By Tracy Sorensen
SYDNEY — SICH (Student Initiatives in Community Health) has been lost its funding by the federal government for printing an article in its magazine Catalyst which was not to the liking of health minister Brian Howe.
This is the latest in a wave of attacks on young people's media and services. On February 25, the orientation handbook of the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS) was banned by the chief censor of the Film and Literature Board of Review. The handbook had contained information about drugs. This sparked a visit by police to the printers of the handbook, Breakout.
The NSW government has closed down the Family Planning Association's Making Sense of Sex phone hotline, in which fully trained young people gave advice about sex, health and contraception to their peers (see article this page).
Over 17 years, SICH has organised international youth health conferences, conducted health and welfare courses and workshops across Australia, produced a safe sex video directed at tertiary students and run vacation placement schemes which give students experience working in the community health sector.
As part of its HIV campaign, SICH this year distributed 40,000 condoms and 20,000 safe sex kits during orientation weeks on campuses across the country.
The offending article was a satirical piece in the centre pages of the most recent Catalyst, "Action speaks louder than coffee chats".
The page is decorated with radical slogans that might be found on any graffiti-decorated wall in Newtown. That some of these are not meant to be taken literally is clear to all but the most small-minded pedant — or a health department official keen to stir up some moral panic to create the right atmosphere for funding cuts.
"Sing instead of talking", the piece runs, "go barefoot inside and outside", "smash ivory towers", "eat your gardens". At a SICH press conference at Sydney University on February 25, it was "assassinate the pope" that caught the imagination of the assembled journalists. "Isn't that a bit extreme?", they asked.
SICH national coordinator Tinzar Lwyn repeated that SICH was not advocating that students assassinate the pope, and that the piece was political satire which expressed "student anger about the current economic, political and social situation, as well as optimism about the possibility of social change".
A statement from Brian Howe's office said that funds to the organisation — about $200,000 per year — had been cut because the organisation advocated "illegal and extremist activities".
The fact that Howe's office was waiting to pounce on an organisation was made clear in the statement: "Mr Howe said he had previously decided to cut the amount of funding to SICH, as part of an overall review of funding under the Community Organisations Support Scheme, before the latest edition of Catalyst magazine had been brought to his attention."
The Liberals rushed in to help crush SICH's threat to ordinary taxpayers, with shadow health minister Bob Woods' office faxing out a press release about the organisation's incitement of students to anarchistic, criminal and anti-social behaviour. Taxpayers' money was being spent in a "frivolous" and "inappropriate" manner to "produce material which offends public morality".
In response to the panic, Lwyn pointed out that "knee-jerk reactions which prevent young people from giving other young people essential information, which they may not be able to get elsewhere, must be stopped. It is imperative that governments recognise that students and other young people are in the best position to educate our own peers."
The UTS Students' Association and the printers of their orientation handbook, Breakout, have been the focus of another panic. The handbook provides students with what education officer Jad McAdam calls a "humorous, relevant, partly tongue in cheek" guide to recreational drugs.
"Since the beginning of high school, students have had information shoved down their throats about the dangers of drugs. None of that information tells why people would take drugs.
"When young people do have their first experience, they find their hair hasn't fallen out or they haven't had short term memory loss, and they turn their backs completely on the scare campaigns."
He said the drugs section in the orientation handbook would get the drugs issue into perspective, and that the Drug Offensive's approach (Operation Noah opened its lines on February 26) was misguided, and presented only half-truths.
According to Breakout's Brett Collins, two detectives turned up at the offices on February 27 demanding the original artwork under the Printing of Newspapers Act. Later that day, Breakout supplied its lawyer with the artwork. "We were surprised. We'd never heard of the Printing of Newspapers Act", said Collins.
He said that Breakout was confident of its moral and political position, and that a "high profile lawyer" had committed himself to defending both Breakout and the UTS students if any charges were laid.
At a Democratic Socialist Party forum on February 18, AIDS Council of New South Wales worker Ken Davis commented on the dangers inherent in a "climate of repression".
He pointed out that, although there were still important problems with the AIDS strategy taken in Australia, its emphasis on openness, prevention and safe sex had kept the rate of spread of the virus relatively low. In the US, by contrast, a much higher rate of spread could be linked to a basic policy which was to "tell all the young people to stop taking drugs and having sex".
"We're having some trouble right now, with the Western Australian health minister's withdrawal of the safe sex material for young people and its replacement with 'just say no' propaganda", Davis said.
"You would have read too, that our socialist prime minister was as worried as Nick [Greiner] was about this disgusting family planning propaganda that was going to young people, particularly young women [the Fact and Fantasy File]. And our prime minister intervened to uphold the morality of the nation.
"The entire population needs to feel much stronger in its ability to negotiate the sort of sex activity it wants, or the drug injecting activity that it wants, rather than go down the road of any repressive strategies. Not simply are they immoral; they don't work. There's no example of abstinence working in relation to any sexually transmitted disease, for example. The war on drugs didn't work."
SICH will protest its funding loss in a rally outside ALP headquarters in Sydney on March 3, and SICH and the UTS Students' Association will hold a public meeting to defend their organisations at 7 p.m. that evening at St John's Hall, Glebe.