Why national constitutional, civics and citizenship education must be a priority for Australian school students

March 2019 Research paper

Research shows trust in the Australian system of government, government institutions and democracy is declining rapidly. CEFA has examined the latest surveys and reports to reflect on the state of the current problem and whether, if not addressed, it could similarly translate into a decline in civil society.

CEFA has written this paper because politicians, academics, teachers and the Australian public are all asking how did it get this way and can we turn this around.

A national constitutional, civics and citizenship education program that teaches all Australians, particularly school age children, about how our system of government works, where it came from and its history will empower Australians with factual knowledge to reverse the troubling trend of low trust in government.

Report 1. The Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) National Assessment Program of school students - Civics and Citizenship Report (NAP-CC) October-November 2016

The NAP-CC is a triennial sample assessment program that has been running since 2004. ACARA tests the skills and knowledge of a sample of year 6 and 10 students from every state and territory in civics and citizenship education. The NAP-CC also surveys these students about their attitudes, values and behaviours that relate to participatory citizenship. This includes their trust of political institutions. The backgrounds of the students broadly reflect the Australian community. Students who are less likely to display adequate knowledge are more likely to come from families that are less educated and with lower level jobs or unemployment, from smaller cities and remote communities and are indigenous. Female students performed statistically significantly better than male students.

There are six levels of achievement labelled ‘proficiency standards’. Year 6 students are expected to reach level 2 and year 10 students should be able to reach level 3. The NAP-CC does not use the content from the Australian Curriculum for the test, but the aims of the curriculum reflect the test.

Year 6 students have a test of 39 questions and year 10 students answer 42 questions. Some questions are multiple choice, others require a written answer. Since 2013 the test has been conducted online.

To reach level 2 students must be able to:

  • analyse an image of multiple identities
  • recognise the concept of terra nullius
  • suggest a disadvantage of consensus decision making
  • identify the role of the Prime Minister
  • identify the origins of the Westminster system
  • give a reason explaining the contribution of aid to regional security
  • identify a correct statement about the federal system of government
  • identify a purpose for the existence of public records
  • recognise the definition of an independent member of parliament
  • recognise that a vote on a proposed change to the constitution is a referendum and understand the underlying principles of a referendum
  • identify a change in Australia’s national identity leading to changes in the national anthem
  • recognise that respecting the right of others to hold differing opinions is a democratic principle
  • recognise the division of governmental responsibilities in a federation
  • identify the role of the Governor-General
  • recognise changes in our national identity over time
  • recognise why a fair society needs to be based on rules and laws
  • recognise the role of the voter in a representative democracy
  • identify the names of the two houses of the Australian Parliament
  • identify one way that colonisation affected Indigenous Australian self-governance.

Only 55% of year 6 students were able to reach this proficiency standard in 2016. This result has been relatively stable since 2004 with just over half of the sample students reaching the required level of achievement.

To reach level 3 students must be able to:

  • identify a group that actively represents a sector within the community
  • justify reasons for restrictions to free speech
  • identify that sites of historic significance belong to the whole community
  • recognise some key functions and features of the parliament such as defining the role of the speaker of the House of Representatives
  • refer to the notion of the common good as a motivation for signing a petition and identify that signing a petition shows support for a cause
  • explain how governments may change laws to ensure state and federal consistency
  • justify the importance of elections in a democracy
  • identify that community representation taps local knowledge
  • identify the value of participatory decision-making processes
  • identify the importance in democracies for citizens to engage with issues
  • identify benefits of volunteering to the individual and the community
  • recognise the key feature of the separation of powers in Australia.

Only 38% of year 10 students reached the level 3 required ‘proficiency standard’ in 2016. There has been a very large drop in results over the last two cycles of testing (2013 and 2010) and 2016 are the lowest on results on record since the testing began in 2004.

The second part of the NAP-CC assessment is the survey. Many of the survey questions have remained constant in the assessment since 2004 which enables a longitudinal study of attitudes. Students are asked how much they trust eight groups or institutions that are vital to our democracy. In 2016 76% of year 6 students and 53% of year 10 students trust the Australian Parliament. However, those students who had met the ‘proficiency standard’ of that test were more trusting of the parliament and other civic institutions than the students that could not demonstrate their knowledge of civics and citizenship education to the required level.

Both year 6 and year 10 students stated that the biggest issues affecting Australia were pollution, unemployment, climate change and crime. However, students with higher scores on the assessment were less likely to be concerned about problems affecting the country such as the ones listed above.

The survey also encompassed student engagement in civics and citizenship activities. Generally year 10 students reported less involvement in school activities than year six. The report found that the more civics activities students were involved in, the higher their scores were on the NAP-CC assessment. Both year levels have had a large decline in participating in activities in the community, but those who were involved in civics activities in the community had better results. 58% of year 6 students and 44% of year 10 students reported having been on an excursion to a parliament, local government or a law court. Students who reported going on these excursions generally did better on the test (the report notes that there could be other factors that may have impacted this result).

Students were also asked how they gathered civics related information. Students who gained their news from the internet or the radio performed better on the test. Students who took part in internet-based political discussions or read the newspaper had significantly worse results. Talking to family about political issues was associated with better results and talking to your friends was associated with better results for year 10 students and worse results for year 6 students.

Report 2. Youth Political Engagement in Australia and the United States: Student Councils and Volunteer Organizations as Communities of Practice. Gary A. Homana. Journal of Social Science Education Volume 17, Number 1, Spring 2018.

This paper examines the link between political participation/engagement during school years and higher levels of trust in political institutions. Students who undertook civics activities in school and through extra-curricular volunteering are more likely to become informed voters and active citizens.

Research has found that schools who rigorously teach civics content and promote participatory action are more likely to achieve high-quality civic engagement outcomes. Schools are uniquely positioned to provide learning opportunities where students can engage and try to understand others’ points of view, make decisions about issues and acquire a sense of identity as someone prepared to take action.

Community activities can also facilitate a sense of belonging built on trust. Research has found that trust among adolescents is associated with increased expectations of voting, writing letters on political issues, reading newspapers and volunteering. Students who are not involved in community activities are more likely to become ‘alienated’. Adolescents that are ‘alienated’ and have little trust in government, lack respect for the law and possess negative attitudes about their neighbourhoods and schools. These students are less likely to become active adult citizens.

Students who voted or were candidates in school council elections were better prepared to vote as adults and more knowledgeable about politics than students who did not engage in these school-based activities. The paper emphasises that it is crucial that education programs are of high quality and designed to support the development of political participation.

There is also evidence that volunteering is associated with stronger civic identity and a sense of responsibility. Research has also discovered that by giving students an opportunity to observe adults in political and civic activities helps cultivate an active voice for the students.

Report 3. Australian Electoral Study 1987-2016

The Australian Electoral Study has been conducted after every election since 1987. This survey gives a long-term view on the stability and change in the political attitudes and behaviour of Australians. There were similar surveys conducted in 1967, 1969 and 1979 and for some areas of attitude and behaviour this data is also included.

This survey found that satisfaction with democracy is at its lowest since the 1979 election which was held not long after the Dismissal of the Whitlam Government. The highest point for satisfaction is democracy was in 2007 at 86%. Less than ten years later it had dropped 26 points to 60%.

Only 26% of people believe that that government can be trusted, the lowest level recorded since 1969 and 74% of people believe that people in government look after themselves first, the highest level recorded.

Only 14% of respondents believe that politicians know what ordinary people think and only 12% think that government is run for all the people. A majority of 56% believe that government is run for a few big interests, the highest level recorded since 1998.

Report 4. Democracy 2025: Trust and democracy in Australia December 2018 report by MoAD, and the University of Canberra Institute of Governance & Policy Analysis

This report states that liberal democracies are founded on a delicate balance between trust and distrust across the society. Australia’s constitutional arrangements are designed on the basis of trust. Trust in democracy is declining in Australia and if the trend continues by 2025 fewer than 10% of Australian will trust their politicians and political institutions according to this report.

Fewer than 41% of Australian citizens are satisfied with the way democracy works, compared to 86% in 2007 and 72% in 2013. Key findings from the report show that women are generally less satisfied with democracy in Australia than men and more distrusting. Generation X is the most disillusioned at 31% and the happiest cohort are the Baby Boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) at 50%.

Members of Parliament are distrusted by nearly half the population at 48%, while Government Ministers are trusted to some degree by only 23% of the population. Public servants rate a little higher at 38%. 55% of people think that politicians don’t care about people like themselves.

The report finds that there is a significant relationship between economic wellbeing and satisfaction with the way democracy works. Politics in Australia is seen as sexist by 58% of people, compared to the workplace at 53% and the media at 42%.

People who support a major political party or are members are generally more satisfied with democracy. Only 47.5% of Liberal voters trust the current Coalition Government.

Social trust is also starting to break down. 75% of Baby Boomers report that people mostly look after themselves and 53% of Millennials state that most people would take advantage of others if they had a chance. Only 34% of Generation Z believe that generally speaking most people can be trusted and 46% of Generation X state that most people make agreements honestly. The Builders Generation (born between 1925 and 1945) have the rosiest view of our society with 76% believing that most of the time people try to be helpful.

The report also found that many voters care more about effective and competent government over promises for more dollars in their pocket. Citizens like the way democracy delivers peace and stability, free and fair elections, a strong economy and public service, but do not believe that politicians are focusing on the issues that really matter. They are so disillusioned that 62% of the respondents for the survey believed that voters should have the right to recall ineffective local MPs, including 56% of Liberal voters.

Report 5. Lowy Institute Poll June 2018

The annual Lowy Institute Poll seeks to understand Australian attitudes to the world. The things that Australians see as threats to Australia are terrorism by 66% of people, climate change by 58%, cyber-attacks from other countries by 57%, the threat of a global economic downturn by 50%, fake news by 42% and immigration in Australia by 40%. Only 17% of Australians are satisfied with the way things are going in the world. 49% of Australians are satisfied with the way things are going in Australia and 46% are unsatisfied, showing a divided Australia.

The results on satisfaction with democracy is similar to previous years back to 2012. Overall, 62% believe that democracy is preferable to any of the kind of Government, while that number drops for 18-44 years olds to only 47%.

For the past two years of the survey Australians have felt more unsafe, from 8% in 2005 to 21% now.

Report 6. Scanlon Foundation Mapping Social Cohesion Surveys July 2018

The Scanlon Foundation has been conducting its survey since 2007. During that period of time Australia’s population has grown by about five million from about 20 to now 25 million. The 2018 paper takes in data from the census as well as the eleven years of past surveys to provide a wealth of demographic information. In 2018 Scanlon used two survey methods. The first method was randomised telephone polling and the other was a randomised online survey.

The first question of the Scanlon Foundation survey is open-ended and asks ‘What do you think is the most important problem facing Australia today?’ From 2010 the first ranked issue has been the economy, unemployment and poverty. In 2018 the second ranked issue was the environment and the quality of government/politicians was third ( this has been the 2nd to 4th ranked issue since 2013). Terrorism ranks at 12, well below housing, health and education.

Much of the focus of this survey is on immigration, but social cohesion does include Australian attitudes to government and democracy. Trust in Government is at 30%, which is about the same as it has been for the past four years. At the end of the Howard Government it was at 39% and the high point for trust was in 2009 at 48%. Those least trusting are the poor who are struggling to pay bills, Green voters and One Nation voters. Those most trusting are  18-24 years olds, the over 75s, those with a BA or higher qualifications, the prosperous, those from a non-English speaking backgrounds and Liberal and National Voters. But even then only 46% of Coalition voters have any trust in government.

At the time of the survey in July 2018, respondents were asked whether the system of government we have in Australia, as it is, works fine, needs minor change, needs major change, or should be replaced. 37% of the telephone interviewed respondents and 43% of the online survey respondents stated that it needed major change or should be replaced. After Malcolm Turnbull was removed as Prime Minister in August 2018, that question was asked again in September using an online survey and the negative response jumped 5 points to 48%. Those most likely to want the system to undergo major change or be replaced are those with up to year 11 schooling, trades people, those just getting along financially, the poor and One Nation voters. People aged 18-24, with a BA or higher qualification, are prosperous, from a non-English speaking background and vote Liberal National were less likely to want major change or a replacement of the system of government.

The question of ‘what extent do you have a sense of belonging in Australia’ has seen people agreeing ‘to a great extent’ drop from 77% in 2007 to 64% in 2018. 19% of those surveyed had experienced discrimination because of their skin colour, ethnic origin or religion in 2018.

Trust within our society has been between 45% and 55% since 2007. In 2018 it is at 48%. Those least likely to trust other people are just getting along financially or are poor, have up to year 11 schooling and are One Nation voters. Those most trusting have a BA or higher qualifications, are prosperous and vote Greens.

Report 7. Democracy, Trust and Legitimacy Lecture by Simon Longstaff from the Ethics Centre 2015

This paper argues that great institutions are betraying the ideals for which they were established and are being perceived by the wider public as being hypocritical. One of the ways to solve this problem is to go back to the fundamental purposes of these institutions. Longstaff believes we are at the end of a period he describes as the ‘long age of forgetting’. In this period the basic purpose and foundations of our institutions have been forgotten. The reason why these institutions were created and what they were meant to solve is now being remembered.

Longstaff argues that we need to start thinking afresh in terms of what democracy actually is and that the best way to distinguish between political systems is to examine where the power lies. In our type of democracy the power lies with the people that are being governed. This of course means that there are limitations that apply on any government in Australia. The Government is bound not only by our Constitution, but by the people. And not only the particular people who elect them, but the whole population. Longstaff goes on to say that party politics in Australia has created politicians that only have a partial gaze when it comes to looking at the Australian public. Parties focus their attention on certain groups including those living in marginal electorates and pockets of the population that are judged as having greater influence. As has been reflected in the papers examined for this report, those with lower education and those who are poorer feel left out and are least trusting.

The other aspect about the power being with the people is that when they vote they are giving an active expression of consent to a candidate and/or a party. The quality of that consent becomes critical and should be free and informed. In the last ten years or so the issue of informed consent has been criticised in discussions about democracy as it cannot be informed consent if it was based on a lie or falsehood. Informed consent can only be given if the candidates seeking office are giving a truthful account of what they propose to do after the election. Longstaff claims that the breaking of promises is having a very profound effect on trust in politics, political parties and political institutions.

Parliaments do not belong to political parties and they do not belong to politicians, they belong to citizens. They are for the benefit of people in Australia. Longstaff states that ethical restraint becomes essential if politicians don’t want to destroy democratic institutions and that we have lost some of the deeper dimensions that used to unite people in earlier decades.

This paper also examines when loss of trust becomes a loss of legitimacy. Longstaff states that legitimacy is lost when no one will deal with you irrespective of the cost. He argues once again that we need to go back to the purpose of our political institutions. Over time there has been a slowly rising tide of concern within the electorate. We are at a point where the tide is too high and legitimacy has been lost. There is an abiding sense in Australia that there needs to be fairness and an equitable society and that there is an ethical component of what we do.

Longstaff states that being a politician involves making very difficult decisions, which sometimes include breaking promises. Responsible Ministers are required under our Constitution. When something requires a Minister to break their word to the electorate this undoes the consent that the electorate gave them and they need to pay the price. Ultimately the legitimacy of democracy comes from consent and the quality of consent.

Longstaff is also concerned about the increasing partial gaze of the Australian Public Service. He states that this is the one bit of government which must be responsible to every single citizen, irrespective of where they live, what electorate they are in and whatever their condition.

Finally Longstaff believes that politicians should make a pledge to the Australian people. It starts with ‘the practice of politics is intended to be a noble calling, and area in which a good citizen might contribute to the establishment and maintenance of a good society’.

Report 8. A crisis of trust. The rise of protest politics in Australia. Danielle Wood and John Daley. The Grattan Institute March 2018.

The Grattan Institute published this report which examines the relationship between the rise in minor party/independent votes and trust in politics in early 2018. Grattan argue that Australians who vote for minor parties have much lower trust in government than those who vote for the major parties. The report also states that the number of people voting for minor parties has been rising since 2007 and that more than 70% of Australians believe that our system of government needs reform. Voters in regional areas of Australia are more dissatisfied than those living in the cities. The Grattan Institute argues that this is because Australia is changing too fast for some people. Regional voters are losing their sense of cultural power and our bush culture is replaced by a more city-centric cosmopolitan culture. The report also discusses the push factors that are driving people to vote for minor parties. Grattan states that to improve the trust in political institutions reforms should be considered. These include changes to political donations laws, expanding party memberships to prevent unrepresentative democracy, curbing lobbying influence, reforming the parliamentary entitlement system and creating a federal anti-corruption body.

The Grattan report states that we are at a tipping point. Public ambivalence towards Liberal and Labor has led some voters (65%) to question whether parties are necessary to make the political system work. Grattan argue that if major parties fail to respond to voter dissatisfaction, then democratic electorates will rebuild governments without them. Once an independent or minor party candidate receives more than 25% of the vote in a lower house seat, major party candidates are under threat via electoral arithmetic in our preferential system.

Report 9. Five ideas to fix Australia Author: Breheny, Simon; Rozner, Gideon; Begg, Morgan; Wild, Daniel; Lesh, Matthew Source: Institute of Public Affairs Review: A Quarterly Review of Politics and Public Affairs, The, Vol. 70, No. 1, May 2018: [16]-19

With public satisfaction with our democratic processes and public trust in politicians at some of the lowest levels ever, the IPA have suggested five ways to revitalise our democracy.

This paper includes some reforms that may be more difficult to realise than others. One idea is to expand the number of states in Australia to 10-15 to create competition between the States and improve representative democracy. Another is to implementing recall elections where Members of Parliament could be expelled if a certain proportion of their electorate agree. The IPA argues that public funding of for-profit schools would increase competition in the education sector and abolishing the minimum wage would increase employment. The final idea suggested is to increase the number of Parliamentarians to balance the Parliament and the Executive. It is argued that this would give backbenchers more power to influence policy making.

Report 10. What the Australian Public knows about the High Court. 2018 research paper by Ingrid Nielsen and Russell Smyth published in the Federal Law review.

This report examines ordinary Australians knowledge about the High Court of Australia. A survey of 520 people was conducted in November 2017 to assess the public awareness of the High Court. Very few Australians could identify the individual justices of the Court (between 6 and 11%), how the justices are appointed (35%), how long justices remain on the Court (17%), how many justices sit on the Court (20%) and how many justices are women (14%). However, more than half of the respondents could identify two recent High Court cases (the citizenship seven at 65% and the legal validity of the same sex marriage postal survey at 60%).

Respondents who were better educated were more knowledgeable about the High Court. There was not much difference between men and women in the results, apart from women having a better understanding of the same sex marriage postal vote survey case. Older people also had better knowledge.

The hypothesis of this paper is that when Australians do not have a good understanding of the High Court and its role in our democracy, it is easy for people to believe that it has a political motive. This can mean that the Court may be held in lower esteem than it should be. Knowledge about the Court in linked to support of the Court and the ability to distinguish the role of the Court from the legislature and the executive.


Trust in the Australian Government and our democracy is declining as demonstrated by current research. There are a myriad of reasons. And many possible solutions. At the forefront of these is a simple and cost effective solution, CEFA’s multimedia Australian Constitution Centre at the High Court. The supporting curriculum available on the accompanying education website contributes to the learning and education that Australian students require. The fact that it is presented in a fun, entertaining and exciting way adds to its learning success outcomes.

The implementation of the Australian curriculum will ensure that young Australians have the knowledge about our Constitution and system of government so that they can become informed and active citizens. Knowledge empowers our communities. With knowledge we vote for leaders who have the vision to find solutions to the issues affecting Australia.

In 2016 just over half of year 6 students and only 38% of year 10 students met the required proficiency levels of the NAP-CC testing. This is a dreadful result.

To reach the proficiency level in year 6, students needed to understand basic information about our processes of government. Only a little more than half were able to demonstrate that knowledge. But it is even worse for year 10. Education programs need to be sequenced and build on each year level.

By year 10 students need to be able to use basic information about our system of government and democracy to become active and engaged citizens. If students don’t know how the system of government operates, even at a basic level, they cannot demonstrate what active citizenship involves in their own community. We need to do better.

There is hope. The research shows that children who have proficient knowledge of civics and citizenship are less worried about the problems affecting the country. Could it be that these children, with their knowledge of the system of government, are more likely to trust that these problems can be solved by our politicians and institutions?

As Simon Longstaff stated, we are at the end of the ‘long age of forgetting’. Australians want to remember why our public institutions were created and their basic purpose. It is very important that the public, including our school children, are educated about the history of our system of government with non-partisan curriculum, so that this period of remembering our history is taught in a truthful manner. CEFA’s education programs and initiatives do this.

Leaving our children on their own to find information about our system of government is dangerous. The NAP-CC found that students who participated in online discussions about politics performed significantly worse, perhaps reflecting the dangers of social media echo chambers. Students who learned from non-biased educational resources have higher levels of civics and citizenship knowledge and skill.

If we don’t do something about this problem now, it will only get worse. The Democracy 2025 project report suggest that the downward slide in trust in democracy will result in less than 10% of Australians trusting their politicians and political institutions by 2025. That’s only six years away.