“The tone of modern political discourse [in Australia] has caused younger generations to become disillusioned with government, and by extrapolation, with democracy.” SOURCE
“In a result that confirmed the surprise findings of our 2012 Poll, only 59% of Australians say that ‘democracy is preferable to any other kind of government’, and more than one in eight (13%) say that ‘for someone like me, it doesn’t matter what kind of government we have’. Less than half (48%) of 18–29-year-old Australians say they prefer democracy over any other kind of government.” SOURCE
Today I was immensely proud of the students at our school and impressed with the generosity of local people seeking election to parliament. Our Student Representative Council (SRC) hosted an educational forum, attended by 300 students in our school hall, involving the nine of the eleven candidates contesting the federal electorate of Throsby in the upcoming election. It is the kind of event that, our school believes, begins to address the malaise evident in our Australian democracy if the Lowy Institute data is to be believed. It was the beginning of a more authentic engagement, for the young men and women at our school, with the ongoing dialogue that makes society civil. It is the beginning of a tradition at our school that will nurture our democracy locally and we hope the model gains widespread traction with other schools.
Two years ago, while on a leadership exchange to Denmark during their national election campaign, I was impressed with the authentic, active nature of the student engagement with the political process. The Danish students were active participants in the civic life of their community, organising forums, asking intelligent questions of the candidates about issues being debated across their country and generally valuing their democracy.
In fact, I was so impressed it has become a passion to implement these ideas at our school and hopefully, to demonstrate that the model can work for schools across Australia where many feel civics and citizenship courses lack authenticity and genuine impact. For the last two years our school has had a program involving many political leaders, at all levels of government, working with the Student Representative Council. Recent research into youth and democracy (see quotes and sources above) in Australia make it clear in my mind why we need to nurture our democracy.
Nurturing Democracy Program
Since 2011, Dapto High School has implemented a program to improve outcomes, specifically for civics and citizenship, called Nurturing Democracy. This has involved the Student Representative Council meeting local, state and federal political leaders. These leaders, from a range of different political parties, have shared their time, insights and experiences with students in workshops and presentations.
The focus is on Australian democratic processes and how one contributes, to make a difference, for our communities. One local ward councillor, Vicki Curran, ran a workshop supporting the students to make a written submission about several issues of importance to our community to the council. Students then addressed the council about this submission at a public forum. Several of our students advised the foreign minister, Bob Carr, about Asian Education initiatives. Gareth Ward, the Member for Kiama, spoke engagingly to the whole school, then delivered a great workshop with the SRC. The Lord Mayor, Gordon Bradbery, was truly inspirational with our students as he detailed his personal journey within the context of his vision for our local area. There have been other politicians and community leaders involved during the last two years, including our local federal member, Stephen Jones and an ex-student of our school, Ryan Park, the Member for Keira.
Throsby Candidates Forum
Today, our school, inspired by the Danish model, had the opportunity to see candidates for the federal seat of Throsby, where our school is located, engage in a dialogue with each other and our students. The candidates discussed issues and answered question, following a code of conduct that modelled intelligent, respectful discourse for our students so they could see an appropriate clash of ideas and perspectives.
Our forum today had candidates on stage, briefly outlining their policies, asking direct questions to each other about policy, before answering questions from students. Time limits were strictly enforced:
- Each candidate had a maximum of 2 minutes to briefly outline their vision for Throsby
- Each candidate had 1 minute to make a point and ask another candidate a question
- There was a 1 minute response time for each question
- The moderator called for questions from the audience to candidates
- Response time was 1 minute
- The candidates made a brief 1 minute closing statement
The time limits were very short but the aim was for students to be able to understand, succinctly framed, key issues and differences in political perspective. Some of the many topics discussed included youth unemployment, marriage equality, environmental issues, political integrity and the ideological differences between parties and candidates.
Our school will have a discussion about the forum and students will have an opportunity to provide anonymous feedback. The buzz during the event and in ‘the sanctuary’, our outdoor space where we gathered informally with the candidates, told me the students were excited and stimulated.
My Danish colleagues, students and friends know that the experience of seeing how their democracy was nurtured in the school system was the most exciting experience of my exchange. Today, the students at our school gave me the best birthday present I’ve had for a long while and I thank them. Bradley Chapman who MC-ed the event is to be especially congratulated, as are our school captains, Shruti Rajah and Jake Ramirez, for their reliability and excellence. All of the students who asked questions and the SRC were totally impressive in their leadership of the student body.
Well done and thank you.
Featured image courtesy of Caitlin West