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

By Keith Heggart

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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