Teaching young Australians to be active and informed citizens should be at the heart of our education system.
Indeed, the document that paved the way for the National Curriculum – the Melbourne Declaration on Education Goals for Young Australians recognised the importance of teaching students to be “committed to national values of democracy” and to “participate in Australia’s civic life”.
But, sadly, thanks to years of education policy paralysis and the howling histrionics of flag-hating politicians, too many young Australians aren’t just inactive and ill-informed citizens, but openly ambivalent about democracy.
And there’s no sign the new Education Minister wants to do anything about it.
In the weeks since his appointment, Jason Clare has dutifully pressed ahead with the platform of his predecessor, Tanya Plibersek, overhauling the National Chaplaincy Program and (regrettably) declaring his disinterest in making further changes to the National Curriculum. Instead of taking the path of least political resistance, Clare should show courage, and embrace a Plibersek initiative far less loved by left-wing activists: a pledge of allegiance in Australian schools.
In January 2020 speech, Plibersek made the case for every boy and girl to learn the Citizenship Pledge, which is recited by new Australians at citizenship ceremonies: “From this time forward, I pledge my loyalty to Australia and its people whose democratic beliefs I share, whose rights and liberties I respect, and whose laws I will uphold and obey.”
In her address, Plibersek described the pledge as “an elegant expression of what it takes to be a good citizen – of the rights we hold and the responsibilities we owe”.
She’s right. The pledge is an efficient and evocative statement in defence of democracy, freedom, and the rule of law. Its universality makes it anti-woke; it doesn’t divide citizens based on race or sex. And it’s classically Australian in its directness.
Of course, the blowback against Plibersek was brutal and swift.
Author Jane Caro responded by saying she hoped her own children “ally themselves with decency, kindness and compassion, not spurious geography”, while barrister and pro-Assange activist Greg Barns SC tweeted: “pledging allegiance to a nation that commits serial human rights abuses against asylum seekers and jails Indigenous Australians in record numbers?No thanks”.
The Senate had the good sense to disagree, passing a motion two weeks later backing Plibersek’s call for the pledge to be recited in schools, by 51 votes to nine.
Greens senator Mehreen Faruqi opposed the motion, labelling the pledge a “jingoistic pantomime that fails to acknowledge Australia’s settler colonial past and continued occupation”.
Jason Clare should have the good sense to pick up where the overhwhelming majority of senators left off.
Only 38 per cent of year 10 students met the national benchmark for civics and citizenship in 2019, while this year’s Lowy Institute poll found nearly a third of Australians aged 18-29 did not agree with the statement “democracy is preferable to any other kind of government”.
No serious country should accept these statistics.
Of course, the best way to fix this problem is by fixing the National Curriculum but a good place to start is by requiring primary school students to learn the Citizenship Pledge as part of their civics and citizenship studies. Currently, students in year 5 are instructed to “discuss” the pledge and what it says about Australian values, but they aren’t required to learn its text or recite it.
In other words, they’re neither “active” nor “informed”. And what’s the point of mentioning it at all if students aren’t required to learn it? But perhaps the most effective argument for properly teaching students about the pledge is the patriotic argument.
According to a poll commissioned by the Institute of Public Affairs, 82 per cent of Australians are “proud” to be Australian. Only 3 per cent say they aren’t proud. Patriotism, it turns out, is wildly popular. Yet it is scantily affirmed in schools.