Leaked documents show the Liberal Party cut more than half the national history curriculum to fit its ideology. Now Peter Dutton is using attacks on education to rebuild his base. By Rick Morton.

‘Pushing bullshit’: Leaked docs reveal Dutton’s education farce

Opposition Leader Peter Dutton.
Opposition Leader Peter Dutton.
Credit: Lukas Coch / AAP Image

Peter Dutton’s attempt to reignite the education wars ignores a key point of very modern history: it was the Coalition that signed off on the revised national curriculum in April, just days before the federal election was called. Education ministers across Australia had also met in February to consider and pass the draft curriculum, but the federal government and Western Australia, for different reasons, demanded more work on two key subject areas: mathematics and history. After that meeting, acting federal Education minister Stuart Robert wrote to Derek Scott, the chair of the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA), about a “more balanced view” of Australian history and asked that further revisions be made.

Specifically, Robert urged effort to “ensure key aspects of Australian history, namely 1750-1914 and Australia’s post-World War II migrant history are appropriately prioritised and can be taught within the time available”.

Leaked documents obtained by The Saturday Paper from the subsequent April meeting of ministers that endorsed the rushed changes, including briefing papers prepared for those ministers, show how radical some of the changes were.

One document shows there was a 55 per cent cut to the content of the years 7-10 history curriculum as part of the “decluttering” process in the review, with the vast majority of these required teaching strands being taken out in the draft curriculum that went to the February meeting. However, following the Coalition’s intervention, a further 11 mandatory sub-strands were removed between February and April. Similarly, civics and citizenship content was reduced by one-quarter with another four strands cut after Stuart Robert’s entreaties.

Under the heading “Restructure to prioritise Australian history in year 9 and 10”, ACARA provided a table to the April ministers’ meeting that showed it had accepted parts of Robert’s pleading letter verbatim.

A new history sub-strand for year 9, not present in the February draft, is: “Making and transforming Australia 1750-1914.” The content feature is a mandatory requirement alongside the teaching of World War I, while two other sub-strands about “Asia and the world” and the “Industrial Revolution and the movement of people” have become optional.

For year 10 students, a new strand called “Building modern Australia” was added as a required study field, while a third strand, “The globalising world”, was made optional. Reference to the potential study of popular culture, migration experiences or the environment movement were deleted entirely.

The Saturday Paper can reveal the Australian government, under Scott Morrison’s leadership, attempted to have references to “invasion” taken out of the curriculum regarding First Peoples whose land was never ceded to British colonisers.

Under a table headed “key and contentious issues”, this matter was summarised by the curriculum authority but largely batted away because it was almost always used “in the context of content discussing the contestability of terms and the different perspectives of historical events”.

“The term ‘invasion’ is not used as the single accepted or standard term used to describe European contact and occupation of Australia,” the ACARA document obtained by The Saturday Paper says.

“There is one instance of the term ‘invasion’ being used in a way that is not in the context of learning about contested terms and different perspectives [on] historical events. This occurs in the following non-mandatory content elaboration for the strand ‘The making of the modern world’.”

In the draft, students were asked to “analyse impact of invasion, colonisation and dispossession of lands by Europeans on the First Nations Peoples of Australia” but this has now been changed in the new version of the curriculum.

Now, year 9 students might learn about how the “occupation and colonisation of Australia by the British, under the now overturned doctrine of terra nullius, were experienced by First Nations Australians as an invasion that denied their occupation of, and connection to, Country/Place”.

Another key issue, summarised by ACARA, is that there were “no references to ‘Judeo-Christian’ in the current curriculum” and although there were some pre-existing mentions of Christian heritage in the original curriculum, ACARA made additional changes to satisfy the Morrison government.

The final document says, “Revised Civics and Citizenship Curriculum includes the additional content elaboration ‘appreciating the cultural and historical foundations of Australia’s Christian heritage and their impact on Australian values’.”

In an interview with The Australian at the weekend, Dutton nominated education as a key battleground on which he intended to rebuild the Liberal Party. He said parents were concerned that education was being “driven by unions and by other activists”.

Dutton framed this as a matter of choice. “There has been a bewilderment by some parents in terms of what they see their kids coming home with. At the same time, education outcomes have declined in our country. This is a debate parents want to have. We want to contribute to that based on the values of our party.”

On Monday, Alan Tudge, who served as Education minister in the former Coalition government before standing aside at the end of last year, and who has retained the portfolio in opposition, said the Coalition “had some success” in rewriting parts of the national curriculum but it was not enough.

“I still want to see a more positive, optimistic view of Australia’s history,” Tudge told Sky News. “There are opportunities for further improvements to the national curriculum and more are going to be needed, more are needed.

“I still want to ensure that is the case, that when students come out of school they really understand how the fact that Australia is one of the wealthiest, freest, most egalitarian and most tolerant societies that has ever existed in all of human history, and the origins of that and how we became that.

“Because if they don’t deeply understand those things, and many don’t, then they’re not going to properly defend it. I think there’s still a lot more work that we can do on that front.”

Although the final curriculum was endorsed in April, the Coalition’s threats to agitate on the education issue are not idle. At that same meeting, ministers resolved to do away with the six-yearly reviews of the national curriculum in favour of a “real-time” watching brief, allowing for updates as and when agreed. Tudge, who said this change was led by the Commonwealth, intends to use this new feature, although it has not been locked in yet.

The curriculum authority will evaluate these review processes and report back to ministers by the end of this year.

ACARA chief executive David de Carvalho said in a statement to this newspaper that “the updated Australian curriculum was endorsed by all Education ministers in April this year and is now live on the new Australian Curriculum website”.

“Implementation is the responsibility of states and territories, so they decide when their schools will implement the new curriculum,” he said.

“Teachers will use the curriculum to develop teaching and learning programs taking into account their local context and the diverse needs of their students.”

Senator Hollie Hughes began the Coalition’s attacks on education in a speech to The Sydney Institute on June 22, blaming the low conservative youth vote on “left-wing rubbish” being taught in schools.

“We have got an education system that is basically run by Marxists,” she said. “When you have got a problem with your education system it is going to take a generation to fix it. Maybe their parents need to turn the internet off for one hour a day, stop allowing them to use the car and get public transport.”

Neither Tudge nor Hughes responded to a request from this newspaper to name specific problems with the current national curriculum approved by the former Morrison government.

One source involved in the briefings for the Education Ministers Meetings in February and April told The Saturday Paper that the Coalition were in the room when the curriculum was endorsed.

“They chaired the meetings; if they want to turn around now and say the national curriculum isn’t good enough, they’re going to have to tell everyone exactly what they propose changing,” the person said. “Frankly, it is a waste of everyone’s time if they keep pushing this bullshit.”

After the February meeting, Robert wrote to ACARA and nominated several experts to contribute to the curriculum. The Saturday Paper can reveal those names included Dr David Hastie, a Christian schools stalwart, Dr Laura Rademaker, an ANU research associate whose work looks at the interaction between Christian missionaries and First Peoples, and historian Jonathon Dallimore.

In a June article for the Bible Society Australia publication Eternity, Hastie noted that there was “an almost entire absence of religion in the foundation to year 6 curriculum” and even though things were better in the year 7-10 portion it was still “alarmingly less than was historically     accurate”. That changed with his input. “It is notable,” he wrote, “that these changes were added without demur by ACARA – recognised as just historically accurate: further evidence that the curriculum writers were not particularly doctrinaire in the initial absence of Christianity in version 8.”

During consultation by the curriculum authority, some people and groups were “outright opposed” to an expanded focus on First Nations history.

“The most prominent issue talked about in open-ended feedback concerned the stronger focus on First Nations perspectives in the history curriculum,” says a report on feedback prepared by the University of Queensland.

“There was considerable support and praise for this, which was sometimes qualified by statements that alerted to needing to retain a balance that adequately includes western and other historical content in the curriculum. A small group of respondents was also outright opposed to this component of the revised curriculum.”

Of the 11,894 email submissions received by ACARA during consultation on the humanities and social sciences learning area, almost all of them – 11,458 – were from a mass template email service called One Click Politics, which boasts the National Rifle Association in the United States as a major client.

“A further 251 submissions also appeared to be based on templates although sent from different email addresses. Another three emails came with altogether 302 signatures. The content of all these submissions centred around the Judeo-Christian heritage and the role of Western civilisation in the curriculum,” the feedback report says.

“Some of the respondents, mostly sole respondents, raised concerns about the balance of content, in particular requesting a greater inclusion of content around the role of Christianity in Australia, while most acknowledged the importance of including the impact of First Nations Australians.”

Although individual names are not listed in the consultation reports, it is instructive to look at the organisations and groups who did provide feedback to both the history subject and the “cross-curriculum priority” areas, which aim to embed information on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures across all subjects.

GetUp! and the Whitlam Institute offered feedback, but aside from professional bodies, parent organisations and expert groups, the list of organisations is dominated by conservative and industry voices.

The Institute of Public Affairs, the anti-abortion Canberra Declaration, Australian Christian Lobby, Menzies Research Centre, Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation, Margaret Court’s church the Victory Life Centre, BHP, the Anglican Church Diocese of Sydney, FamilyVoice Australia and the Minerals Council of Australia all provided input.

In the briefing paper obtained by The Saturday Paper, ministers were given the outcomes of revisions to the mathematics and history curriculum areas.

In history, ACARA reported that Stuart Robert’s intervention may have actually produced an outcome opposite to what he intended.

“Participants were asked whether there were too many elaborations related to First Nations Peoples from foundation to year 2,” the briefing paper says. “They did not feel there were too many, and they were authentic and targeted.”

The Commonwealth’s request to “prioritise” teaching of Australian history while also reducing content was agreed to “in principle” but the experts consulted were concerned that this would skew student understanding.

“There was concern expressed in relation to the importance of teaching history within the global context, removing flexibility for teachers, and the likelihood of teachers covering the optional content,” the paper says.

“The structure of year 9 and 10 has been retained but further refinements have been made to the content descriptions to address the concerns raised.”

What was approved, in the end, is a mess of apparently disconnected sub-strands squeezed into a topic called “Building modern Australia”.

About half of Australia’s school students will begin learning the new curriculum from next year, although Victoria and New South Wales will start later as they apply the national document to their own state-based “priorities”.

Labor’s minister for Education, Jason Clare, was approached for comment. He did not respond in time for deadline.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 9, 2022 as "‘Pushing bullshit’: Leaked docs reveal Dutton’s education farce".

For almost a decade, The Saturday Paper has published Australia’s leading writers and thinkers. We have pursued stories that are ignored elsewhere, covering them with sensitivity and depth. We have done this on refugee policy, on government integrity, on robo-debt, on aged care, on climate change, on the pandemic.

All our journalism is fiercely independent. It relies on the support of readers. By subscribing to The Saturday Paper, you are ensuring that we can continue to produce essential, issue-defining coverage, to dig out stories that take time, to doggedly hold to account politicians and the political class.

There are very few titles that have the freedom and the space to produce journalism like this. In a country with a concentration of media ownership unlike anything else in the world, it is vitally important. Your subscription helps make it possible.

Select your digital subscription

Month selector

Use your Google account to create your subscription