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Be Informed, Get Involved: Participating in Australia’s Democracy

While the majority of Australians participate in our democracy during elections, there are ways of participating and sharing your beliefs throughout the year. 

Joining or supporting an organisation is a way to express opinions on a contentious topic or issue collectively. This is a common method of participating in today’s democracy. Activist organisations such as Amnesty International and Oxfam are fully independent organisations, who fight for human rights, and the preservation of democratic processes. Other examples of organisations include political parties, trade unions, charities, industry groups, and professional associations.

Actively communicating with, and attending events hosted by your political representatives (elected or not) is important, as ultimately they are the ones advocating on your behalf. Going to community forums, writing to your elected representatives and volunteering on election day for your choice of political representative, are all ways that people can participate in the democratic process in their everyday life.

Grassroots to the Australian Greens

The late 1960s saw the beginning of a greens movement in Australia in response to the planned construction of dams in fragile Tasmanian river ecosystems. Environmental activist groups, such as the Tasmanian Wilderness Society, arose after the devastating failure of the campaign to prevent the damming of the Serpentine and Huon rivers at Lake Pedder.

The creation of the United Tasmania Group in 1972 saw the beginning of a shift from activist groups to environmentally focussed political entities. Australia wide, 13 green parties were registered at a federal level with the Australian Electoral Commission by 1989, as well as numerous state parties. 

The national Australian Greens party formed in 1992, joining the New South Wales, Queensland and Tasmanian state Greens parties. Their influence as a political force in federal government has been growing since the 2004 federal election. The height of their influence was highlighted following the 2010 election, when their numbers helped the Labor Party form a minority government,  affording Greens interests greater sway in the following parliament. Due to their activist history, the Greens have been seen as a social movement party. However, it can be argued that the more recent shift to negotiating environmental issues in a political context shows the Greens moving away from their activist roots.

The Library as a Democratic Necessity

Libraries are not only a wealthy source of information, but a necessity for a truly democratic society.

The Australian Library and Information Association (ALIA) states that for Australia to have a thriving culture, economy, and democracy, access to information and new ideas must be unconstrained and continuous. Libraries support patrons to participate in democracy by collecting a range of information sources, and providing equitable access to their collections, which helps people to make informed decisions. 

The National Library of Australia’s mission is to maintain the largest source of information about Australia and its people. The Library collects materials about significant events in our nation’s history, including extensive records of Australia’s political and activist past involving protests, demonstrations and other forms of direct action. These are detailed through photographs, posters, brochures, newspaper articles, oral histories and manuscripts detailing first-hand accounts, and much more.

The Library also holds a substantial collection of election campaign material going back to 1901. In 2019, the National Library released the Australian Web Archive, which holds every website within the Australian web domain (.au) from the start of its collecting in 1996. These websites, and many other items in our collection, can be searched for freely, and viewed through Trove.

Activities

Split the class into groups to research a prominent political figure from a smaller party (not from Coalition or Labor parties). Investigate:

  • what they stand for
  • their background before coming into politics
  • how they got involved in politics 
  • the characteristics of their usual supporters (for example, their location, socio-economic background, profession, religion).

Ask groups to share their findings with the class. 

Discuss the following questions with your students: 

  • How easy was it to find out about your political figure?
  • Did any of the pieces of information you found contradict each other?
  • What sources of information did you use to in your research? 
  • Where else do you think would hold information about Australian democracy?