Young peo­ple, po­lit­i­cal knowl­edge and the fu­ture of Aus­tralian democ­racy


Re­cently, Western Aus­tralian Greens Sen­a­tor, Jor­don SteeleJohn, in­tro­duced a bill to Fed­eral Par­lia­ment that pro­posed vol­un­tary vot­ing rights be granted to Aus­tralians aged 16 and 17. This has prompted a flurry of de­bate about whether or not a 16-year-old is ready for this re­spon­si­bil­ity.

Yet ir­re­spec­tive of the age at which they are able to vote, a young per­son must un­der­stand the Aus­tralian sys­tem of pol­i­tics and its elec­toral sys­tem to be pre­pared to con­fi­dently par­tic­i­pate in the demo­cratic process. The cur­rent prob­lem is that many young Aus­tralians may not pos­sess such knowl­edge.

In 1973, the vot­ing age in Aus­tralia was low­ered from 21 to 18. The de­ci­sion to re­duce the age of fran­chise re­ceived

In 1973, the vot­ing age in Aus­tralia was low­ered from 21 to 18.

bi­par­ti­san sup­port and re­flected the broad mood of the elec­torate. The ar­gu­ments at the time cen­tred around the fact that 18 year olds were able to drive, marry, work, pay taxes, and serve in the armed forces, so should there­fore have a say in who was run­ning the coun­try.


Those who sup­ported low­er­ing the vot­ing age to 18 also pre­sented young Aus­tralians as be­ing quan­tifi­ably dif­fer­ent from pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions. As Op­po­si­tion Leader Billy Sned­den put it, young Aus­tralians in the 1970s were ‘bet­ter in­formed, bet­ter able to judge, more con­fi­dent in their judge­ments, more crit­i­cal in their ap­praisals, and on more ma­ture terms with so­ci­ety around them'.


Cur­rent day sup­port­ers of fur­ther re­duc­ing the vot­ing age in Aus­tralia have ar­gued that to­day's 16 and 17 year olds are po­lit­i­cally lit­er­ate. They are, after all, ‘dig­i­tal na­tives', who have a vast source of po­lit­i­cal in­for­ma­tion at their fin­ger­tips. It is also thought that it is bet­ter to po­lit­i­cally en­gage ci­ti­zens when they are younger. The fam­ily and


ed­u­ca­tional net­works young peo­ple also have at this time of their life, help ‘so­cialise them into the prac­tice of vot­ing at elec­tions'. This means that


young peo­ple could be given ex­tra sup­port whilst en­gag­ing with the elec­toral process for the first time.

Pro­po­nents for change also ar­gue that low­er­ing the vot­ing age is the tonic to cure a sense of alien­ation some young peo­ple ex­pe­ri­ence with pol­i­tics. If the vot­ing age were low­ered then par­ties will make greater ef­forts to ad­vance the in­ter­ests of younger Aus­tralians.

There is, how­ever, rea­son to be cau­tious. Re­search sug­gests that 16-year-old Aus­tralians are un­likely to be po­lit­i­cally in­formed. There is also ev­i­dence point­ing to the pos­si­bil­ity that low­er­ing the vot­ing age would not nec­es­sar­ily in­crease po­lit­i­cal par­tic­i­pa­tion of young peo­ple. For

5 ex­am­ple, in­ter­na­tional ex­pe­ri­ence re­minds us that in­con­sis­ten­cies across ju­ris­dic­tions and schools in pre­par­ing young peo­ple to vote may re­sult in

Young peo­ple them­selves are also less than en­thu­si­as­tic about al­low­ing 16 year olds the right to vote.

patchy par­tic­i­pa­tion rates. Young


peo­ple them­selves are also less than en­thu­si­as­tic about al­low­ing 16 year olds the right to vote.

Crit­ics have also ar­gued that those un­der 18 do not have the ex­pe­ri­ence to be able to make an in­formed po­lit­i­cal choice. For some com­men­ta­tors, the fact that many young peo­ple lived with their par­ents and had yet to take on the re­spon­si­bil­i­ties of adult­hood was grounds to keep the vot­ing age at 18.7

Fur­ther con­cerns about the leg­is­la­tion ex­tend to its po­ten­tial to un­der­mine com­pul­sory vot­ing, which was in­tro­duced for fed­eral elec­tions in 1924.8 Rather than rely on the Aus­tralian Elec­toral Com­mis­sion, a statu­tory au­thor­ity, to get peo­ple out to vote, par­ties and can­di­dates would have to find ways to mo­bilise vot­ers un­der 18.

While this in it­self is not prob­lem­atic, it has the po­ten­tial to shift cam­paign­ing meth­ods to­wards modes seen in the USA or other sys­tems that use non-com­pul­sory vot­ing. Par­ties would there­fore have to bal­ance the pol­icy de­mands of the broader elec­torate with tar­get­ing the pop­u­la­tion of younger vot­ers.

There is also a view that the Greens and La­bor stand to ben­e­fit from a low­er­ing of the vot­ing age. This is


pred­i­cated on the as­sump­tion that young vot­ers tend to be more so­cially pro­gres­sive and would sup­port leftof-cen­tre can­di­dates. The ev­i­dence,

how­ever, sug­gests oth­er­wise. In our re­search on the vot­ing strate­gies of first time vot­ers in Aus­tralia, we found that many weigh up the suite of pro­pos­als be­fore de­cid­ing whom to vote for, in­clud­ing eco­nomic, wel­fare and so­cial poli­cies. In do­ing so, the vot­ing choices of young peo­ple broadly repli­cated the vot­ing pat­terns of the elec­torate.

10 Ir­re­spec­tive of whether or not the vot­ing age is low­ered, more needs to be done to pre­pare our young peo­ple for the re­spon­si­bil­ity of vot­ing.

While fam­ily is an im­por­tant source of po­lit­i­cal so­cial­i­sa­tion, the job of en­sur­ing that young peo­ple have the func­tional knowl­edge they need to con­fi­dently par­tic­i­pate in the elec­toral process lies with the school­ing sys­tem. This is the best place to pro­vide all young Aus­tralians ac­cess to ac­cu­rate in­for­ma­tion about how the sys­tem works and to pro­vide the knowl­edge they need to be em­pow­ered ci­ti­zens.

The as­sump­tion that young vot­ers tend to be more so­cially pro­gres­sive and would sup­port left-of-cen­tre can­di­dates. The ev­i­dence, how­ever, sug­gests oth­er­wise.

Civics and ci­ti­zen­ship ed­u­ca­tion in Aus­tralian schools

As Aus­tralia is a fed­er­a­tion, states are re­spon­si­ble for ad­min­is­ter­ing ed­u­ca­tion. This has meant that teach­ing young peo­ple about civics and ci­ti­zen­ship has var­ied across the states. It is within this con­text that suc­ces­sive na­tional govern­ments have sought to equip young Aus­tralians with knowl­edge about their civic rights and re­spon­si­bil­i­ties since the 1980s.

One of the most sig­nif­i­cant at­tempts to im­ple­ment a na­tional ap­proach to build­ing po­lit­i­cal lit­er­acy was made by the Keat­ing Govern­ment in 1994. Fol­low­ing con­sul­ta­tions with the com­mu­nity and ed­u­ca­tors, the Civics Ex­pert Group out­lined its find­ings in a re­port handed to the govern­ment. Amongst the rec­om­men­da­tions, the re­port pro­posed that all young peo­ple re­ceive civics ed­u­ca­tion through­out the com­pul­sory years of school­ing.

11 Although the Keat­ing Govern­ment wel­comed the re­port it could not fully act on its rec­om­men­da­tions as it lost the 1996 elec­tion. The in­com­ing Howard-led Coali­tion, how­ever, also had a de­sire to in­crease the po­lit­i­cal lit­er­acy of young Aus­tralians. In 1998, the govern­ment in­tro­duced the

Dis­cov­er­ing Democ­racy pro­gram, which im­ple­mented many of the themes iden­ti­fied by the Civics Ex­pert Group re­port in­clud­ing teach­ing young peo­ple the rights and re­spon­si­bil­i­ties of ci­ti­zen­ship, as well as how the Aus­tralian sys­tem of pol­i­tics and govern­ment was struc­tured.

More re­cently, the goal of pre­par­ing young Aus­tralians to be ac­tive and in­formed ci­ti­zens was in­cor­po­rated into the re­designed na­tional cur­ricu­lum. Known as the Aus­tralian Cur­ricu­lum: Civics and Ci­ti­zen­ship, this was in­tro­duced dur­ing the time of the Gil­lard Govern­ment. It seeks to pro­vide ed­u­ca­tors with tools to teach young Aus­tralians about democ­racy and civic par­tic­i­pa­tion.

Cur­rently, the civics and ci­ti­zen­ship cur­ricu­lum be­gins in Year 3 by pro­vid­ing stu­dents with a broad in­tro­duc­tion to val­ues and prin­ci­ples. The pro­gram con­tin­ues in each year level through pri­mary and se­condary schools and con­cludes in Year 10. By that stage stu­dents are ex­pected to have a more nu­anced un­der­stand­ing of how the par­lia­men­tary and ju­di­cial sys­tems work as well as how they may par­tic­i­pate in demo­cratic pro­cesses.


Since 2004, the Na­tional As­sess­ment Pro­gram – Civics and Ci­ti­zen­ship (NAP-CC) has sam­pled Year 6 and Year 10 stu­dents ev­ery three years in or­der to mea­sure their knowl­edge about sub­jects in­clud­ing Aus­tralian govern­ment and demo­cratic pro­cesses. The test iden­ti­fies the per­cent­age of stu­dents who achieve the pro­fi­cient stan­dard, which is a point on a scale that rep­re­sents what has been deemed as a chal­leng­ing, but rea­son­able, ex­pec­ta­tion of stu­dent achieve­ment for their year level. The most re­cent NAP-CC

13 tests were car­ried out in 2016.

The 2016 re­sults show that the pro­fi­ciency rate for Year 6 stu­dents has con­sis­tently been over 50 per cent and rose to its high­est rate of 55 per cent in the lat­est round. The re­sults for Year 10 stu­dents, how­ever, has been more volatile and has never reached 50 per cent. The strong­est re­sult was in 2010 when 49 per cent of Year 10 stu­dents reached the pro­fi­ciency level, but since then the re­sults have fallen. The 2016 Year 10 per­for­mance was the low­est on record at just 38 per cent.

This is a con­cern­ing re­sult as it shows that young Aus­tralians who are ap­proach­ing vot­ing age may not have the func­tional knowl­edge to con­fi­dently par­tic­i­pate in Aus­tralian demo­cratic pro­cesses.

A democ­racy op­er­ates best when its ci­ti­zens un­der­stand their na­tion’s sys­tem of govern­ment and its demo­cratic pro­cesses.

The fu­ture of Aus­tralian democ­racy

The ques­tion of whether in­di­vid­u­als pos­sess suf­fi­cient knowl­edge about pol­i­tics and govern­ment to par­tic­i­pate ef­fec­tively in the elec­toral process is an im­por­tant is­sue in ad­vanced lib­eral democ­ra­cies. Ac­cord­ing to nor­ma­tive the­ory, a democ­racy op­er­ates best when its ci­ti­zens un­der­stand their na­tion's sys­tem of govern­ment and its demo­cratic pro­cesses.

Those with higher lev­els of po­lit­i­cal lit­er­acy are bet­ter able to un­der­stand how de­ci­sions are made, bet­ter equipped to select can­di­dates that ad­vance their as­pi­ra­tions, and have the ca­pac­ity to make sense of the po­lit­i­cal de­bate. More­over, ci­ti­zens who know how a po­lit­i­cal sys­tem is struc­tured and func­tions are bet­ter able to hold de­ci­sion mak­ers ac­count­able and cast their vote with con­fi­dence.


The strength of Aus­tralian democ­racy there­fore lies in whether or not the Aus­tralian cit­i­zenry un­der­stands how the po­lit­i­cal sys­tem works, rather than the vot­ing age.

There have been con­certed ef­forts by state and na­tional govern­ments to pro­vide Aus­tralians with po­lit­i­cal knowl­edge, es­pe­cially through the ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem. The fact that the states have re­tained the con­sti­tu­tional power over the realm of ed­u­ca­tion, how­ever, has meant that na­tional pro­grams have of­ten lacked uni­for­mity as states have im­ple­mented re­forms at dif­fer­ent rates and times.

The end­ing of the com­pul­sory civics and ci­ti­zen­ship cur­ricu­lum at Year 10 is also lim­it­ing what young Aus­tralians know about their rights and re­spon­si­bil­i­ties. While they do en­counter many core themes in early years of school­ing, stu­dents need to con­sol­i­date this knowl­edge prior to leav­ing se­condary school. Op­por­tu­ni­ties ex­ist to do so.

Many schools run life skills classes for stu­dents in Year 11 and 12, where they are taught about is­sues such as re­silience, safe con­sump­tion of al­co­hol, and re­pro­duc­tive health. Within this frame­work, short cour­ses could be de­liv­ered to re­fresh and crys­tallise young peo­ple's un­der­stand­ing of Aus­tralian pol­i­tics and govern­ment. This would pro­vide greater con­fi­dence to school leavers about their civic rights and re­spon­si­bil­i­ties.

In sum, con­ver­sa­tions about a per­son's ca­pac­ity to vote re­spon­si­bly in Aus­tralia should not just be about age. It should be about knowl­edge. The only way young peo­ple will ever be able to con­trib­ute to the Aus­tralian demo­cratic process is if they are pro­vided with the knowl­edge and skills to do so con­fi­dently.

The strength of Aus­tralian democ­racy there­fore lies in whether or not the Aus­tralian cit­i­zenry un­der­stands how the po­lit­i­cal sys­tem works, rather than the vot­ing age.

IM­AGE: © Takver-flickr

IM­AGE: © Madeleine Hol­land - Flickr

There is cur­rently no com­pul­sory na­tional civics and ci­ti­zen­ship cur­ricu­lum for Year 11 and 12 stu­dents. In­stead, stu­dents must en­rol in an elec­tive unit such as Le­gal Stud­ies or Aus­tralian Pol­i­tics (if they are of­fered by their school), in their fi­nal years of high school if they wish to learn more about their na­tional sys­tem of pol­i­tics and govern­ment.

TA­BLE 1: Year 6 and Year 10 achieve­ment on the Na­tional As­sess­ment Pro­gram – Civics and Ci­ti­zen­ship14

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