happening. Indeed more often than not the conservative campaign is amplified, especially if these discussions are occurring in the media.

So what do we do about it? I’m certainly not advocating for less fact checking or critical media literacy. But we need to face the reality of the situation and consider where critical literacy fits in these times when clever campaigners don’t care if their facts are wrong and critiquing amplifies untruths. 

History and Geography’s poor cousin

It’s not just that people don’t understand how our political systems work that’s a problem, it’s that those who do know are concerning themselves with a system that no longer works the way it used to. Maybe Civics and Citizenship education needs amplifying. The poor cousin to History and Geography has been continuously overlooked in an education landscape dominated by literacy and numeracy. 

We have to have a hard conversation about how we teach people to deal with politics and campaigning texts in this political environment and it has to include the following. 

Less clamouring for the repair of a liberal-constitutional institution and its norms – something that no longer cares about truth. Find a way to make space for those who are grassroots campaigning because they are listening to people. Listening is how you reach people who vote with their family, friends and neighbours. 

Less bemoaning a crisis of democracy because people voted against repairing the Constitution. The logic is that their vote is not as valuable as your vote. A democratic crisis actually does exist in that slippery slope. That worries this ex-Citizenship Education teacher just as much as “If you don’t know, vote No” slogans

After the Voice referendum

Understand that we are in a significant political moment for Australia in 2023. We cannot connect this experience of the Voice referendum to Brexit or Trump or the 2022 Federal election. We cannot draw comparisons to the past when literacy became a policy object and critical literacy experienced a meteoric rise, full of hope for a well informed citizenry. Looking elsewhere is what we always do to make sense of unprecedented moments in our lives. We look back to work out what to do. But, according to Anthony Giddens, looking back for answers has always been what keeps conservative ideas in power. 

Looking away stops us looking our own uncomfortable politics square in the face. We saw racism and prejudice over the campaign. That needs dealing with immediately. We are not going to learn how to deal with our own future if we are looking to England, Europe or the US. Instead, we have to squarely look at our own situation and realise the answers are here already if we know where to listen. We also have to realise that a democracy means that ideas we find morally objectionable may gain traction and no amount of facts and critical thought will stop that happening. But moral polarisation will stop us talking and listening. 

Good can always be found and brought to the surface. That is the essence of politics. 

For instance, whether you voted Yes or No, the Voice referendum has repoliticised challenges faced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in Australia. The past 40 years of neoliberal government has systematically privatised, proceduralised and neutralised the way issues like deaths in custody, welfare and healthcare, youth incarceration, mental health, access to food and water, access to education and addressing the literacy gap are dealt with in Australia. We know about it. It’s been campaigned about by both sides for 12 months. We know something needs to be done about it. Something with teeth.

Privatised, proceduralised, neutralised

That’s a good thing. That’s a grassroots thing. That’s a democratic thing. And educators who are well-versed in civics and citizenship, have inquiring minds, and listen, really listen, are going to be critical in moving forward. 

Dr Naomi Barnes is a network analyst and theorist at Queensland University of Technology. She is interested in how ideas influence education policy. She is a senior lecturer in literacy teaching and has worked for Education Queensland as a senior writer and has worked as a secondary English, history and geography teacher in government, Catholic and independent schools.

The Voice referendum: If you don’t know, I challenge you to find out

The claim by the ‘No’ campaign that if you ‘don’t know, then vote no’ in the Voice referendum is a troubling indictment on the state of democracy and civics and citizenship education in Australia. It privileges a passive and limited conception of citizenship that is at odds with what it means to be a citizen in Australia, and makes a mockery of Australia’s long history of civic action and engagement. It privileges wilful ignorance, and outsources the responsibility for informed democracy to politicians, rather than the citizens themselves, and in doing so, insults every Australian who has taken the time to explore the arguments for and against the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice to Parliament. That such claims should flourish is hardly surprising; civics and citizenship education in Australia’s schools has, for too long, been overlooked by politicians and policy makers, despite the rhetoric to the contrary. 

Young Australians should be active and informed

This shout-out to ignorance is a direct contradiction to the Alice Springs (Mparntwe) Education Declaration. This document sets out the fundamental principles for education in Australia, and is agreed upon by all ministers of education from the various jurisdictions. There are only two goals within the Declaration, and the second one states that all young Australians should become ‘active and informed members of the community’. It goes on to describe that this includes (amongst other things) having ‘an understanding of Australia’s system of government, its histories, religions and culture’, being committed to ‘to national values of democracy, equity and justice’, and ‘contributing to local and national conversations’. There is a clear emphasis upon the role of a citizen to be involved – but also to be informed. This finding out information and thinking carefully is central to the Declaration – and also to what it means to be a citizen in Australia. 

Currently there is no greater national conversation than the upcoming Voice referendum. Yet it is a failing – of our media, of our politicians, and of our education system – that our young people are limited in their potential and their capacity to take part in that conversation because the education system is not providing them with the opportunity to develop the skills to become informed. Regardless of whether they are old enough to vote or not, the Voice referendum is a significant opportunity for young people to learn about civics and citizenship: about how democracy is done. And it is an opportunity that we are missing.

The system is failing our young people

There are lots of reasons for this state of affairs. Within the education system, there is confusion about the place of civics and citizenship education. While it is part of the Australian Curriculum, it is often taught in conjunction with other subjects, such as History and Geography. This leads to it being squeezed out in place of this other content. And of course there’s also the challenge that teachers face when trying to teach it: many teachers lack any specific subject expertise in topics like government, politics or civics and citizenship – which means that they are very conscious of their own ignorance in this area and are likely to avoid it.

Teachers are also at risk of being targeted for teaching about supposedly controversial issues in this subject area, such as topics like climate change,  equality and race, which means they run the risk of raising the ire of parents or the more extremist elements of the media. Finally, when it is taught, it is often taught in such a way that it is distant from a students’ own experience.

Learning about the constitution is vital, and indeed, should be a right of every child – but it needs to be done in such a way that allows students to connect their own experiences with what they are learning, lest it become a dull and uninspiring recitation of facts and figures. None of this is particularly new: since the first assessments about civic literacy as part of the National Assessment Program, concerns have been raised about the place of civics and citizenship education in Australia’s schools, as many students were failing even to reach proficiency. 

Never before has it been so easy

What is new is the onslaught of misinformation and disinformation that young (and not-so-young) people are exposed to via both social and legacy media. Never before has it been so easy for people to share biased information so quickly to such large numbers of people – and it is already apparent  that this is influencing the debate and having a detrimental effect on the ability of organisations with a vested interest in education about this topic in sharing their message and resources. Organisations like The Museum of Australian Democracy, or The Rule of Law Education Centre have largely been drowned out. This only highlights the importance of changing civics and citizenship education to address these concerns, so that citizens are better capable of engaging with national conversations, discerning facts from opinion, critically evaluating information and making their own informed decisions. 

Beyond Mparntwe

In order to do this, we need to recognise the importance of civics and citizenship in Australian schools – in actions, and not just in the Alice Springs (Mparntwe) Education Declaration. Part of this means understanding – and preparing – teachers for the important role they play as democracy workers through more focus on civics and citizenship education in initial teacher education programs. Beyond the Voice referendum, we must also find space within the Australian Curriculum for more civics and citizenship education, and even consider whether it should be taught as a separate learning area, as is the case in England.

We also need to recognise that young people are at risk from mis- and disinformation campaigns, and they need to be taught, at school, about such campaigns and how they can deal with them. Most importantly, though, as adults, we need to remember that wilful ignorance is not a democratic virtue, and we should challenge any short-sighted and divisive campaign that argues otherwise. 

Keith Heggart is an early career researcher with a focus on learning and instructional design, educational technology and civics and citizenship education. He is currently exploring the way that online learning platforms can assist in the formation of active citizenship amongst Australian youth. He is a former high school teacher, who worked as a school leader in Australia and overseas, in government and non-government sectors. He has also worked as an organiser for the Independent Education Union of Australia, and as an independent learning designer for a range of organisations. He tweets @keithheggart

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