Introduction - Ministerial Statement

Dr Brendan Nelson
Commonwealth Minister of Education, Science and Training

Civics and citizenship education is an important national priority. Our democracy depends on informed participation. Schools play a crucial role in helping to foster such participation. Young people need to understand the workings of our political and legal system and our history as a democratic nation so they can take their place as confident and open-minded citizens in a twenty-first century Australia.

The Commonwealth Government has committed some $32 million to preparing our young people to become effective and responsible citizens through the Discovering Democracy programme. I am delighted that the high quality Discovering Democracy curriculum resources already provided free of charge to all schools have won such widespread acclaim in the education community. I am also pleased that the extensive Discovering Democracy professional development activities in States and Territories are helping teachers become increasingly more confident in handling civics and citizenship education.

Discovering Democracy has helped to revitalise what had become a neglected part of the school curriculum. Civics and citizenship education is now winning increased recognition throughout Australia, both in State/Territory curriculum documents and in school practices. All education authorities agree that effective civics and citizenship education is central to contemporary schooling.

The National Goals for Schooling in the Twenty-first Century, agreed by all Education Ministers, include an emphasis on educating students to understand their role in Australia's democracy. The National Goals state that students, when they leave school, should 'be active and informed citizens with an understanding and appreciation of Australia's system of government and civic life.' (Goal 1.4). In addition students are expected to 'have the capacity to exercise judgement and responsibility in matters of morality, ethics and social justice, and the capacity to make sense of their world, to think about how things got to be the way they are, to make rational and informed decisions about their own lives, and to accept responsibility for their own action' (Goal 1.3). All Education Ministers have agreed to the development of performance indicators so that student learning in civics and citizenship can be assessed and reported in the future.

Discovering Democracy helps students to learn about Australia's democratic heritage and the values underpinning it, including equality, liberty, fairness, trust, mutual respect and social co-operation. Discovering Democracy also helps students to learn how the Australian system of government and law operates and to explore what it means to be an Australian today. Students can discover how Australian national identity has changed over time and how it has come to encompass both cultural diversity and social cohesion. For example, students can analyse both how Federation in 1901 was followed by the White Australia policy and how our democracy has been immeasurably strengthened since then by the contributions of migrants from all over the world with their diverse heritages and cultures.

 Students can actively discover the nature and meaning of Australian democracy through both classroom study and local community investigation and participation. In this way, they can acquire the skills and values necessary for informed and active participation in civic life. Discovering Democracy in Australia means in part discovering that Australian democracy is underpinned by, and depends on, a vibrant civic life. Democracy in Australia means more than what happens in Parliament House and at election time, important as they are. As Australians we have an inspiring history of getting together to solve problems in our communities; for example through volunteer bush fire brigades, through ethnic community clubs and welfare associations, and through women's support and advocacy groups.

Australia has a rich democratic history. The secret ballot, for example, a nineteenth-century Australian invention, was once known around the world as 'the Australian ballot'. Australia was a world leader in payment of Members of Parliament and votes for women. The Australian practice of holding elections on Saturdays made voting easier. Our nation-building process, Federation, came about not through violence or civil war, but through the thoughtful democratic involvement of ordinary Australians. They literally constituted the nation by attending mass meetings, sending delegates to Conventions, and voting in referendums.

We can all take pride in this history. We should remember, too, its debts to British traditions of constitutional government and parliamentary rule and to older ideas of democracy going back as far as Ancient Greece. Discovering Democracy helps students to appreciate this history. It also helps them to understand that, for a long time, the story of Australian democracy was a story which excluded Indigenous Australians. It is important to remember that it was not really until the 1967 referendum, for example, that Indigenous Australians were recognised as full members of the Australian community. Discovering Democracy helps us to understand this history and attempts to change the situation through, for example, the Aboriginal day of mourning on 26 January 1938 and the Freedom Rides in 1965.

As Australians we have rights with which also come responsibilities. We should not exercise one without understanding the other. We live in a free, independent and democratic country which enables us to express our views while respecting and listening to those of others.

The attractive and comprehensive Discovering Democracy school resources and the associated teacher professional development are helping to put civics and citizenship education back on the map in Australian schools. As the materials become more widely used and teachers become more confident in adapting them, I look forward to students having a much stronger understanding of Australian democracy and of their role in it. In turn, I look forward to students using this knowledge to make our political system and our civic communities livelier and more constructive.