Monday 17 October 2016

Civics, Citizenship, and Political Literacy

New Zealand is generally considered to have a healthy democracy. In comparison to many other countries, our democracy is relatively stable, trust is pretty good (we’re ranked 2nd for corruption perceptions in the OECD), and our government is reasonably accessible for most people. I’ve left a lot of qualifiers in there of course, because there has been a growing feeling that perhaps not everything is as rosy as it should be. We’ve always known that the youngest voters (18-24) are least likely to be enrolled to vote (around 65%), but actually, over the last three national elections, enrolment rates in every age group have dropped, most significantly in the 30-34 age bracket. With 78% overall turnout at the 2014 election, it’s a far cry from the 90%+ turnouts of the 1980s. While New Zealand scores close to the OECD average in assessments of civics understanding at the Year 9 level, we have the largest inequality of civics knowledge – some students know a lot, but others know very, very little.

Voter turnout is often taken as a proxy for active participation in our democracy. If people do not vote, then the likelihood of them participating in our democracy in other ways is likely to be low. 27% of non-voters at the 2014 election fell into the “lack of interest” category, with reasons such as “can’t be bothered with politics or politicians”, “can’t be bothered voting”, and “makes no difference who the government is”. These issues have been highlighted recently by low voter turnout in local elections, with barely 40% of eligible voters casting a ballot. There has been a loud sentiment that it is ridiculous to ask people to pick 6 strangers out of 8 unknown candidates, with many voters selecting candidates based only on the candidate statements provided in the pamphlet, how aesthetically pleasing they look in their candidate photos, or in the case of a family friend, “the names I could pronounce” (“Soarbit? Too hard, no vote.”) What is the point of a democracy if the decisions are uninformed, unjustified, and uninspired?

With this backdrop, the New Zealand Political Science Association recently held a workshop on Civics, Citizenship, and Political Literacy at Parliament, hosted by a cross-party working group of MPs. I’ve tried to very quickly summarise and group the points made by the various speakers, although I may have injected some of my bias when taking notes (sorry) or paraphrased what people said (sorry again).

Political literacy, the ability to understand the political debates and decisions critically and make informed choices to take action where necessary, is not something that we can measure directly. Angus MacFarlane from the University of Canterbury said that “we presume that if people are politically literate, they understand party differences and facts about our political system”, but in reality, that’s not enough. While voting is important, practising active citizenship goes further to include debate, advocacy, and protest. David Wilson, the Clerk of the House, said that public input into the select committee process leads to improved legislation, and better laws are something that we probably want. Bryce Edwards of the University of Otago said that “civics education isn’t just Parliament and it’s not just voting, it’s about civil society and true participation.”

What about the role of schools in improving civics understanding? The Electoral Commission said that “enrolment and voting is a habit that needs to be formed when young.” The Education Service of Parliamentary Services said that rather than throwing facts at students, we should be drawing ideas out of them. The New Zealand Council for Educational Research said that too many people still think that education is “learning about stuff” (i.e. facts-based) and that areas like civics need to be more focused on skills. Bronwyn Wood from Victoria University said that when students grow up in undemocratic environments, in schools where they are disempowered and do not experience transparency or accountability from the power structures around them, what hope do we have for them having hope that the system will work for them in the real world? Josiah Tualamali’i of the Pacific Youth Leadership and Transformation Council said that “schools don’t trust us to make decisions”, and NCEA doesn’t give students a visible opportunity to make democratic decisions.

The volatility around democratic participation will only worsen as New Zealand’s demography and equality continue to change. Bronwyn Hayward from the University of Canterbury said that there are strong ethnic and socio-economic differences in civic participation, with varying expectations and abilities to participate. The Clerk of the House said “people may not know that they have a right to have a say”, and that we need new ways to reach out to marginalised groups. Shilanka Smith of Fusion Virtuoso posited the question: how do our existing ways of citizenship disempower new members of our society? Education in the classroom is one thing, but adults have to lead by example to show how to be an active and inclusive citizen. Josiah also brought up the growing number of people who experience a cultural deficit, perhaps most significantly the increasing proportion of young people considered “2nd generation” New Zealanders, trapped by the diaspora between their ethnic heritage and their new cultural home, yet largely unrepresented in government or politics. Maria Bargh of Victoria University said that we need better education of civics, which despite what many schools seem to think, is not just about the Treaty. Improving political and moral literacy through history teaching can lead to better race relations, and we need better incentives and funding to teach NZ/Māori history and politics.

What should we target when trying to improve civics understanding amongst our population? Iati Iati of the University of Otago phrased the challenge in a different way – how can we find ways to show people what they have to lose if they do not participate? Many people in marginalised groups, including Māori and Pacific Islanders, tend to believe that there is nothing that they can do about government and that they are not affected by acronyms like the GCSB or the TPPA. Everyone needs to understand that they have “skin in the game” so that they are motivated to act in their interests. Wendy McGuiness discussed the critical role that grandparents and parents play in fostering an understanding of civics and politics; parents used to be a primary source of news/information for their kids, but nowadays as social media has increasingly become the leading news source a massive disparity has formed between people of different education levels and socioeconomic backgrounds. Katie Bruce of JustSpeak said that we can’t learn to be active citizens by just sitting and listening. Students don’t necessarily need to “learn” citizenship, but need to be given opportunities to live and experience it! By starting with the issues that young people care about, the political literacy and civics understanding will follow. The Ministry of Education also argued that civics education is not just the facts, but actually doing it. Teacher confidence is key because it can be risky to discuss controversial topics (no teacher wants a visit from a conservative religious parent demanding to know why Timmy had to discuss LGBT rights in the classroom). There needs to be some improvement of that capacity to provide informative yet safe education on the difficult issues that we ultimately face in the real world.

Patrick Barrett of the University of Waikato said that “there is perhaps a sense that there is some discrepancy between our democratic aspirations and the reality.” It seems that we have long known that there is a civics understanding problem, as evidenced by many, many, many articles and many studies, yet not enough has been done about it. As we head towards the 2017 national elections, there is a chance for us to leverage that context to better engage with students and superannuants and everyone in between. Perhaps there are two main plans that can be actioned. Firstly, the top-down academic route, where universities and other public sector organisations can help support teaching capacity by providing professional development opportunities and support local curriculum development. Secondly, the bottom-up charity route, with grassroots organisations running workshops in schools and communities to improve accessibility to civics education resources and opportunities. 

As a representative of UN Youth, I argued that making students come to us does not make civics education accessible – it is just another barrier that makes it easy to pass off civics as an extra-curricular activity or something only for the “smart” or “outspoken” kids. Particularly for the marginalised and disenfranchised segments of society, there is no impetus, no motivation to actively seek civics understanding because there is no perceived value. We need to go out to the schools and communities and make it as easy as possible for students to access civics education, a sentiment echoed by many speakers during the workshop. Bryce Edwards’ quip that “maybe we need to hire a bus next year and drive it around New Zealand” may not be as silly as it sounds.