On March 18, a day that was supposed to be the National Day of Action Against Bullying, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced devastating attacks on a crucial anti-bullying program.
The Safe Schools Coalition is an alliance of 535 primary and secondary schools across the country, which aims to ensure the safety of LGBTI students. The program began in 2014 under the Abbott government. It has already engaged more than 13,000 education professionals.
Turnbull announced that funding will not continue after 2017, that parental consent will be a requirement for implementation of the program and that primary schools will no longer be able to sign up to it.
How did an anti-bullying program launched without controversy under the Abbott government have its guts ripped out by Turnbull, who has promoted himself as a queer-friendly prime minister?
The whole process speaks volumes about the undemocratic nature of politics in this country. The Australian Christian Lobby (ACL), a right-wing fringe group, has been campaigning against the Safe Schools program for the past 18 months. If our government and mass media were truly owned and run by the people, in the interests of the people, there is no way the ACL could have achieved this.
Shamefully, The Australian and key Liberal Party politicians came behind the ACL campaign. The Australian ran a vicious smear campaign against Safe Schools for a month. Liberal backbenchers, notably George Christensen and Cory Bernardi, petitioned the government to suspend funding Safe Schools while a full parliamentary inquiry was conducted. Forty-three coalition backbenchers signed the petition. Rather than standing up to the petitioners, Turnbull called for a review of the program.
University of Western Australia Professor Bill Louden conducted the review and could not find any major problems with Safe Schools. Ignoring Louden's expert opinion, Turnbull threw a generation of LGBTI youth under the bus to maintain peace within the Liberal Party, not even a month after he took selfies with us at the Sydney Mardi Gras.
We all know that Tony Abbott is a homophobe, but Turnbull achieved what Abbott could not: the most significant attack on queer Australia since the 2004 marriage ban.
Here is why Turnbull's changes add up to a “gutting” of the program. The defunding of the program after 2017 means there is no funding for project officers. There will not be any paid staff to train school staff in how to implement the Safe Schools' educational materials. Well-meaning teachers might try their best, but queer sensitivity can be tricky.
Safe Schools has not been an expensive program, costing only $2 million a year. This is peanuts compared to the $243 million over the past four years given to the National School Chaplaincy Program, which has at times been quite damaging to LGBTI youth.
The requirement of parental consent means that LGBTI students with homophobic or transphobic parents will not be able to access the program. It means that homophobic school bullies will not be educated if their parents agree with them.
Primary schools will no longer be able to access the Safe Schools program. Yet transgender identity often starts to take shape very early in life, before primary school even begins. Many intersex people were simply “born that way”. Bullying of trans and intersex people in primary school can be severe enough to drive children to suicidal thoughts. Lesbian, gay and bisexual attractions generally start to take shape at around ten years of age — young enough for a homophobic culture in primary school to have a lasting psychological impact.
Managers of the Safe Schools Coalition will no longer be allowed to engage in political advocacy. This is a blatant attack on freedom of speech, aimed squarely at the LGBTI movement and the socialist left. It was coverage in The Australian that pre-empted this. Unable to analyse or critique the actual issues in any meaningful way, the newspaper launched personal attacks on Socialist Alternative activist and Safe Schools Coalition leader Roz Ward.
The Safe Schools Coalition's website will be dissolved into a generic anti-bullying website. This is an attempt to dissolve the coalition itself into a generic anti-bullying program. Yet a generic anti-bullying program cannot address homophobic or transphobic bullying. To address those kinds of bullying, we need to directly challenge the prejudice that underpins the behaviour.
It is no accident that about a quarter of LGBTI people have contemplated suicide, compared to 2.7% of the general population. It is not possible to address any kind of bullying without challenging homophobia. Homophobia is a core element of much of the bullying that goes on in high schools; many boys who are not gay are accused of being “faggots” and are beaten up for it. Many girls are fed up with the inherent sexism of macho homophobic school culture.
The criticisms of the Safe Schools Coalition are as puerile as the bullying itself. Bernardi claimed that the Safe Schools educational materials “prematurely sexualise” children, and Christensen equated the program with “paedophile grooming”. Yet gay people exist. Informing children of this fact does not constitute paedophilia. We might also ask where the real paedophilia occurs. Most often it is in the context of heterosexual nuclear families. But too often, it is on school grounds. Too often homophobic and transphobic school bullying includes sexual assault.
Right-wing politicians and journalists have had conniptions about links on the Safe Schools Coalition website to a Minus 18 publication. Minus 18 publications include links to the Tool Shed sex shop, sadomasochism sites and chest binding instructions. The Tool Shed link has been removed. Minus 18 material was not part of the core Safe Schools program. There is simply a link to it on the Safe Schools website. There is no plan to take 6-year-olds on school excursions to the Tool Shed.
But it is also important to acknowledge that Minus 18 publications are written by and for young people, who have a right to decide for themselves what information should be shared among young people. Youth do not need paternalistic overseers who are completely out of touch with their world to determine what information they can access in the internet age.
Right-wing commentators are horrified that the Safe Schools program introduces students to the concept of gender fluidity. That is, the notion that gender identity is not necessarily etched in stone for all individuals, and it is not necessarily determined by genitalia. Some people do not identify strictly as male or female, or their identity changes throughout their lifespan. This should not be a controversial notion; it should simply be recognised as fact.
Bernardi is horrified that children would be asked to imagine they have no genitals. But he does not refer to the context in which this request is made. Safe Schools teachers ask students to consider what it is about them that makes them male or female. Many students will of course answer that it is their genitals. Teachers are then prompted to ask students to imagine they have no genitals. It is merely a way of explaining transgenderism to young people; the concept that genitals do not necessarily determine gender identity. Children can deal with this brief imaginative exercise.
The LGBTI community and its supporters have organised nationwide rallies in response to attacks on the Safe Schools Coalition. This has been an inspiring exercise in community democracy, significantly broadening the forces in the LGBTI movement.
LGBTI organisations from P-Flag to the Bears have been standing up for Safe Schools. The Greens support Safe Schools. The Labor Party has promised to restore funding to the Safe Schools Coalition if elected. The radical queers and the Marxists, so unfairly smeared, are standing tall for safe schools. Trade unions are coming on board, as are school P&C associations. Three hundred health professionals recently signed a statement supporting the program.
So far the people who work for the Safe Schools Coalition itself have been pretty quiet. These workers need union support to come out loud and proud in defence of their jobs.
Victorian education minister James Merlino announced the Victorian government would make no changes to the program and continue its funding. The ACT Legislative Assembly has also endorsed the program.
We call on more state governments to follow this example. We call on the Federal government to reverse its decisions. We will not rest until we achieve the full restoration of the Safe Schools Coalition.