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Civic Experts Group to report to the Prime Minister on an Australian system of government, the Constitution and citizenship.

PETER THOMPSON: Well, earlier this week, the acclaimed Australian novelist, David Malouf, made a call for Australian studies to be taught in schools. He was speaking at a function at Sydney's Regent Hotel for the Sydney Institute, in fact. You would have heard us reporting that, if you were listening, I think on Wednesday or Thursday morning - Wednesday morning.

David Malouf was addressing what it means to be Australian, and he says our education system is ignoring the question. Here's part of what he had to say.

DAVID MALOUF: I don't think there's any continuous strand of teaching in schools that attempts to look at the elements of Australian life and say: Where do these things come from? How do they differ from the way these things are done elsewhere? Why are they done this way? How does the fact that we do it this way rather than some other way define us, amplify us, limit us? I mean, these are critical questions about our institutions, but about the world of objects we're surrounded by, about the landscape itself. I don't think that's the kind of .. I see no continuous course that might, say, begin for children at six or seven and go right through until they leave school and go to university. There would be a complete introduction that would make them at home with all the objects and institutions and events that belong to the country.

PETER THOMPSON: The author, David Malouf. Well, in June this year the Prime Minister formed a group of education specialists called the 'Civic's Expert Group' to produce a strategic plan for 'a non-partisan program of public information and education on the Australian system of government, the Constitution and citizenship'.

Well, the report is due at the end of November, but the group has just begun travelling the country, seeking the views of key individuals and organisations about what's needed.

Stuart Macintyre, who's a Professor of History at the University of Melbourne, is the chair of the Civic's Expert Group, and he's with me this morning.

How are you, Stuart? Thanks for coming in.

Is he right, David Malouf, when he says that he sees no model in Australia of education about what it means to be Australian?

STUART MACINTYRE: Well, I think it's very difficult to make generalisations about what goes on in schools, because we have a number of different educational systems and we have considerable variation within them. It's true that subjects called 'Australian Studies' were introduced in the 1980s. I think it's also true that they've not fulfilled their original intentions, which were probably quite close to what David Malouf's been calling for.

PETER THOMPSON: Now, your Civic's Experts Group - it's a most awkward name. What does it mean? What are you doing?

STUART MACINTYRE: It's a dreadful name. We're meant to be advising the Prime Minister about how we might better teach people about our system of government, our Constitution, and what it means to be a citizen. I think there's been a number of ways in which the absence of this has been registered, particularly over the last few years, and we've been asked to try to make recommendations about how it might be remedied.

PETER THOMPSON: Is there a political undercurrent to this? Is this part of the Keating agenda to massage the nation to get us ready to become a republic?

STUART MACINTYRE: I don't think it is. I've always said that if a result of teaching in the schools much better about our system of citizenship is to produce better informed constitutional monarchists, well, I think that's a reasonable outcome.

PETER THOMPSON: Where would you begin? I mean, what's your tentative idea about how to introduce that sort of education into schools?

STUART MACINTYRE: I think the thing that strikes me most about it is that we once used to teach this in a fairly formal way, you know, how you would establish a Senate quota and other similar sorts of things which....

PETER THOMPSON: But in schools?

STUART MACINTYRE: In schools, yes, it was normally called a subject called 'Civics', and it was fairly descriptive institutional, and it put people to sleep pretty thoroughly. The thing that strikes me now is that what you might call the ethical basis of citizenship is probably much better understood and appreciated within schools than it was when you or I were at school; that is, people, I think, are much more sensitive to difference and respect of difference.

PETER THOMPSON: What's done that?

STUART MACINTYRE: I'm not sure. I think that a lot of it you'd have to lay at the feet of the much maligned generation of teachers who went into schools in the '60s. I think they were very good at getting their students to think about the cultural assumptions they might make and to relax those cultural assumptions, and to recognise and respect others.

PETER THOMPSON: This sounds like it's the product of Woodstock and the Vietnam War.

STUART MACINTYRE: Well, it may not be quite that. I mean, I think that there's another side to it. I think the difficulty is that that appreciation and understanding and sympathy for difference is not matched by a similar understanding of the decision-making process. So that we have, I think, a lot of kids in schools who would, for instance, be very sympathetic to the Mabo judgment, but would find it difficult to understand who handed down the judgment, what its legal status is, what its implications are.

PETER THOMPSON: What have you been doing? You've been in Brisbane this week talking to organisational leaders there. Who have you spoken to? And what do you want to hear from them?

STUART MACINTYRE: Well, we put out advertisements asking for all interested people to make suggestions to us, and we also wrote to a significant number of interested parties - educationalists, people involved in politics, community groups of various kinds. A number of those, we thought it was worth our while going round and following up with conversations.

PETER THOMPSON: What sort of people?

STUART MACINTYRE: Well....

PETER THOMPSON: Name names.

STUART MACINTYRE: Let me name names. Today, in Sydney, we're going to be first of all talking to Ken Wiltshire, who's in fact based in Queensland, but is involved in the Constitutional Centenary Foundation with the executive officer of that foundation. We will then be talking to someone called Mr Gough Whitlam. We'll then be having a conversation with some people from ANOP who are doing some polling about levels of understanding. We'll be having a discussion with Geraldine Doogue about how we might better think of the public relations side of things.

PETER THOMPSON: No, we could call her in and we could have the discussion here. You're going also to Adelaide in the near future. Who will you be talking to there?

STUART MACINTYRE: Well, that program is yet to be fully established, but we would be talking among others to people in the education sector in South Australia.

PETER THOMPSON: The great difficulty will be to come up with something which really, clearly, is non-partisan in its findings.

STUART MACINTYRE: Absolutely. I think that if it is seen as partisan, it will fail. I think the only basis on which this can work is that there is agreement that there is a common interest in better understanding our political system.

PETER THOMPSON: Thanks, indeed, for coming in and good luck with it.