Carolyn Holbrook gives herself the task of recommending to the new federal Labor government the introduction of a widespread public education campaign about Australian democracy.
ATTENTION: Minister for Education, Hon Jason Clare MP
Special Minister of State, Senator the Hon Don Farrell
To press the need for a major public education campaign about Australian democracy.
Threats to democracy in recent years, most obviously and alarmingly in the United States, indicate that democratic systems are more fragile and precarious than we imagined. Democracy is not secure unless it is underpinned by a broad public consensus and a deep political and cultural commitment to the maintenance of civic institutions. These problems are widely recognised, both within Australia and internationally.
There are reasons to be concerned that Australians are not sufficiently equipped to be custodians of our democratic system:
- Civics education was reintroduced in Australian schools in 1997, yet the most recent review of the civics curriculum indicated that only 38 per cent of Year 10 students—the level at which the compulsory civic curriculum finishes—are proficient in civics and citizenship knowledge. Young people care passionately about issues such as gender equality and climate change, but we must better connect their concerns with the political system.
- The data about school education sit within a wider context that is highly concerning. Trust in democracy in Australia has been plummeting since the early 21st century. The 2022 Edelman Trust Barometer shows it has fallen 6 points since 2021, the second biggest decline behind Germany.
There are several issues that need special consideration when considering a public education campaign about democracy:
Historic lack of attachment to our democratic institutions:
Australians’ civic deficit has deep roots. Federation failed to lodge in the national imagination in 1901 and the Anzac legend became entrenched as an alternative national mythology from 1915.
Constitutional and federation reform:
The Australian Constitution has proved extremely difficult to alter—only 8 of 44 referendums have succeeded since Federation. While referendums often involve highly complex and technical issues, history suggests that voters make their decisions emotionally rather than rationally. Creating a sense of pride and custodianship among Australians about our democracy is vital to achieving major initiatives such as an Indigenous Voice to Parliament, a republic and federation reform. Unless people are engaged imaginatively, they will resort to voting ‘no’ to change.
We need to create a mythology of democracy not another program of civics education:
Civics education in schools has not been successful in repairing the civic deficit. A public education campaign centred around the concept of ‘our democracy’, which promotes pride in our democratic achievements, will create the emotional engagement that is a prelude to the acquisition of civics knowledge.
Over one billion dollars have been allocated by government to Anzac commemoration over the last several years, including a $500 million renovation of the world class and amply funded Australian War Memorial. While much of this money would be better spent on veterans’ support services, some could be diverted towards a public education campaign about our democratic inheritance and our role as custodians of Australian democracy.
A diverse nation:
The latest census results confirm how culturally diverse our population is—27.6 per cent of us were born overseas, and 48.7 per cent have at least one parent born overseas. Some of us come from places where democratic mores are not culturally entrenched; many have no connection to the Anzac legend. We need to include all Australians in the democratic project.
People protect what they value. I recommend the introduction of a major government-led campaign of public education about Australian democracy:
- The program will emphasise achievements such as the early enfranchisement of women, early use of the secret ballot, compulsory voting, preferential voting, our independent, national electoral commission and Saturday voting.
- In celebrating Australia’s democratic achievements, the program will also acknowledge failures, most obviously relating to Indigenous Australians and non-Anglo migrants.
- It will be highly inclusive and emphasise that democracy is a precious and vulnerable asset, for which all Australians are responsible.
- A public education campaign will not only safeguard our democratic system, but also restore faith in politics and encourage Australians to become involved in grass-roots activism, such as demanding action on climate change and wealth inequality.
Dr Carolyn Holbrook
16 September 2022
 E.g., Report of Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs References Committee on Nationhood, national identity and democracy, December 2021; Report of House of Representatives Standing Committee on Social Policy and Legal Affairs Inquiry into constitutional reform and referendums, December 2021; ‘Threats to American Democracy’, 17 May 2022, Brookings Institution, Washington DC; ‘Democracy Under Threat: A Case for Co-ordinated Action?’, House of Lords Library, UK Parliament, 27 January 2022.
 ‘National Civics and Citizenship Report released’, ACER Discover, 22 January 2021.
Title Image: Campaign postcard for Vida Goldstein, Australian suffragist and political campaigner. Museums Victoria, HT 36235, https://collections.museumsvictoria.com.au/items/2029294