Saving Safe Schools

Safe Schools is, simultaneously, one of the simplest policy issues in Australia, and one of the most complex.

 

Simple, because it is an effective, evidence-based program aimed at reducing bullying of one of the most vulnerable groups in our society: young lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people. Surely, supporting this group, and lowering the disproportionate rates of social exclusion, and mental health issues, that they experience, should be straightforward?

 

Complex, because – well, have you listened to (most) Liberal and National politicians over the past few years? Did you read The Australian newspaper in 2016? [*Neither is recommended of course, but if you did you would have heard and seen a barrage of criticism of this initiative addressing anti-LGBTI bullying]

 

This little program became the focal point of one of the biggest culture wars in our recent history, such that among right-wing circles even the name Safe Schools has itself become toxic, synonymous with all manner of imagined problems.

 

It is hard to remember that, at the federal level, Safe Schools was initially the epitome of bipartisanship – announced and funded by the then Rudd Labor Government before the 2013 election, before being launched under the Abbott Coalition Government in mid-2014.

 

How did we get from there, to wherever the hell it is we are now? I’m not proposing to rehash that depressing history – instead, I would strongly suggest you read the excellent Quarterly Essay ‘Moral Panic 101: Equality, acceptance and the Safe Schools scandal’ by Benjamin Law.

 

However, I am interested in the why – why did a simple and straight-forward program aimed at reducing homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and intersexphobia in schools provoke such an angry response from so-called conservatives around the country?

 

Part of the explanation can be found in the response of one of the program’s greatest advocates, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews, to the decision by the then Turnbull Liberal National Government to ‘review’ the program in early 2016. From his Facebook post:

 

“Schools have to be a safe place for every kid – no exceptions.

Teachers have to be given the tools to deal with every situation – no excuses.

And there is absolutely nothing wrong with this effective little program, which achieves the above two aims and nothing more.

But let’s be honest here: I don’t think these extreme Liberals are actually offended by the structure of the program, or the teachers who lead it.

I just think they’re offended by the kids who need it.

They don’t like the fact that some young people might be different.

And I’m sick of it.

I’m sick of Liberal politicians telling our kids that there’s something wrong with them – when there isn’t.

I’m sick of Liberal politicians trying to push us all back, whenever we all take a few steps forward.

Cory Bernadi [sic] says teenagers are too young to know about love and care and acceptance.

Well, I can assure you, Senator: they know a whole lot more than you.”

 

This offence – at the fact LGBTI kids exist – was so great that, even though the independent review found the program to be effective, age-appropriate and consistent with the curriculum, they axed it anyway. The NSW Liberal National Government, and other conservative administrations around the country, quickly followed suit.

 

But while the offence of Liberal politicians that LGBTI kids have the temerity to exist might be part of the explanation for Safes Schools’ axing, it is by no means a complete explanation.

 

One perhaps even more important contributing factor is discussed in Benjamin Law’s Quarterly Essay, in response to the changes by then Education Minister Simon Birmingham that “schools must now obtain the approval of parent bodies to train teachers [in Safe Schools], and before any lessons are taught.”

 

As Paul Thoemke is quoted on page 57/58 in relation to trans children: “This may be the most politically unsavvy thing I can say. But I sometimes think the greatest risk for these kids is their families… Family life can be awful for a homosexual child, too. Youth who come out meet with parental grief, confusion, denial, or rage so hot that, for everyone involved, the prospect of the child eating from dumpsters or sleeping under bridges may be preferable to coexisting with them under the same roof.”

 

This really is the crux of the debate. Some parents are so homophobic, biphobic, transphobic or intersexphobic (often all four) that they would prefer LGBTI children to be in a wooden box rather than sitting at a wooden desk in a safe and supportive classroom. And not ‘just’ their own children, but all LGBTI kids.

 

Of course, the majority of parents do not see this issue in this warped way. They, like the LGBTI community itself, want to see all children have the ability to live their best lives.

 

Indeed, one of the features of this debate is that it is the LGBTI community and its allies who are arguing for the best interests of kids, while our opponents, who have long (falsely) railed against us with the ‘Won’t somebody please think of the children?’ mantra in the name of ‘traditional family values’, that are acting in the interests of intolerant adults.

 

Unfortunately, in 2016 the Turnbull Liberal-National Government listened to the hateful minority, followed by a number of states and territories.

 

As a result, in early 2019, the Safe Schools program is only functional in Victoria, the ACT (called the Safe and Inclusive Schools Initiative), Western Australia (called the Inclusive Education Program) and the Northern Territory.

 

It has been replaced by general, and generic, ‘anti-bullying programs’ in NSW, Tasmania and South Australia (disappointingly the Queensland Labor Government has never fully supported Safe Schools), in part based on the argument that LGBTI kids don’t deserve a special program to specifically promote acceptance of their difference.

 

Law takes apart this view in his Quarterly Essay on page 64, responding to an example about Hindu students from Elisabeth Taylor of the Australian Christian Lobby:

 

“When Taylor tells me this, I’m initially taken by her argument. Why should minorities of any kind have special treatment? Why should queer kids get the attention when others [sic] kids are being bullied too? It takes a while before the obvious presents itself: first, that general anti-bullying measures have existed for decades and haven’t helped queers at school. Second, that Safe Schools doesn’t exists solely for LGBTIQ youth, but also for the countless other Australian kids who are agents – as well as victims – of schoolyard homophobia. Third: Hindu children are born into Hindu families and communities, who affirm their religion, culture and worldview. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex young people do not have that luxury. Gays are mostly raised in heterosexual families. And if our families and communities don’t accept us, there are consequences. One 2010 national study found that “rates of self harm are higher in [queer] young people who are not supported when they disclose to mother, dad, brother or sister.” If these kids aren’t safe at home or school, where else do they have?”

 

In 2019, we still have Governments at Commonwealth level, and in half the states and territories, that really don’t seem to care about the answer to that question.

 

Who don’t support the right of LGBTI kids simply to be – but instead listen to a vocal minority of bigots who would prefer LGBTI kids not to be. Themselves. Supported. Or Accepted.

 

The question is what we do about it. I would argue the onus is on us, the LGBTI community, our allies, and indeed every Australian who supports diversity, of sexual orientations, gender identities and sex characteristics, to vote against those Governments.

 

Because our kids are counting on us.

 

Unknown-8

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews has shown the leadership too many of his Commonwealth, state and territory counterparts refuse to.

 

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Letter to State and Territory Labor Leaders Calling for Them to Support a Binding Vote for Marriage Equality

It is now almost three months since I wrote to the Federal Opposition Leader, Bill Shorten, calling on him to take the lead on marriage equality by supporting a binding vote within the Labor Party (https://alastairlawrie.net/2015/01/24/bill-shorten-will-you-lead-on-marriage-equality/ ).

While I continue to wait for a response to that correspondence, we should remember there are other parliamentary leaders of the Labor Party in Australia, who also have a duty to stand up for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) members of their respective communities, and for the LGBTI members of their state and territory branches of the ALP.

The following is my letter to these leaders, asking them to support a binding vote for marriage equality in the lead-up to the National Conference in July (with a slightly more detailed letter sent to the first out parliamentary leader of a Labor Party in Australia, and the first out head of any Australian Government, ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr).

Mr Luke Foley, MP

Leader of the NSW Opposition

Parliament House

Macquarie Street

SYDNEY NSW 2000

leader.opposition@parliament.nsw.gov.au

Monday 20 April 2015

Dear Mr Foley

PLEASE SUPPORT A BINDING VOTE IN FAVOUR OF MARRIAGE EQUALITY IN THE LEAD-UP TO THE 2015 ALP NATIONAL CONFERENCE

As you are aware, there are now approximately three months left until the 2015 National Conference of the Australian Labor Party.

One of the issues to be considered at this event is actually unfinished business from the previous National Conference, held in December 2011, and that is the position that the ALP adopts on marriage equality.

While that gathering took the welcome step of making support for marriage equality an official part of the platform, it also immediately undermined that policy stance by ensuring all MPs were to be given a conscience vote when it came before Parliament.

That decision – to ‘support’ marriage equality, but then make that support unenforceable – guaranteed that any Bill would fail in the last Commonwealth Parliament, and continues to make passage in the current Parliament extremely difficult (even with any Liberal Party conscience vote).

However, you, and the delegates to this year’s National Conference, have the opportunity to help right that wrong. And make no mistake, the conscience vote is inherently wrong, not just because of its practical impact in making legislative change unobtainable, but also because it is unprincipled, and un-Labor.

Having a conscience vote on something like marriage equality, which is a matter of fundamental importance for many members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) community, says that our human rights are optional, our equality is optional.

A conscience vote makes it clear that homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and intersexphobia are acceptable, that the second-class treatment of our relationships is officially condoned, that Labor Party MPs are free to treat LGBTI Australians as ‘lesser’ simply because of who we are. In essence, a conscience vote on marriage equality is unconscionable.

A non-binding vote on marriage equality is also ‘un-Labor’ because it is contrary to the principles of collective organising upon which the party is founded. The idea of solidarity is supposed to reflect core philosophy, not simply act as an empty slogan, and definitely not something that is abandoned simply because some caucus members cannot abide the thought LGBTI people might enjoy the same rights that they do.

A conscience vote on this issue, from a party that adopts binding votes on nearly everything else (from refugee policy to metadata and almost all things in between), also makes it difficult for the Australian community, and the LGBTI community in particular, to take the platform position in favour of marriage equality seriously.

This is something that can, and must, be changed at this year’s National Conference, given only it has the power to introduce a binding vote in favour of marriage equality for all ALP MPs.

Acknowledging that there will be groups both inside and outside the ALP who will strongly oppose any moves to support full LGBTI equality, achieving a binding vote on marriage equality will be difficult, and therefore requires the support of parliamentary leaders within the party who are willing to do just that, to ‘lead’.

Which makes the question at the heart of this letter: as leader of the NSW parliamentary Labor Party, will you help lead on marriage equality?

It’s time for you, and the other state and territory leaders, to use the influence of your positions to help support a binding vote in favour of marriage equality, thereby declaring once and for all that LGBTI human rights are not optional, that LGBTI equality is absolutely not optional.

Doing so would signal to the many hundreds of LGBTI members of the NSW ALP, and the many, many thousands of LGBTI members of the NSW community, that the Labor Party will stand up for all people, irrespective of sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status.

Adopting a binding vote for marriage equality would send an incredibly powerful message, showing that the modern Labor Party is a genuinely inclusive, and genuinely progressive, political movement, and one that is fit to lead in the 21st century – and simultaneously show how backwards, and out-of-touch, the Liberal and National Parties are on this issue.

In short, the option to support a binding vote on marriage equality is full of opportunity, with multiple benefits and few, if any, adverse consequences. I sincerely hope it is an opportunity you, and other state and territory Labor leaders, are willing to grasp, and grasp firmly.

If you do, you can help make marriage equality a genuine possibility in 2016 or early 2017, rather than something which will continue to be delayed until 2018, 2019 or even into the 2020s.

For the benefit of my fiancé Steve and myself, and the thousands of other LGBTI-inclusive couples who are still waiting for the same right to marry which other couples can simply take for granted, please support a binding vote in favour of marriage equality at the 2015 National Conference, and help make our long-overdue weddings a reality.

Sincerely

Alastair Lawrie

NSW Opposition Leader Luke Foley, who announced he supported marriage equality in February. Will he now back that up with support for a binding vote to help make marriage equality a reality?

NSW Opposition Leader Luke Foley, who announced he supported marriage equality in February 2015. Will he now back that up with support for a binding vote within the Labor Party to help make marriage equality a reality?

Additional letters sent to:

The Hon Daniel Andrews Premier of Victoria Level 1, 1 Treasury Place East Melbourne VIC 3002 daniel.andrews@parliament.vic.gov.au

The Hon Annastacia Palaszczuk MP Premier of Queensland Level 15, Executive Building 100 George Street BRISBANE QLD 4000 thepremier@premiers.qld.gov.au

The Hon Mark McGowan MLA Leader of the WA Opposition Parliament House Perth WA 6000 leader@loop.wa.gov.au

The Hon Jay Weatherill MP Premier of South Australia GPO Box 2343 ADELAIDE SA 5001 Online contact form: http://www.premier.sa.gov.au/index.php/contact

The Hon Bryan Green MLA Leader of the Tasmanian Opposition House of Assembly Parliament House Hobart TAS 7000 bryan.green@parliament.tas.gov.au

Mr Andrew Barr MLA ACT Chief Minister GPO Box 1020 Canberra ACT 2601 barr@act.gov.au

Mr Michael Gunner MLA Leader of the NT Opposition GPO Box 3700 Darwin NT 0801 opposition.leader@nt.gov.au

* And a very rapid response from the ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr, confirming his support for a binding vote:

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