Are Australians ready to vote in the referendum?

The Australian and NSW Curriculums have failed to prepare Australians to confidently participate in our democracy.


-Article by Professor Murray Print, Sally Layson and Justine Hanks.

As a nation, no matter our political allegiance, no matter our position on the upcoming referendum on the Voice to Parliament, it is worth considering if we are sufficiently equipped to make decisions about any permanent changes to our Constitution.

Democracy and the key principles that underline our system of government such as equality, fairness and justice must be deliberately and intentionally taught to every generation of Australians. Intentionality ensures each generation has sufficient knowledge, understanding, skills and values required to maintain a constitutional, liberal democracy.

However, research over the last 15 years shows that many Australians are insufficiently educated to make an informed decision about changes to our Constitution (See Table 1).

The education system is not preparing Australians to be well equipped to make an informed decision in a referendum. It is worth asking if Australians are prepared to confidently participate in this democratic process, or if they possess sufficient knowledge of our legal and democratic heritage, the Constitution and the Australian system of governance to make an informed vote.

The Australian Government is aware of the failings of our Education System

In a June 2023 article for the Australian Parliamentary Education Office, Civics Education: is Australia making the grade?, Stephanie Gill explored the state of civics knowledge among first time referendum voters. Gill considered data from the 2019 National Assessment Program Civics and Citizenship (NAP-CC) and concluded that “young people are not ‘acing’ civics and citizenship understanding”. Further she noted, “Year 6 students take the NAP-CC despite not having formally studied civics as part of the Australian Curriculum.“

Her description of “not ‘acing’ civic understanding” is quite the understatement based upon the NAP-CC results that assessed basic measures of knowledge about core aspects of Australian democracy.

For example, a question asked in the NAP-CC assessment in 2019 was:

The Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act 1900 is a document outlining the powers of the Australian government.
A referendum is required to change the Australian Constitution.

Who decides the result of a referendum?

a)                  The Queen
b)                  The Government
c)                   The people of Australia
d)                  The judges of the High Court

Only 45% of Year 10 students chose the correct answer (being the people of Australia), with 24% believing that the government determined the results of a referendum. That leaves 55% of Year 10 students believing that the people of Australia have no say in the results of the referendum.

In 2019, the NAP-CC results showed only 38% of Australian year 10 students were at or above the proficient standard. These results are nothing new. Since the NAP-CC’s inception in 2004, the results clearly show that young Australians are poorly equipped to participate in Australia’s democracy.

Table 1: Results of NAP-CC of civics proficiency since 2004

2004 2007 2010 2013 2016 2019
Percentage of Year 10 Students at or above the proficient standard (an expected level of student knowledge and achievement for that age group) 39% 42% 49% 44% 38% 38%

These Australian students, will all be old enough to vote at the 2023 referendum.

Could their knowledge of the Australian Constitution have improved since they took the NAP-CC? Such improvement is highly unlikely as:

a)       They won’t have studied Australian Government in years 11 and 12.
b)      Most also won’t have university study in the field.
c)       The accuracy of their knowledge is problematic given growth of social media as their primary/only news (Reichert & Print, 2017)

It is alarming, based upon their year 10 proficiency results, that 62% of those Australians do not have a functioning knowledge of the key principles underpinning our democracy. Principles such as equality, fairness and citizenship rights, processes related to the Constitution, and our system of government are too poorly understood to confidently participate in any referendum process.

These results are confirmed by other studies, such as the Lowy Institute Poll 2023, which found that 25% of Australians aged 18-29 years believe, in some circumstances, a non-democratic government can be preferable and a further 6% stated ‘for someone like me, it doesn’t matter what kind of government we have.’

Reflecting on Australian students’ lack of civic knowledge in 2022, eminent constitutional lawyer Professor Anne Twomey commented that “Decades of neglect of civics has left us with a population that is insufficiently equipped to fulfil its constitutional role of updating the Constitution.”

In this referendum, Australians will be voting for a permanent change to the Constitution. Of the 44 attempts to change the Australian Constitution by referenda only 8 have been successful. Making a change to the Australian Constitution is not something that should be done lightly and is challenging in circumstances where up to 62% of some age groups do not possess sufficient knowledge of the Constitution or democracy.

What is needed?

Australians need explicit civics education grounded in teaching of basic principles of democracy and the historical foundations to ensure they are equipped to fulfill their role in a democracy. It is typically argued that in order to vote in an informed and knowledgeable manner, the voter should have a fundamental understanding of their nation’s political system, electoral system, political parties and representatives, and current political debates (Ghazarian and Laughland-Booÿ, 2021).

We have known this for some time.

Multiple policy documents in Australian education, supported by all Australian governments, have advocated for schools to build active, informed citizens. The highly influential Melbourne Declaration (2008), for example, stated that “All young Australian become … Active and informed citizens….. (who) ….. are committed to national values of democracy, equity and justice and participate in Australia’s civic life”. (Goal 2, p9)

Explicit education on the nation’s political system should, with respect to Australia’s Constitution, include:

– What are the underlying principles of democracy?
– What are the key principles and features of the legal system, including the Constitution and the rule of law?
– How have the European origins of the legal system introduced at Colonisation provide Australians equal access to protections provided by the law?
– Why was the Constitution written?
– How is the Constitution structured? What is the difference between a preamble and different Chapters?
– Why is there a separation of powers between the judiciary, executive and legislature?
– How is the Constitution changed? What is the role of citizens in changing the Constitution?

Yet young Australians experience little opportunity to acquire this essential learning. Why? Because such content is largely omitted from the Australian Curriculum. If somehow students do learn something about the Australian political system, perhaps through studying History at the primary school level, that knowledge would appear to not assist Year 10 students with the NAP-CC (all would have studied History); does not address Goal 2 of the Melbourne Declaration; and lacks connection with other learning that attempts to prepare active, informed citizens.

Where to from here?

1.       Address the Immediate Skills Gap.

Before the Referendum, the Federal Government should fund an intensive education campaign to address the current skills gap.

This education needs to focus on the missing skills and knowledge of Australians including the basics of democracy, the key values that underpin Australia’s democracy such as freedom, equality, fairness and justice and the purpose and role of the Constitution in shaping our democratic government.

Importantly, Australians need to understand that the Constitution is the people’s document. That it’s power rests predominately on their decision to approve and be bound by its terms and consequently their informed vote matters.

2.       Address issues with Civic Education within the Australian Curriculum

a.       The Australian Curriculum

As outlined in the Rule of Law Education Centre’s submission regarding the Proposed ACARA Humanities and Social Sciences Curriculum (v.9), the Australian Curriculum needs to include specific and mandatory content about our democracy and key underlying principles such as the rule of law, government accountability, equality, fairness and justice. The Australian Curriculum must encourage students to value the role of laws in our society with a focus on our democratic pillars and an appreciation of those past events that have positively shaped our nation.

Furthermore, it is the responsibility of the states and territories to enable students to acquire this learning through the direct application of the Australian Curriculum: Civics and Citizenship (AC-CC). This requires the AC-CC to become an independent school subject in the Australian Curriculum as it was originally designed when the Australian Curriculum was first created.

b.       The problematic NSW school curriculum

The NSW Education Standards Authority does not wholly or significantly incorporate the Australian Curriculum within its syllabuses and instead uses an ‘adopt and adapt’ approach. As a result, students in NSW are given very little explicit education to be able to vote in an informed or knowledgeable manner. As outlined in the Rule of Law Education Centre’s report on The State of Civics and Citizenship Education in NSW:

In the NSW curriculum, there is no mandatory, comprehensive, discrete, or explicit aspects of Civics and Citizenship Education. Consequently, in New South Wales, it is possible for students to experience no, or very limited, exposure to civics and citizenship ideas in a historical or contemporary Australian context throughout their entire New South Wales schooling. 

The New South Wales Curriculum should be reviewed to either include civics and citizenship content as a main ‘cross-curriculum priority’, as a discrete subject strand as is done in the Australian Curriculum, or as a compulsory subject in the NSW Curriculum.

30% of all school students in Australia are schooled in NSW (ABS Statistics, 2022)

On Monday 31 July 2023, NSW Education Standards Authority released new K-10 draft syllabus for consultation as part of the NSW Curriculum Reform. The draft history syllabus for year 7 to 10 includes a new core unit on the Era of Colonisation designed to deepen student knowledge about Aboriginal culture and past in the context of Colonisation.  Together with the draft K-6 HSIE syllabus, this addition is said to “give a more balanced view” of Australian history. The implication is that the current curriculum is unbalanced and overly focussed on Australia’s European heritage and the impacts of European colonisation on Australia.

However, as outlined above, the evidence suggests that NSW students are not receiving sufficient instruction on the origins of the democratic and legal principles that stem from Australia’s European heritage that were incorporated during key historic events such as colonisation and the drafting and approval of the Australian Constitution.  If Civics Education is to be integrated into History (and geography) as is apparently the case it NSW, it needs significantly greater emphasis and detail. This lack of knowledge must also be addressed in any proposed syllabus in NSW.

3.       Address Teacher Training and Support

Reviewing the NAP-CC reports from 2004, it is clear that young teachers (aged up to 35) were themselves educated in an Australian education system that gave them insufficient tools to understand, let alone teach, civics and citizenship.

For those teachers, when they were in year 10, they also had a very low proficiency and knowledge of core aspects of Australian democracy. We cannot just hope that their university education, their own life skills and research has given them enough understanding and skills necessary to teach students. They also need explicit training and instruction.

The Government must provide investment and resources for teacher training to support existing and future teachers in gaining deep understanding of Civics and Citizenship Education concepts and links.


Australia requires compulsory participation in our democracy yet compulsory learning about democracy appears to be consistently overlooked.

It is unsurprising that if students aren’t taught about Australian democracy, they can barely be expected to understand it, let alone participate meaningfully in activities such as referend or elections.

Now is the time to help Australians confidently participate in our democracy. The Australian Government, together with the states, needs to take the lead and act now to provide accurate information about how our democracy and constitution works, its foundations and history, what its purpose is and how every Australian, no matter their age, status, wealth, background, religion or race can be an empowered citizen who has an important say when they vote at the Referendum.


Murray Print PhD
Professor of Political Education and Chair of Education
Sydney School of Education & Social Work
University of Sydney, Australia
Lead Writer & Team Leader, Australian Curriculum Civics and Citizenship

Sally Layson and Justine Hanks
Rule of Law Education Centre


Caroll, L. (2023). ‘Indigenous experience of Australian colonisation mandatory under school history overhaul,’ Sydney Morning Herald, 1 August.  Available at:

Ghazarian, Zareh and Laughland-Booÿ, Jacqueline. (2019). ‘Young people, political knowledge and the future of Australian democracy’. Australian Quarterly. 90(1), pp. 38-43. Available at:

Gill, S.  (2023). ‘Civics education: is Australia making the grade’. Flagpost, 14 June.  Available at:

Lowy Institute. (2023) Democracy – Lowy Institute Poll, Available at:

Ministerial Council on Education, Employment, Training and Youth Affairs. (2008). Melbourne Declaration on Education Goals for Young Australians. Available at:

National Assessment Program. (2019). NAP Civics and Citizenship 2019 Annual Report Available at:

Reichert, F & Print, M. (2017). Mediated and moderated effects of political communication  on civic participation. Information, Communication & Society . 20, (8), 1162-1184  

Rule of Law Education Centre. (2022). Civics and Citizenship Education in NSW.  Available at:

Rule of Law Education Centre. (2021). ‘Submission Regarding the Proposed ACARA Humanities and Social Sciences Curriculum’. Available at:

Twomey, A. (2022). ‘Changing the Australian Constitution is not easy. But we need to stop thinking it’s impossible’, The Conversation, 22 May. Available at:

Report on NSW Civic Education.

This report compares the explicit civics and citizenship education within the NSW Curriculum with version 8.4 of the Australian Curriculum (currently taught in schools) to highlight the significant gap in Civics and Citizenship Education in NSW.