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Young Australians are engaged in political issues, but unsure how democracy works

Research shows young people are passionate about issues like marriage equality, but many do not understand how governments are formed and prime ministers elected. Shutterstock

Young Australians are engaged in political issues, but unsure how democracy works

The importance of Australians having the knowledge and skills to participate as active citizens is always a prominent issue. But in the past few months, it has been at the forefront of public discussion.

Recently, the federal government announced significant changes to citizenship laws, which includes a tougher test. It argues that more care is needed to ensure all new migrants understand the rules and responsibilities associated with becoming an Australian.

However, it’s not just new arrivals who may be unsure about the workings of Australia’s system of government and democracy. Many of Australia’s more established citizens may also be in the dark. With several federal MPs waiting for the High Court to determine their eligibility to remain in parliament, it appears that even some of our politicians are unsure of what the rules actually are.

This links in with questions about whether young Australians are being taught enough about our system of government, especially as little is known about the formation of political behaviour of young Australians.

The latest results from the National Assessment Program for Civics and Citizenship show that less than 50% of Year 10 students across the country achieved the Proficient Standard. New South Wales was the only state that achieved a passing grade at 51%. Tasmania and the Northern Territory scored a very low 32% and 20% respectively.


Further reading: Giving voice to the young: survey shows people want under-18s involved in politics


Civics and citizenship education in Australian schools

In recent decades, successive federal governments have sought to improve Australians’ knowledge and understanding of their citizenship responsibilities.

The need for Australian students to become “active and informed citizens” was recognised at a meeting of the Ministerial Council on Education, Employment, Training and Youth Affairs in 2008, and adopted the Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians.

Civics and Citizenship is part of the Australian Curriculum and is taught to students from Year 3 to Year 10. The assumption is that if children learn the principles of government and democracy at school, they will be engaged and active citizens when they can vote at 18.

But it seems many young people still aren’t sure about how Australia’s system of government works by the time they leave school. And they may also not have the skills to confidently participate in the political process.

In our research, we have been speaking to Australians aged 18 and 19 about how they learnt about politics, and if they feel ready to participate in democracy. Their accounts are interesting, if somewhat worrying.

A common concern of these young people is that they feel ill-equipped to participate in the political process. They expressed uncertainty about the powers of state and federal governments, and were unsure about the roles of the Senate and House of Representatives.

Many also felt perplexed by the voting system, to the point of lodging donkey votes or even informal ballots if they did not have parental guidance. How governments are formed and prime ministers selected also puzzled many.

While many were passionate about issues in the political debate such as marriage equality, they felt their limited knowledge hindered their ability to truly grasp the intricacies of the process to change the rules.

These young people, however, had an appetite to learn about the Australian system and wished they had done a compulsory set of classes on the subject. For example, many wanted to have learned about the different voting systems when they were in upper secondary school.

A national problem

There is consensus about the importance of having a population that has knowledge about how their system of government and democracy operates. In particular, an informed citizenry is able to participate in the democratic process and better hold decision-makers to account.

The stories of the young people we’ve spoken with indicate that it’s crucial for Australians to know about how their government works if they are to make informed decisions at the ballot box. If they do not possess this knowledge, they cannot vote with confidence or clarity.

How young people learn about their nation’s democracy is at the heart of this issue, and is something that must be examined by state and national governments.

Otherwise, in a country that has compulsory voting, this shortfall in knowledge not only deprives young citizens from having a meaningful say about their nation, but also works against building a more inclusive political system.

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