Tag Archives: citizenship

Young Australians are engaged in political issues, but unsure how democracy works

The Conversation

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Research shows young people are passionate about issues like marriage equality, but many do not understand how governments are formed and prime ministers elected. Shutterstock

Zareh Ghazarian, Monash University; Jacqueline Laughland-Booy, Monash University, and Zlatko Skrbis, Monash University

The importance of Australians having the knowledge and skills to participate as active citizens is always a prominent issue. But in the past few months, it has been at the forefront of public discussion.

Recently, the federal government announced significant changes to citizenship laws, which includes a tougher test. It argues that more care is needed to ensure all new migrants understand the rules and responsibilities associated with becoming an Australian.

However, it’s not just new arrivals who may be unsure about the workings of Australia’s system of government and democracy. Many of Australia’s more established citizens may also be in the dark. With several federal MPs waiting for the High Court to determine their eligibility to remain in parliament, it appears that even some of our politicians are unsure of what the rules actually are.

This links in with questions about whether young Australians are being taught enough about our system of government, especially as little is known about the formation of political behaviour of young Australians.

The latest results from the National Assessment Program for Civics and Citizenship show that less than 50% of Year 10 students across the country achieved the Proficient Standard. New South Wales was the only state that achieved a passing grade at 51%. Tasmania and the Northern Territory scored a very low 32% and 20% respectively.

Further reading: Giving voice to the young: survey shows people want under-18s involved in politics

Civics and citizenship education in Australian schools

In recent decades, successive federal governments have sought to improve Australians’ knowledge and understanding of their citizenship responsibilities.

The need for Australian students to become “active and informed citizens” was recognised at a meeting of the Ministerial Council on Education, Employment, Training and Youth Affairs in 2008, and adopted the Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians.

Civics and Citizenship is part of the Australian Curriculum and is taught to students from Year 3 to Year 10. The assumption is that if children learn the principles of government and democracy at school, they will be engaged and active citizens when they can vote at 18.

But it seems many young people still aren’t sure about how Australia’s system of government works by the time they leave school. And they may also not have the skills to confidently participate in the political process.

In our research, we have been speaking to Australians aged 18 and 19 about how they learnt about politics, and if they feel ready to participate in democracy. Their accounts are interesting, if somewhat worrying.

A common concern of these young people is that they feel ill-equipped to participate in the political process. They expressed uncertainty about the powers of state and federal governments, and were unsure about the roles of the Senate and House of Representatives.

Many also felt perplexed by the voting system, to the point of lodging donkey votes or even informal ballots if they did not have parental guidance. How governments are formed and prime ministers selected also puzzled many.

While many were passionate about issues in the political debate such as marriage equality, they felt their limited knowledge hindered their ability to truly grasp the intricacies of the process to change the rules.

These young people, however, had an appetite to learn about the Australian system and wished they had done a compulsory set of classes on the subject. For example, many wanted to have learned about the different voting systems when they were in upper secondary school.

A national problem

There is consensus about the importance of having a population that has knowledge about how their system of government and democracy operates. In particular, an informed citizenry is able to participate in the democratic process and better hold decision-makers to account.

The stories of the young people we’ve spoken with indicate that it’s crucial for Australians to know about how their government works if they are to make informed decisions at the ballot box. If they do not possess this knowledge, they cannot vote with confidence or clarity.

How young people learn about their nation’s democracy is at the heart of this issue, and is something that must be examined by state and national governments.

The ConversationOtherwise, in a country that has compulsory voting, this shortfall in knowledge not only deprives young citizens from having a meaningful say about their nation, but also works against building a more inclusive political system.

Zareh Ghazarian, Lecturer, School of Social Sciences, Monash University; Jacqueline Laughland-Booy, Research Associate in Sociology, Monash University, and Zlatko Skrbis, Senior Pro Vice-Chancellor (Academic), Monash University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

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Why should we obey the law?

The Conversation

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allegoria del buon governo.

Duncan Ivison, University of Sydney

The claim by Sally McManus, the new head of the ACTU, that when the law is unjust, ‘I don’t think there is a problem in breaking it’, returns us to a deep question in political philosophy: Why should I obey the law and the state more generally? The Conversation

The howls of outrage from the Prime Minster and some of his colleagues (as well as The Australian ) about her claims, are part political theatre, but also hint at the challenges these questions raise for self-consciously liberal societies.

What is political obligation?

To have a political obligation is to have a moral duty to obey the laws and support the institutions of one’s political community. In fact, I think political obligations are a broader category of duties then strictly legal obligations. The two can come apart. For example, I might have a legal obligation to pay tax in a deeply corrupt state, but not necessarily a moral obligation to do so.

So the hard question is how we come to actually acquire political and legal obligations. Is it through birth, or through consent? Or do we have ‘natural duties’ that flow from the existence of already reasonably just institutions. But what counts as ‘reasonably just’? And what are the conditions under which we might be ‘released’ from those obligations, if ever?

The PM surely doesn’t believe we must always obey the state – he cut his teeth as a young lawyer challenging the British government’s attempt to ban Peter Wright’s Spycatcher in Australia. On the other hand, McManus surely doesn’t believe we can simply opt out of every law we disagree with. Civil society would quickly become very uncivil.

The argument from fair play

The question of the duty to obey the law is an old question and the subject of one of Plato’s most famous early Socratic dialogues. In the Crito, Socrates engages in an intense conversation with his followers about whether or not he should flee the city that has just condemned him to death. In the end, he decides he should not, mainly because he feels it would involve breaking the commitments and agreements he has made with his fellow citizens and the city that has done so much to nurture and shape him.

Socrates makes a number of arguments in the course of the dialogue, but perhaps the most resonant for us today is an appeal to fairness. He suggests that to disobey the law would be to mistreat or disrespect his fellow citizens. If I have constrained my freedom to be bound by the law, under the premise that others will do likewise, then it’s unfair if you choose to disobey the law whenever it inconveniences you. The city can’t survive, let alone flourish, if that was our general attitude towards each other.

There is a gloriously robust literature in moral and political philosophy on the nature of political obligation and especially the argument from fair play. They key issue here, as far as McManus’s claim is concerned, is whether or not the laws we are subject to are indeed constitutive of a reasonably just, mutually beneficial, collaborative society. This generates the obligation to take on your fair share of the burdens of sustaining such a community. And so a general obligation to obey the law is grounded in the principle of fair play – doing your part to sustain a community you benefit from by others doing theirs.

One problem with this argument is that it might be too weak. How can my not obeying the law in some particular circumstance really undo a large-scale society like Australia?

On the other hand, a simple though experiment suggests it might also be too strong. Imagine a situation in which someone on your street mounts an impressive display of Christmas lights every year. Everyone on the street enjoys the lights enormously. But the following year, your neighbor turns up on your doorstep and insists that it’s your turn to do it this time. But you didn’t ask him to put up the lights. You didn’t consent to share in the burdens of doing so. And yet the principle of fair play would suggest you are so obliged.

Against political obligation?

This debate continues to rage on the pages of political philosophy journals and blogs. But it remains a critical issue too for contemporary politics, where people disagree vehemently about significant political, social and economic issues.

If we really don’t see our community as bound by laws that enable us to cooperate together in a mutually beneficial way, then it’s not clear that we have established a genuine political community in the first place. Citizenship surely involves more than merely a transactional relationship with others in our community.

On the other hand, given the extraordinary powers of the state, the conditions under which I become obliged must surely be stronger then merely being a member of that society. Don’t the laws themselves have to be just? Or, to return to a point I made above, don’t we have a general political obligation only if our political community in a broad sense is actually reasonably just? But is that really a feasible standard for the imperfect world in which we live? Doesn’t that mean that, ultimately, political obligation is basically impossible? (Of course, for anarchists, this is a very welcome conclusion!)

Civil Disobedience

So the Prime Minister and his colleagues has overstated the case that in suggesting there might be times when disobeying unjust laws is justified, McManus is somehow advocating chaos. As a civil libertarian he should know better.

And yet McManus needs to understand that the grounds for civil disobedience must be carefully considered. It is a condition of genuine civil disobedience – as Martin Luther King so eloquently argued in his ‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail’ – that you must be willing to suffer the consequences of disobeying the law in the hope of transforming the views of your fellow citizens. You need to take the public good to heart, and not simply your own particular interests. Socrates was willing to die for the sake of his city. Martin Luther King was imprisoned and ultimately assassinated. These are perhaps the extreme cases. But it speaks to the dilemma of how free societies deal with deep disagreement, including about the nature of injustice. It’s not clear yet how far the ACTU would be willing to go.

Duncan Ivison, Professor of Political Philosophy, Deputy Vice Chancellor (Research), University of Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

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Radical Democracy in Ancient Athens

by Tim Harding


Within the context of ancient Athenian democracy, the term ‘radical democracy’ refers to a set of constitutional reforms introduced by Ephialtes and Perikles, beginning in 462 BCE.  The main elements of these radical reforms were that (1) all major matters of public policy were determined at meetings of the Ekklesia (Assembly); at which all adult citizens[1] of good standing were entitled to vote (Roberts 1998, 41); and (2) public officials were randomly chosen by lot, known as sortition (Scarre and Fagan 2008, 291).  In this essay, I propose to argue that these radical democratic reforms went too far – that is, that their advantages were outweighed by their disadvantages.


Radical democracy was the culmination of a series of constitutional reforms introduced over a period of about 130 years, which were begun by the archon[2] Solon in 594 BCE (Aristotle, 6-13; Roebuck 1965, 206-210; Martin 2000, 84-86).  The general thrust of these reforms was to transfer power from the aristocracy to the citizenry of Athens (de Blois and van der Spek 2008, 84-85).  This process separated the business of the State from the activities of its wealthier citizens; and limited the financial dependence of the State on their generosity (Humphreys 1978, 97).

The reforms were interrupted by the tyranny of Peisistratus, Megacles and Peisistratus’ sons between 560 and 510 BCE (Roebuck 1965, 210).  However, from about 508 BCE the reform process was recommenced and greatly extended by Kleisthenes,[3] who is regarded as the founder of Athenian democracy (de Blois and van der Spek 2008, 87).  Kleisthenes’ democratic reforms comprise the bulk of the constitutional situation that existed before the introduction of radical democracy by Ephialtes and Perikles in 462BCE.

Radical democratic reforms

According to Aristotle’s Constitution of Athens, the composition of the major governmental bodies and the legal system before and after the introduction of radical democracy may be summarised as follows.

After the Persian wars, the Council of Areopagus (comprised of aristocrats) resumed guardianship of the constitution.  Ephialtes, who had become a leader of the people, diminished the authority of the Areopagus by (1) denouncing and bringing legal actions against members of the Council regarding their alleged maladministration; and (2) re-assigning some of the powers of the Areopagus to the Council of Five Hundred, the Assembly and the law courts (Aristotle, 25; Bury 1963, 347; Hammond 1967, 288; Roberts 1998, 41, 47).  The role of the Council of Five Hundred or boule, was to draft legislation for consideration by the Assembly, which had a quorum of six thousand citizens (Waterfield 2004, 117; Roberts 1998, 41). All major matters of public policy were determined at meetings of the Assembly, which were a form of direct democracy.

After Ephialtes was assassinated, Perikles took his place as popular leader of the Assembly.  Perikles was also a general who redirected military resources towards sea power, which had implications for democracy because of the large numbers of citizens required as rowers of the triremes, of which more will be said later.

The major changes of radical democracy were that all magistrates (administrative officials) were selected by lot (sortition), except for military officers and certain other key officials who were elected by vote (Aristotle, 43).  No magistrate selected by lot could hold the same office twice (Roberts 1998, 41). The Council of Five Hundred also became elected by lot – fifty from each of ten tribes.  Each tribe held the office of Prytaneis in turn, the order being determined by lot.  The Prytaneis was responsible for convening meetings and setting the agendas of the Council and the Assembly (Aristotle, part 43).  However, in the interests of national security, the generals could instruct the Prytaneis to either call or not call a meeting of the Assembly (Roberts 1998, 47).

One counterbalance to this seemingly random process was a strict legal requirement that any new law must be consistent with the constitution and existing laws, which limited the whim of persuasive orators (Waterfield 2004, 102; Roberts 1998, 42).

The Council of Five Hundred passed judgement on nearly all magistrates, subject to appeal to the law courts.  Individual citizens could also lay an information against magistrates for not obeying the laws, subject again to appeal to the law courts if the Council found the charge proven (Aristotle, part 45).

Most of the law courts consisted of 500 citizens over the age of thirty; and more important cases were heard by 1000 or 1500 citizens selected by lot (Aristotle, part 45) from a pool of 6000 jurors (Waterfield 2004, 118).  Perikles introduced pay for jury service in the law courts, which counterbalanced the wealthy influence of the aristocrats (Aristotle, Part 27).  Pay was later introduced for the Council of Five Hundred and the Assembly (Aristotle, 62), presumably to encourage attendance (Thorley 1996, 73).  Councillors were exempt from military service, which would also have encouraged participation (Roberts 1998, 46).

The eligibility for citizenship by birth was altered to require both parents to be citizens (Aristotle, 41) which reduced the ability of aristocrats to marry other aristocrats from outside Athens, thus forcing further social mobility between the classes (Waterfield 2004, 102).  This change also inhibited the making of foreign alliances (Humphreys 1978, 99).

In his Funeral Oration, Perikles announced that the community would look after war orphans until they reached adulthood (Thucydides, 2.46.1); which, apart from providing direct benefits to the orphans, enhanced the sense of community in Athens.

Although ostracism (banishment to exile for ten years by vote of the Assembly) was an earlier institution, it became an important part of radical democracy because it symbolised the principle that the interests of the city state must prevail over those of the individual when these are in conflict (Martin 2000, 112).  Ostracism also helped to rid the city of potential tyrants (Humphreys 1978, 101).


Advantages of radical democracy

The main advantages of Athenian radical democracy may be summarised as follows.

(1) The various military threats to Athens made it important that all citizens felt integrally part of the city and its defence, particularly as they provided the essential manpower for the navy (Thorley 1996, 76).  As the anonymous writer of the ancient text known as “The Old Oligarch” wrote:

“First of all, then, I shall say that at Athens the poor and the commons seem justly to have the advantage over the well-born and the wealthy; for it is the poor which mans the fleet and has brought the state her power, and the steersmen and the boatswains and the shipmasters and the lookout-men and the shipwrights—these have brought the state her power much rather than the hoplites and the best-born and the elite.”  (‘The Old Oligarch’, i.1)

(2) Athens’ shift to democracy assisted her in forming alliances with other democratic city states such as Argos and Megara (Hammond 1967, 298).

(3) Radical democracy fostered political stability and civic pride by holding in check the inherent tensions between rich and poor; and between professional politicians and the masses (Waterfield 2004, 116, 119).

(4) The civic pride fostered by radical democracy promoted public expenditure on monumental buildings (such as the Long Walls), the arts and other cultural activities (Waterfield 2004, 119).  There was also an increased accountability of this public expenditure, as all the major decisions were debated and settled by the Assembly (Bury 1963, 348).

(5) The introduction of pay for jurors and later Assembly attendees encouraged wider participation and strengthened the position of democratic leaders against their aristocratic opponents (Hammond 1967, 301).

(6) Natural consequences of the radical democratic reforms were freedom of speech in the Assembly and equality before the law (Goldhill 2004, 5).


Disadvantages of radical democracy

The main disadvantages of Athenian radical democracy may be summarised as follows:

(1) There was a major problem of efficiency.  Because all public policy issues had to be debated and settled by the Assembly, which could not sit during the many festivals that were held, decision-making could be excessively slow and unresponsive to immediate needs (Thorley 1996, 71).  Big issues might take days to resolve (Roberts 1998, 41).

(2) There were risks to the quality and coherence of policy decisions; and their implementation.  Selection by lot meant that there were no professional government officials, or civil servants, apart from military generals (Waterfield 2004, 116).  For example, instead of having a Treasurer advised by financial experts, finance was managed by a multiplicity of boards (Roberts 1998, 43).  The lack of a civil service resulted in an over-reliance on professional politicians and orators like Perikles to develop and oversee the implementation of public policy, without expert advice (Waterfield 2004, 116).

(3) There were practical difficulties which prevented all citizens from participating equally in the Assembly meetings.  Many Athenian citizens lived too far away from the city; the meeting place at the Pnyx could accommodate only about 6,000 of the 50,000 citizens who now had the right to vote; and only around 2,000 normally attended because many citizens could not afford to attend, at least until pay for Assembly attendance was later introduced (Waterfield 2004, 116-117; Bury 1963, 349).

(4) Few citizens exercised their right to speak in the Assembly, resulting in the public debate being increasingly led by professional orators (Roberts 1998, 41); with most citizen participation being limited to cheering and heckling (Waterfield 2004, 117).

(5) The assumption that every citizen is equally capable of exercising sound judgement is dubious.  In contrast, modern representative democracy assumes that some people are better than others at political reasoning (Goldhill 2004, 2).

(6) The civic pride fostered by radical democracy worked against Panhellenism, despite the efforts of Perikles to make the two concepts work together.  The brake on Panhellenism arguably increased the threats to Athens from other Greek city states; and to the Greek states as a whole from external threats (Waterfield 2004, 119).

(7) The restriction of citizenship to children of both parents who are citizens would have excluded notable citizens such as Themistocles and Kleisthenes (Bury 1963, 350).  It must have also excluded other potentially notable citizens.  According to Hammond (1967, 301) modern historians have argued that this restriction also prevented Athens from developing into a larger state.

(8) Finally, it is highly doubtful that mass meetings could successfully manage an empire or wage a lengthy war.  It is telling that radical democracy was eventually abandoned after Athens provoked and lost the Peloponnesian War (Roberts 1998, 45).

I have not included the disenfranchisement of women and other non-citizens as a disadvantage here, because this was a common feature of all political systems in ancient Athens; and therefore cannot be attributed to radical democracy.


Naturally, different readers will have different values and priorities; and are therefore likely to weigh the various advantages and disadvantages differently.  Also, that there may be numerically more disadvantages than advantages of radical democracy is of little consequence.

My own view is that many of the advantages of radical democracy, for example, defence, political stability, civic pride, free speech, equality before the law, transparency and accountability can also be achieved through other forms of democracy such as the modern system of representative democracy.  When combined with the major disadvantages of radical democracy, especially for efficiency and the quality of public policy, I believe that this factor tips the balance against radical democracy.

The historical fact that the ancient Athenian experiment with radical democracy was abandoned after the Peloponnesian War and has rarely, if ever, been repeated, indicates that radical democracy may not in practice have been the best form of democracy.


Ancient Sources

Anon. c.424 BCE  ‘The Polity of the Athenians’ The Old Oligarch in The Ancient History Sourcebook, Fordham University, New York.  Available-: http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/ancient/424pol-athens.asp

Aristotle,  ‘Constitution of Athens’, trans. F.G. Kenyon. R.W.J. Clayton (ed.) Athenian Politics, 1973 London Association of Classical Teachers: The Classical Association, London. Available-: http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/athenian_const.html

Thucydides Chapter 4: Pericles’ Funeral Speech in History of the Peloponnesian War trans. R. Warmer, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth 1972 (revised).

Modern Sources

Bury, J.B., 1963  A History of Greece, Macmillan, London and New York.

de Blois, L. and van der Spek, R.J.,2008  An Introduction to the Ancient World (2nd edition) Routledge, London and New York.

Goldhill, S., 2004  ‘The Good Citizen’, in Love, Sex and Tragedy: Why Classics Matters. John Murray, London, 179-94.

Hammond, N.G.L., 1967  A History of Greece (2nd edition), Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Humphreys, S. C., 1978 ‘Public and Private Interests in Classical Athens’, The Classical Journal, Vol. 73, No. 2 (Dec., 1977 – Jan., 1978), 97-104.

Martin, T. R., 2000  Ancient Greece – From Prehistoric to Hellenistic Times, Yale University Press, New Haven and London.

Osborne, R., 2009  Greece in the Making 1200-479 BC, Routledge, Hoboken.

Roberts, J.W., 1998   ‘Radical Democracy’ in City of Sokrates: An Introduction to Classical Athens, Routledge, London.

Scarre, C and Fagan, B.M. 2008  Ancient Civilisations, (third edition). Pearson Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River.

Thorley, J., 1996   Athenian Democracy, Routledge, Hoboken.

Waterfield, R., 2004  Athens – A History, Macmillan, London, Basingstoke and Oxford.

[1] Athenian citizens were males born in Attica with at least one Athenian parent, excluding metics (foreign residents) and slaves.

[2] The archon was the position title one of several aristocratic leaders who replaced the hereditary kings of Athens in about 750 BCE (Roebuck 1965, 205).

[3] Also spelled as Cleisthenes.


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