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Thursday, 7 May 1987
Page: 2498

Senator PARER —I refer the Minister for Education to a report in the Weekend Australian of 2-3 May on the findings of a recent survey conducted by Newspoll, on behalf of the Constitutional Commission, which found that 46 per cent of those surveyed did not know that Australia had a Constitution and that, of people aged between 18 and 24 years, 70 per cent did not know the Constitution existed. What is the Minister's response to the statement by Sir Maurice Byers, QC, who said that the findings of the survey highlighted a `quite shocking deficiency in Australia's education system'? In view of the fact that a major responsibility of the nation's education system is to provide all those who pass through it with a knowledge of the Constitution and its place in Australian political life, what does the Government propose to do to remedy the appalling ignorance highlighted by the survey?

Senator RYAN —I did not see the survey that was discussed in the Weekend Australian, but I am aware of similar evidence that Australians are very ill-informed about the political structures and processes in this country, as indeed they are ill-informed about a few other things. I think it is quite reasonable to trace back some of the defects in the understanding of Australians of how their country works to shortcomings in school curriculums. It is partly in recognition of that fact that our Government has taken a number of initiatives. A major one is the Australian studies project, which is a bicentennial project, being conducted by us in consultation with the Australian Bicentennial Authority. This is aimed to ensure that all Australian school children will have access to learning about Australia at all stages of school and that learning about the political structures and the responsibilities of Australian citizens in our democracy will be part of that.

We hope in that way to help to rectify the defect in curriculum throughout Australia. It is also the case that the Commonwealth agency, the Curriculum Development Council, has in co-operation with the Australian Electoral Office developed a kit of material which is specifically designed to assist teachers to help students learn about the Australian Constitution, the two Houses of Parliament and so forth. From memory that kit is almost ready for completion but I will certainly supply the honourable senator with more specific information about that, because it will directly address the problems to which his question drew attention.

In conclusion, Senator Parer will be aware that the Commonwealth Government has no direct rights or responsibilities with regard to the setting of curriculum in our schools. Those rights and responsibilities are with the States, but it is through Commonwealth agencies, such as the Curriculum Development Council, that we are able to work in collaboration with the States in the non-government school system to produce curriculum which will overcome defects in State curriculum or which will improve the quality of teaching and learning in our schools. That is why we are extremely critical of any suggestions coming from the other side of the chamber, from any spokesperson for the Opposition or for the New Right or from anybody from the Centre of Policy Studies, that functions such as those of the Curriculum Development Council should be wiped out in order to make cost savings. It is a very good example of the kind of influence that the Commonwealth can have in overcoming defects in the curriculum. We are certainly moving to overcome the defect whereby very few students leave school with a proper grasp of the system in which they are expected to be an active, democratic citizen.