Australian students in primary and secondary school should be taught about democratic institutions and Australian history for more than “just for a few weeks in grades five or six” before they get to vote, according to Tony Smith, former speaker of the house of representatives.
Smith told parliamentarians in his valedictory speech that Australia has led the world in many advances in democracy and that these advances needed to be passed on to generations.
He highlighted the Electoral Act 1902 as an early example of Australia leading the way.
“The first Electoral Act of 1902 was by no means perfect. It didn’t allow our First Nations people the right to vote, but by world standards, it was nonetheless pioneering in giving women the right to vote and stand for parliament,” Smith said.
“Those who voted to create our nation and determine its course in those early elections knew they were all democratic shareholders in a grand, new endeavor.”
Smith told parliamentary colleagues that teaching the history of the country is important so that the road Australia has taken to democracy is properly understood.
“That our democratic freedoms, which deliver human dignity and a high quality of life, are not automatically self-evident to all should be no surprise if the history of how we got here is not properly taught,” Smith said.
“For younger generations, teaching our history is vital. We must seriously invest in civics education throughout a student’s entire education — not just for a few weeks in grades 5 and 6 — years and years before students consider and exercise their precious right to vote.”
Smith extended his remarks on education to suggest that the parliament needed to better communicate how it goes about its work and that in a representative democracy, it should be expected that people with different philosophies and viewpoints would engage in debate.
“Those outside this place that seek complete bipartisanship on every policy issue must be reminded that we are a representative democracy of elected members with differing philosophies and views and different policies and pledges,” Smith said.
Those who believe the house of representatives should be as silent as a church or a classroom need to be reminded it’s neither.”
Smith said that the house of representatives, where he ruled on many clashes across the chamber, was designed to be robust both electorally and architecturally.
“However, as I said when I was first elected Speaker, it need not be loud or rude as a matter of course,” Smith said. Can I also say, in the conduct of debate, you can be both robust and civil at the same time.”
There was another matter the former speaker chose to address in his remarks on the conduct within the chamber.
To some of you — I won’t name you — can I say there’s no point in needlessly and consistently shouting, particularly in a near-empty chamber. The volume of your voice never increases the quality of your argument,” Smith said.