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Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters
Electoral education

GAGNON, Dr Jean-Paul, Assistant Professor in Politics, University of Canberra


CHAIR: Welcome. Although the committee does not require you to give evidence under oath, I should advise you that this hearing is a legal proceeding of the parliament and therefore has the same standing as proceedings of the respective houses. Do you have an opening statement?

Dr Gagnon : I do, sir. I am appearing on behalf of my colleagues. I have prepared a formal statement, which I am obliged to read or else I will pay for my sins. If you could humour me for about 10 minutes or so, would that be okay?

CHAIR: Please go ahead.

Dr Gagnon : Thank you. I would first like to begin by thanking the panel members of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters for this opportunity to share the work that my colleagues and I have done on civics education in recent years. I will be speaking on behalf of my team today.

I would also like to thank Rebecca Gordon and her colleagues for their work in organising this instalment of your public hearing program.

By way of brief introduction, I am assistant professor of political science at the University of Canberra and a fellow at the Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis, which is directed by Professor Mark Evans. I am a democratic theorist and focus my work on the problems and puzzles that are experienced in democracies such as Australia's.

Beginning with the committee's terms of reference, my colleagues Associate Professor Mark Chou of the Australian Catholic University, Drs Lesley Pruitt and Kathy Edwards from the RMIT, Dr Catherine Hartung from Deakin University and I read the AEC's 2013-14 annual report and came to admire the efforts made by the AEC on electoral education and public awareness.

The National Electoral Education Centre at Old Parliament House, the Get Voting initiative in schools, the efforts on assisting teachers and future teachers to deliver civics education—a task that the University of Canberra's School of Government and Policy, led by Professor Linda Botterill, is considering to participate in via online education, for which I am chiefly responsible—and the AEC's public awareness campaigns around electoral matters, among other programs, are each in themselves laudable achievements. The National Indigenous Youth parliament of 2014 has no doubt left an impression on a selection of young people who we hope will, in due course, become political leaders in Australia.

The reason that I am here is to share findings from the research that my colleagues and I recently conducted on civics education, for which we are presently writing a book that is oriented toward audiences in the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia. Our work reimagines the civics, if not electoral, education that is provided to Australian schools, to their students and to their teachers. We recognise that in recent years, prominent opinion polls and studies have shown that many young people in Australia are disengaged from politics, that they are ambivalent towards democracy. While these trends are not unique to Australia, they affirm the widely held perception that many young Australians suffer a civic deficit that has the potential to lead to a broader crisis of democracy.

Efforts to combat this perceived civic deficit, ostensibly to safeguard the health of Australian democracy, have led to numerous government initiatives to improve the state of our civic literacy and education, especially among our young. Yet, despite the significant government investment in such iconic programs as Discovering Democracy, for which the Howard government spent $31 million to implement between 1998 and 2004, research shows that many Australian youth continue to suffer from an alleged political apathy and political illiteracy—having undergone civics education, in other words, young people today remain no more enthused about politics.

So what has gone wrong? Our work proceeds on the premise that a new approach is needed to evaluate the relationship between civic deficit, the crisis of democracy and debates about civics education in Australia. Led conventionally by civic and curriculum experts, Australian citizenship and civics debates have tended to exclude young people and neglect the varied, informal types of citizenship and political practices in which many youth are engaged. Portrayed instead as the problem behind Australia's civic deficit, young people have as a consequence been defined by experts as the subjects or recipients of educational programs designed to teach them how to participate properly in legitimate, formal practices of politics like correctly voting at elections, contacting members of parliament or joining political parties. Such is the approach that has defined Australia's recent engagement with civics, from the civic expert group's findings to the Discovering Democracy program and even to ACARA's latest report on Shape of the Australian curriculum.

What needs to happen, we argue, is for our colleagues concerned with civics education in government, the public service and schools—here, we mean principals and teachers—to better understand the complex, interrelated ways that young Australians are both engaging and disengaging with various forms of citizenship and political participation practices. We find it essential to involve young people centrally in discussions about what kinds of education they think would best inform and improve their citizenship and political participation—something which has not yet been formally tried in Australia.

By involving young people as co-investigators and equal stakeholders, our recommendation is to plan a civics platform that resonates with young Australians today to secure the future of this nation's democracy. In making this claim, we draw on an extensive body of research, including our own, which shows that many young people are far from apathetic when it comes to politics and political participation. In many cases, they are at the forefront of experimenting with alternative political practices from digital participation to consumer politics and other forms of everyday politics. We view young people as political innovators who deserve to be working alongside you, alongside our colleagues in the Public Service and alongside us in academia on questions pertaining to their civics and electoral education.

We find that it is essential to engage young people in a deliberative democratic setting to explore the ways in which their political innovations and concerns can be used to challenge and inform civics curricula, implementation and teaching practices in Australia. We think this way because it is important to uncover the differences between recent civics education programs and the basis of a new program built by young people. Following literature that sees young people as 'democracy leaders' and not 'democracy lackers', we argue that it is especially interesting to try the proposition made by Judith Bessant, Rys Farthing and Rob Watts—that is, including young people as co-designers of civics curricula will improve both civics programs and broader political engagement.

To end, we would like to make the point clear that no Australian government has yet explored young people's views about the school-based civics education that they receive nor how young people's civic innovations and practices can inform and challenge debates about creating and implementing civics curricula. My colleagues and I are nationally and internationally recognised by our peers for our innovative work in this area. We are on hand and very kindly willing, should it please the panel or parliament more broadly, to assist in the development, delivery, implementation and evaluation of this re-imagined and as of yet untried program of Commonwealth led civics and electoral education. Thank you for your time.

Mr GRIFFIN: I will start off. The first question I have relates to saying we think it has got worse in terms of participation and involvement from young people. What is the basis of that? I say that because, getting on in years as I am now, I can remember the sixties. The argument then was very much that young people were switched off from the political process, disengaged and basically alienated. What analysis have you seen that points to the fact that there has been a deterioration? If so, from when? How far back does that research go?

Dr Gagnon : I will handle that in two parts. First I will address the 1960s. This is a very common starting point for storytellers about democracy in crisis. In 1975 the Trilateral Commission, which our friend Rockefeller helped found, made the claim in a report that there was a democracy overload from the cultural upswelling of the 1960s, the civic movement from students, from women, from minorities, from different modes of living—that whole upsurge. The authors of the report—Samuel Huntington, Michel Crozier and Joji Watanuki—said: 'You're expecting too much. Lower your sights. You're demanding too much of the state. It can't provide everything.' Of course, this was a prelude to the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and a neoliberal ideology about what function the state should have and what roles—duty norms—citizens should perform.

So we have a bifurcation. On the one side we have what is a birth of different modes of political participation. As for what we practice in this country, most people, if you asked them, would say this is a representative democracy, sure. This is our foundation from the United States and UK—that is no mystery. But there are also elements of participatory democracy, deliberative democracy, direct democracy, feminist democracy. There are many types. What we have in this country, like others, is a blend. And so we have a tension.

In terms of standard political participation, the Lowy poll is a great resource to look at. This is, effectively, what we used to come into this research. We critiqued the Lowy poll, we looked at the questions they asked and we found that there were some questions that needed to be answered. The Lowy poll would say that, yes, on average political participation in the formal sense—voting, joining political parties, speaking to members of parliament—declined and that that is especially evident in young people. The poll says that today—I am going by 2014 data, I believe—young people are more willing to entertain a different regime type. They look with willing eyes to the sharply dressed, potentially dangerous characters of Singapore and the new China, semi-authoritarian regimes, and what they see are states that can get things done, states that can plant hundreds of thousands of trees, states that can have affordable new public transportation that is not defaced or in many ways disgusting. These are challenges that democracies the world over have to face.

To end a rambling, long-winded answer—

CHAIR: I'm glad you realised that!

Dr Gagnon : I will restrain myself in future; I apologise. But I would say that, yes, the Lowy poll is a good stat to look at for the formal decline, but the recognition should be made that young people are participating in different ways.

Mr GRIFFIN: The Lowy poll goes back over what period of time now? It is the last 10 years?

Dr Gagnon : I will have to take that on notice and come back to you.

Mr GRIFFIN: When we are talking about young in this situation, you are defining young as under 25 or—

Dr Gagnon : For the interests of our research, it is 18 to 25, although what we have not published includes data for 16- and 17-year-olds as well.

Mr GRIFFIN: One of the issues facing the committee is that, when we are looking at it from a curriculum point of view, we are principally looking at that primary/secondary period. The worry I have there is whether, because technology moves quickly, even someone at the age of 25 really knows that much about what a 15-year-old is thinking.

With respect to your research, have you reached any conclusion yet about what sort of things should be looked at? Correct me if I am wrong, but it seems to me that you are particularly looking at the question of what the best mechanisms are to engage young people in order to ensure that they participate. With both mechanisms and issues, what are the sorts of ways that we are likely to be able to best engage them while at the same time recognising that there is already a series of things that they are engaging in that are part of their normal involvement in life? Can you expand on those points?

Dr Gagnon : Yes. I will be concise, I promise.

Mr GRIFFIN: Be more concise than my question if you can!

Dr Gagnon : There is a tool kit that democracy innovators use. For instance, at the Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis we have a number of leading scholars in the world on this. These are authorities that are invited to help out on a consultancy basis. What they and I talk about is literally building young people into processes like this one. Let's look at the policy process involved in creating a new curriculum. That obviously has a number of defined stages. Each of those stages is an invitation to think innovatively. How can we bring in a representative sample of maybe 14-, 16- and 18-year-olds—or 20-year-olds if you want to look at groups that have already been through a formal civics education—and get them to co-produce and co-design it, get them maybe to participate as teachers in schools? These are the kinds of recommendations that we have encountered in our comparative research internationally.

Mr GRIFFIN: What would you say to the argument that those who are interested in this area are not the ones you need to get to? It is the ones who actually are not interested. One of the eternal problems with education is that, when you are talking to the ones who are engaged enough to have an opinion, you are actually talking to the ones who do not really identify with most of their peers.

Dr Gagnon : Absolutely. All educators face this. I think the technique is just to try to wrap your intent in cool clothing. Young people, for instance, will maybe paint something. They would not call it political, but they will be painting something that they feel viscerally, right? If you call it political—'That's a political piece of art you've done there'—they will almost immediately lose interest. So it is really just about trying to overcome a real social hurdle. Incentives, which have been suggested, could potentially be a good tool. You could try to offer, for instance, prizes or perhaps even payments or incentives for scholarships. I would be happy to take that on notice, take the question back to my colleagues and come back with a better answer.

Mr GRIFFIN: If you could, that would be good. I think we are on a limited timescale with this particular inquiry, because of the likelihood of an election in the foreseeable future. That means we have to try and finalise things, because our remit lasts for the term of this parliament. If the inquiry is not resolved by that time, it gets complicated for the next term, so we are on a fairly tight timetable on that.

Senator O'SULLIVAN: Thank you Professor, you have been one of the more interesting witnesses I have encountered. I mean that in a very positive way.

Dr Gagnon : Good—I was really worried!

Senator O'SULLIVAN: Your thoughts are very well considered. My questions are about process or reaction. I have coined, with others, what has been happening to us as almost the 'Uberisation' of politics, in the sense that you go to bed one night with a settled and long, historically established transport industry and you wake up the next day to Uber, which tips everything on its head and brings with it enormous challenges. I would be interested in your observation on this. By the time our formal structures respond to these changes, by the time we have completed it and we are ready to implement it, oftentimes the response is no longer relevant. The pace of change with these people!

One of my fears—and it is a question I have not been able to answer—is that the engagement with the young on politics seems to be veneer thin. I remember talking to a hairdresser once and asking her how she was going to vote on polling day, and she indicated who she was voting for. I tried to establish from her just what her process was to arrive at that. I do not mind saying this, as it is not a reflection on them: she was voting for the Greens. It was almost like, 'Pat the puppy, nurse the baby, vote Green.' It felt okay and it felt like what she should do, but there was absolutely zero depth to her deliberation in arriving at that. When I left there, I had no idea how we might connect with someone like that. In your research and your examination of this question, do you find that, when they engage, there is no real depth necessary to how they arrive at a position on politics?

Dr Gagnon : That is a very long question, and, I should say, an interesting one.

Senator O'SULLIVAN: It is a long question, but the real burden is that we can do things to attract engagement but, if the engagement has no depth to it, we will end up with all sorts of artificial outcomes—that is my fear.

Dr Gagnon : My desire is to go on another rant, but I will be good. I think we always have to be humble in the face of the sovereigns, the demos, the citizens of the land. In any system that we might care to look at—let us take political science's favourite historical poster child, Athens. It was known to happen that some officials of the Pnyx, to gather members of the assembly, would walk around with a rope and try to corral people—literally pull them from the market. 'Come and do your civic duty.' I do not think it is ever going to be the case that everyone is going to participate. The key is to try to get our numbers up to a healthy level compared with other countries.

Of course, we have the benefit of compulsory voting here, but that does not discount donkey votes—the people who just go in, do the thing, because they do not want to get fined, and leave. I would say with students, with the courses that I teach—I am privileged at the University of Canberra to have a diverse student body. We do not really have many going through strict politics degrees. We have a lot of students coming from public health, from business and from overseas—they do not have much experience with our way of doing politics—and when we discuss the key questions of our time I am always left flabbergasted, because they draw on their personal experiences. I think maybe that is the setting. That may be the difference between, for instance, asking someone who is cutting your hair and asking someone who is sitting in an atmosphere of critical engagement. Maybe that is the why I get these types of answers.

Importantly, I think, if we look comparatively, there are a lot of good examples overseas of governments acting quickly and adopting the Uber-style technology. One of the great things that young people are doing, especially overseas, is democracy apps. They are mainly for local government, but these can also apply to higher levels of government such as the Commonwealth level. In the United States, there are a number of these apps, where they provide every single bill that is being introduced in front of Congress, and people are encouraged to upvote it or downvote it and to submit feedback. You must register—you must provide your driver's licence and all of these types of things—and your answer goes directly to your relevant member of Congress.

There are plenty of these examples. The city of Manassas has an app that allows the citizens of the city to integrate the public calendar with their own on their smartphone. It is literally the click of a button. There is heaps of information there that people can explore and set alerts to. Like Uber, they can go and take photos of broken potholes. Immediately, the photo and the coordinates are sent to the relevant office. They become co-governors. I think the key is simply to look at what others in our family of democracies are doing innovatively and to see if that is right for us and if it is something that we can do on a quick and inexpensive basis. That would be my answer.

Senator O'SULLIVAN: Sometimes, for example, I find—and I am a bit slower than most—that it takes me time to really consider an issue. I seek out more material and, if it is a very substantive question, my view matures over quite a period of time. But I draw on these resources and talk to other people. How can we get that level of engagement for youth when they may have spent 15 seconds on the question and then they have a yes or no button through social media to either support or decline a proposition that might have taken some of us quite a long period of time to get to a position on? This is where I see the danger in popular politics, particularly with the instant world of social media. They are reacting, but it is veneer thin. Politicians can be attracted to it. If there is a wave coming in, they might in their heart think, 'I do not want to do this,' but politically they will decide to do it. That is the danger.

Mr GRIFFIN: I can give an example on that which relates to the committee's work. It would get me into trouble with my own side, but not those here today—

Senator O'SULLIVAN: You are already in trouble with your own side.

Mr GRIFFIN: Always. There is quite a debate at the moment about Senate electoral reform—

Senator O'SULLIVAN: Perfect example.

Mr GRIFFIN: which, partially, has come out of a report done by this committee. There have been set positions taken with respect to that and it is now being debated in the House. If you go to social media, you see a range of commentary from various people with respect to that. What you find from looking at the comments—as someone who does know a fair bit about it—is just a completely ignorant, ill-informed level of understanding from a range of people who, frankly, ought to know better. It is the tyranny of technology, as it relates to disseminating views about an issue, when often those views are, clearly, completely ignorant and uninformed.

Dr Gagnon : I completely agree. The problem is endemic to any democracy in the Western world you might care to look at. There is a lovely book called The Conception of Citizen Knowledge in Democratic Theory,by Lauri Rapeli. He has done an empirical analysis comparing what citizens know, and most do not know what they should know about politics. We are not in a bad position compared to other countries. We are all in the same boat. This comes back to a perennial question—if we go back to forefathers like John Dewey or Antonio Gramsci—of how you get people to do what is good for the commons, or what is good for the Commonwealth.

It always comes back to your express purpose here: education. It is not just for young people. I think this is a shame. We have to try to view citizens, young and old, as both citizens already and citizens in the making. This would be something I would be very happy to come back to, my colleagues and I especially. My university is, for example, considering an online course to train teachers, so they do not have to leave their homes or anything like that, and to provide a civics unit for teachers in training. Young teachers in my university do not have this option presently, and I think that is a sector-wide problem.

CHAIR: One final question from Mr Pasin.

Mr PASIN: I am pleased we got back to that, because we are currently looking at—and this is the purpose of this inquiry—empowering citizens with the right tools. Public policy is the beautiful part of politics. The ugly vessel that carries that public policy debate is the mechanisms of democracy, if you like. What we are looking at is making sure that young people, in particular, are armed with the tools to participate in that ugly part of the process. You made comments earlier about young people being disengaged. I think they have got to a point where they are disengaged because they do not have the tools to get engaged. Is that a fair point?

Dr Gagnon : Yes. It is almost entirely about instrumentalisation in a way that works for different communities. This will be, perhaps, my last point, on account of time. The perception that we often have is that this is a nation. But many countries in the world today are no longer nations; they are not homogeneous. We are union—a union of ages, of genders, of sexual orientations, of political alignment, of different capabilities. Trying to speak to that diversity with a diverse tool kit could perhaps be a more integrated way of dealing with the problem.

CHAIR: I just have a question: is your title an honorary position?

Dr Gagnon : No, sir, I am a member of faculty.

CHAIR: Thank you very much for your appearance here today. It has generated commentary from colleagues, and we may or may not be in touch.