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Inquiry into Civics Education, Engagement, and Participation in Australia

Civics education, engagement, and participation are fundamental to the health and sustainability of a functioning democracy.1 Civics education allows individuals to develop the knowledge and skills necessary to participate effectively in democratic processes which then creates informed and engaged communities.2 Moreover, it promotes critical thinking and helps combat misinformation, ensuring that public discourse remains grounded in fact. Having regard to the Law Council’s functions, this in turn assists community debate over the betterment of the law in the public interest.

Australia is one of 10 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries in which voting is compulsory,3 with election participation rates consistently over 90 per cent.4 However, the value of compulsory voting is significantly undermined if voters do not have a basic level of civics education attainment to inform their vote. A basic understanding of concepts core to our model of democracy is necessary to enable meaningful civic participation. Regrettably, in Australia, the level of civics education attainment has been worrying low and has not been improving.5 In 2019, only 53 per cent of Year 6, and 38 per cent of Year 10 students were at or above the proficient national standard for civics education;6 and 28 per cent of Year 6, and 24 per cent of Year 10 students believed that the government determined a referendum result.7

On 14 October 2023, Australians aged 18 and over were given the opportunity to exercise their civic duty by participating in the Australian Indigenous Voice Referendum (the Voice Referendum). The experience of the Voice Referendum has brought Australia’s civics education crisis to centre stage.8 Analysis of the Voice Referendum has identified poor civics education (along with misinformation and disinformation) as contributing to widespread confusion about the proposed constitutional amendments in that context. In particular, concerns have been reported that a lack of understanding of First Nations history and key aspects of Australia’s Constitution may have played a significant role– for example, many ‘no’ voters feared that the Voice would insert race into the Constitution10 (when in fact the Constitution already contains a ‘race power’ for Parliament to make laws in respect to people of any race);11 and some had the erroneous belief that Indigenous Australians are now treated equally compared to non-Indigenous Australians, and are not experiencing disadvantage.12

Read the full submission below.


1 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, opened for signature 16 December 1966, 993 UNTS 3 (entered into force 3 January 1976), art 13(1) which recognises that State Parties “recognise the right of everyone to education… and agree that education shall enable all persons to participate effectively in a free society, promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations and all racial, ethnic or religious grounds, and further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.
2 In Australian Capital Television v Commonwealth (1992) 177 CLR 106, the High Court recognised the implied freedom of political communication in the Australian Constitution – this right allows persons in the community
to ‘exercise a free and informed choice as electors’ (see Lange v Australian Broadcasting Corporation (1997) 189 CLR 520, 570).
3 Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 (Cth), s 215(1).
4 Australian Electoral Commission, Compulsory voting in Australia (20 November 2023).
5 Assessing the data from the 2016 and 2019 National Assessment Plan – Civics and Citizenship assessment, Year 6 students dropped two percentage points from 2016 (55 per cent to 52 per cent) and Year 10 students
stayed the same since 2016 (38 per cent). See the NAP -Civics and Citizenship 2019 Public Report, pages 23-24.
6 Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority, NAP Civics and Citizenship 2019: National Report (2019) 23-24.
7 Parliament of Australia, ‘Civics education: is Australia making the grade?’ (14 June 2023).
8 The Guardian, ‘The voice referendum turned into an overdue civics lesson. Sadly, many failed the test’ (16 October 2023).
9 Australian Broadcasting Organisation, ‘Hope truth-telling through education will improve understanding of Indigenous issues after failed Voice referendum’ (15 April 2024). See also ‘Social Justice Commissioner: now more than ever, Australia must reconcile with its First Nations people’, media release (online), 27 May 2024.
10 The Guardian, ‘Indigenous voice referendum AMA: are we ‘putting race in the constitution’?’ (2 October 2023).
11 Australian Constitution, s 51(xxvi).
12 The Australian National University Centre for Social Research and Methods, Detailed analysis of the 2023 Voice to Parliament Referendum and related social and political attitudes (20 November 2023) viii.

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