The unveiling of the 2003 Howard Government Cabinet records last week is more than just a revelation of political decisions behind events such as the Iraq invasion and Solomon Islands mission. It is a crucial addition to our understanding of Australia’s political history.
These documents offer a deep dive into government decision-making and policy development during the Howard era, making them invaluable for historians, political scientists, educators, and the Australian public. Their analysis can significantly contribute to understanding the impact and legacy of this period in Australian politics.
However, while these papers are a valuable trove of political history, which will be pored over by journalists, the lack of public interest reveals diminishing engagement in the area, and sputs a spotlight on young Australians’ declining results of national civics testing.
The 2019 National Assessment Program Civics and Citizenship (NAP-CC) results, published in 2021, indicate that only 53 per cent of Year 6 students and 38 per cent of Year 10 students (notably, girls outperformed boys in both year levels) met the benchmark in civics and citizenship education.
This trend is alarming, especially considering Year 10 is the last year civics is taught in schools.
The decline in civic understanding among young Australians underscores the need for education resources that are not only informative but also engaging.
The history of bipartisan efforts in civics education in Australia is noteworthy.
For instance, the Hawke government’s establishment of a parliamentary committee led to the recommendation of incorporating civics and citizenship lessons into history and social science curricula.
Following the 1993 election, Paul Keating initiated the Civics Expert Group to enhance young Australians’ political understanding and engagement.
Subsequently, John Howard introduced the ‘Discovering Democracy’ program in 1997, which extended beyond traditional school settings to higher education and vocational training.
These government measures demonstrate the cross-party commitment to strengthening Australian civic knowledge and participation since the 1980s.
In this context, prime ministerial libraries situated within or affiliated with Australian universities play a pivotal role. Housing rich collections of historical documents and personal letters, these libraries provide tangible connections to the past, making the study of political history more relatable and engaging for young learners.
Such libraries surpass their role as mere archives, functioning as dynamic hubs of education and civic interaction. By hosting exhibitions, conferences, and fostering scholarly publications, the libraries bring historical documents to life, connecting past political decisions to contemporary discussions and learning.
Last month’s fifth anniversary of the official opening of the John Howard Prime Ministerial Library at Old Parliament House underscored the critical role of these institutions in public education.
Other prime ministerial libraries, like the John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library at Curtin University, the Whitlam Institute at the University of Western Sydney, the Bob Hawke Prime Ministerial Centre at Adelaide University, and the Robert Menzies Institute at the University of Melbourne, act as gateways to Australia’s recent past.
They are more than repositories; they are vibrant educational platforms. Yet, their full potential in engaging new generations in political history remains largely untapped.
Expanding their reach and impact, particularly in making historical knowledge accessible and engaging to a broader audience — including younger Australians — is crucial.
At the very least, they could provide a wealth of teaching resources with a simple online search.
This expansion requires a holistic approach involving a solid national framework, substantial support from both government and private sources, and strong leadership.
Only with unwavering backing from all parties — including national cultural institutions — can these libraries truly thrive and fulfil their mission.
Despite the longevity of civics education in Australia since Federation, its relegation to the back corner of a classroom is a serious oversight.
Neglecting this fundamental aspect of education raises a real risk of depriving future generations of the skills needed for informed democratic participation.
As emphasised by UK educator and political biographer Sir Anthony Seldon, an understanding and respect for the past are vital for making better decisions and fostering better individuals.
This principle is essential for imparting a comprehensive understanding of Australia’s political heritage and its ongoing relevance to the younger generation.
Andrew Blyth was group manager of the John Howard Prime Ministerial Library at Old Parliament House (2016-2023) and is now the John Howard Fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies.