Leading from Behind


Lorraine Murphy




Living in a democracy, citizenship is very important. Going to school during the communist witch hunts of the 1950s, we learnt a lot about democracy, seeing it under threat and needing protection like an endangered species. We could parrot, lifelike, that it was a government 'of the people; for the people; by the people'. We knew that the Ancient Greeks had 'invented' democracy and, given the leisure to hone it by slaves and non-citizens, they also knew a lot about 'citizenship'. We watched nervously as Bob Menzies' attempt to protect democracy by banning the Communist Party was thwarted by Doc Evatt. At the height of the Cold War, during the standoff between East and West over the Cuban Missile Crisis, we knew that if we were all consigned to oblivion by The Bomb, it was because Communism must not be allowed to bring down that apparently fragile flower of Democracy. The truth was plain to see, as President Kennedy so eloquently pointed out. If anyone needed to see concrete evidence of Democracy besieged, 'Let them come to Berlin!'

Over three decades later, now in post-Cold War society, democracy shouldn't have much to worry about. But can it simply be taken for granted? Clearly there is now less tacit acceptance that democracy is important; a more cynical, if not critical, stance. School kids are no longer taught to parrot platitudes about democracy. In fact it's rarely mentioned. We are less willing to accept the concept of citizenship as a precious right to be fought for. In the curriculum Citizenship is one of that mass of 'soft' subjects lying unnoticed in the spaces between the real-world, career-oriented, money-making 'hard subjects'.

A decade ago now, that 'heroine' of the 1980s Cold War, Margaret Thatcher, decreed bluntly that, 'There is no such thing as Society. There are individual men and women and there are families'. Eloquent certainly. Eminently provocative. And so far removed from the earlier rhetoric that ensured JFK his place in history. Once more, of course, this was a call to battle; this time the call to mount the attack on that other fragile plant, the Welfare State. Looked at carefully, this was also a very real attack on citizenship and democracy. At best this vision of a small 's' society would mean tribalism; at worst anarchy. But, as with all slogans, this was never stated. The idea was absorbed invisibly into the social fabric.

We now have, at least in rhetoric, a minimalist society; a small 'g' government with lower taxes, 'user pays', and privatisation. In rhetoric this new 'efficient' small 'g' government is no longer 'of the people; for the people; and by the people'. It's about managing money instead. It has no way of comprehending its role to provide, through taxes, those essential social services which should never be profitable. It's no big deal to be a citizen of this small 's' society. Increasingly, it means nothing at all.

And everywhere I look I see uncertainty. A gay schoolboy in NSW has sued his school for failing to provide him with a social environment in which he would not be discriminated against. Seemingly, neither his teachers nor his fellow students could comprehend his homosexuality. They had no guidelines of behaviour or curriculum resources to 'solve the problem' of his essential difference in their microcosm of society. Camping it up for the cameras outside the court, the boy unwittingly gave the media just those visuals they needed for their news bulletins and fuel for the talkback hosts. Glossing the complexity of the issue, the media coverage left the general public feeling either bemused, or confused and indignant: looking around desperately for someone to blame. The teacher who told him to walk like a man, perhaps? Student bullying? Or a failure of the NSW Board of Studies curriculum? Or just the boy's perversity for allowing himself to stand out from the crowd in the first place? Quite simply, both the boy and the general public did not feel relaxed and comfortable and in control of the issues displayed in this microcosm of society.

In macrocosm we can see a wider hub of civic confusion; another search for scapegoats for a wider malaise. Pauline Hanson's decision to form a political party - the One Nation party - has generated widespread support, crystallising tenuous links within an otherwise amorphous movement of civic discontent; welding this into an organisation, rather than a movement, presumably with firm aims and policies. Since her controversial maiden speech in the House of Representatives last year, Pauline Hanson has consistently been news. Democracy in action, perhaps? Or just more witch hunts? And can these, too, be stopped by simply banning the One Nation Party?

The Macintyre report concluded that teachers must 'nurture active and informed citizenry'. Clearly if we are to do this we must dust down the concepts of democracy and citizenship and drag them out into the light. Obviously 1990s rhetoric has gone too far for the simple certainties of the 1950s and 1960s but cynicism is, just as clearly, not the answer. What we need to do is rediscover the roots; re-evaluate the concepts; and rebuild the Commonwealth of Australia so that it can, surely, finally represent the common wealth.

Lorraine Murphy is Editor of Education Australia.

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