After a year of agitation, conservatives had a big win on the Safe Schools anti-bullying program – a curtain-raiser to their fight on equal marriage. By Karen Middleton.

What happened to the Safe Schools program

Protesters at the Hands Off Safe Schools Rally earlier this month in Melbourne.
Credit: Chris Hopkins / Getty images

When Scott Ryan, then parliamentary secretary for education, launched the Safe Schools program on June 13, 2014, he did so with a note of caution. 

“What we seek to teach is empathy, to better understand the perspective and experience of another,” he said. “I’ll be honest and say I am not primarily motivated by any alleged reason that bullying occurs: I see our challenge to stop the behaviour where it is destructive in our schools.”

The Safe Schools program began in Victoria three years earlier. It was funded federally in the dying days of the Rudd Labor government, and announced by then education minister Bill Shorten and finance minister Penny Wong, a week before the September 7 election. When Tony Abbott’s government took office after the election, the contracts had been signed.

At the launch, Ryan went on to say it was impossible to regulate attitudes.

“We can’t legislate thought, we can’t force or regulate true acceptance,” he said. “But we can proscribe behaviour.” He warned that any attempt to control thought would “both fail and potentially provide fuel for a backlash”.

It was a pointed warning. And it was coming not only from the political right. Within the LGBTI community, some were expressing concern about the way the program was structured and a lack of empirical evidence supporting it.

On September 13, 2014, long-time gay rights advocate and the 2015 Tasmanian Australian of the Year Rodney Croome wrote on the website that to ensure the funding did what was intended the Victorian model needed “some improvements”.

“First, it needs to be properly evaluated to prove it works,” he wrote. “Anecdotal evidence and self-administered school ‘audits’ are not enough to ensure renewed funding when the current funding round ends.”

He warned that the program was vulnerable, that advocates of such educational programs had no hope of securing ongoing funding if they were unevaluated and, as such, the Victorian program was “a step backwards”.

“There is always a temptation to jump at LGBTI school funding because the need is so deep and the resources usually so paltry. But if we don’t demand an improved, sustainable program we will find ourselves back in exactly the position we were before the [Safe Schools Coalition] was funded.”

There was also some concern in the Tasmanian LGBTI community that the program relied too heavily on bringing in outside organisations to lead it, rather than building capacity within the state education department itself. As a result of such concerns, the Tasmanian government signed a memorandum of understanding with the Safe Schools Coalition. In that state, the program was restricted to the professional development of educators, not rolled out directly into classrooms.

1 . Christian lobby concerns

Four months after Croome’s concerns were published, the Australian Christian Lobby and another conservative Christian organisation, Family Voice, launched a campaign against the program in Tasmania – a campaign later broadened to Western Australia and Queensland.

“We are deeply concerned about the divisive content and detrimental impact that this particular program could have on school communities,” church leaders, including Tasmania’s Anglican bishop, the Catholic archbishop and the moderator of the Presbyterian Church, wrote.

They said while they deplored all forms of bullying, they were concerned that the program focused only on issues relating to sexuality instead of taking a “multifaceted approach”.

Organisations representing educators, sexual and mental health professionals, the children’s commissioner, the anti-discrimination commissioner and Croome’s Gay and Lesbian Rights Group published a rebuttal letter.

“Research and practical experience show that it is necessary to name up the motives for discrimination and bullying if it is to be challenged effectively,” the letter said. “This is why the Safe Schools Coalition Program and similar programs have had such a positive impact on school communities.”

The statement was based on feedback from schools and self-evaluation.

2 . Liberal MPS complain

Early last year, however, concern about the program spread to the federal parliament.

Queensland Nationals senator Barry O’Sullivan complained about material within the Safe Schools program, specifically the booklet titled “OMG I’m Queer”.

O’Sullivan took a copy of the booklet to a party room meeting and read excerpts to his colleagues. The then education minister, Christopher Pyne, is understood to have responded that they needed to resist the desire to judge the issue from the viewpoint of being conservative men and women of a certain age and circumstance. 

Then prime minister Tony Abbott supported him, agreeing they needed to be aware of the prism through which they were viewing things.

Privately, Pyne told colleagues that the Coalition government would not have necessarily funded the program but that he was not in a position to cancel it. The signed contracts made that too difficult. And that was where the matter rested.

But the addition of more materials to the program late last year is what its critics say prompted renewed concern last month.

In late February, South Australian Liberal Senator Cory Bernardi raised the issue in the party room again. Malcolm Turnbull, now prime minister, asked Education Minister Simon Birmingham to look into it, in what one senior Liberal describes as a “Howardesque” manoeuvre to be seen to respond to the full breadth of party opinion. A review by University of Western Australia professor William Louden was announced.

This time, Tony Abbott changed sides, telling The Australian that Safe Schools was “a social engineering program”.

He repeated that view this week. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s not about anti-bullying, it’s about social engineering; now that we know exactly what this program is all about, ” Abbott told Sky News’s Paul Murray. “…I think we should save ourselves the money and scrap the program.”

Some of Abbott’s colleagues believe his change of heart is at least as much about “playing to the base” and representing the party’s conservative wing as it is about his own personal views. And some privately accuse conservative MPs of desiring to make life uncomfortable for Turnbull on as many issues as possible.

Barry O’Sullivan acknowledges there were a few who were being what he calls “naughty, naughty boys” who “took their chance to embarrass Turnbull”.

Equally, he says others were unhappy that Abbott hadn’t acted in the first place. But, he says, they were all “fringe dwellers”.

3 . Louden's review

As the Louden review was being conducted, Queensland Liberal National MP George Christensen – who had raised strong concerns about the program – gathered colleagues’ signatures on a letter to Turnbull, demanding a full parliamentary inquiry. He presented it, with 43 signatures, on Thursday last week.

The next afternoon, federal education minister Simon Birmingham requested changes to the program after receiving the results of the Louden review.

Louden made few specific recommendations, finding that the four official guides were appropriate and the main resource, “All of Us”, was “suitable, robust, age-appropriate, educationally sound and aligned with the Australian curriculum”. He recommended parental guidelines be produced, including specific guidance for the parents of LGBTI children.

Louden said the series of booklets beginning with “OMG I’m Queer” was not designed for the classroom but for libraries and individual use, and not normally in primary schools.

On the basis of that advice, Birmingham announced he was seeking to have some activities removed from the program, including role-playing, which Professor Louden suggested might not be suitable for some students. He has asked that the content align with the same-age curriculum for biology and wants it reviewed by an external department-appointed panel.

The minister has also asked that the program remove third-party branding and links to external sites, such as Minus 18, which contains information on transitioning.

Birmingham has demanded that program managers do not engage in “political advocacy” or bring the program into “disrepute”.

He wants the program restricted to secondary schools and some materials, including the “OMG I’m Queer” resource, to be used only in one-on-one counselling sessions. All materials will have to be aligned with other more general anti-bullying programs.

Birmingham also wants more information provided to parents and their consent for students to take part – something Victorian premier Daniel Andrews argues could undermine the program by seeing the exclusion of vulnerable children.

The Safe Schools Coalition, which runs the program, met with education department officials this week and is working through the proposed changes.

“Our focus remains on ensuring the program can continue to provide essential support and training for all schools across Australia,” national program director Sally Richardson said in a statement, “and that the core objectives of the program are achieved: to reduce homophobic and transphobic bullying and discrimination in schools and ensure same sex-attracted, gender diverse and intersex students are safe, included and supported.”

The Safe Schools Coalition has commissioned the University of Western Sydney and the University of Sydney to undertake an independent evaluation.

But opponents of the program continue to campaign against it, with daily reports appearing in The Australian criticising its proponents.

4 . “This isn’t about going to war.”

Within the federal Coalition, Simon Birmingham’s response has seen calls for another inquiry dissipate. Barry O’Sullivan is happy with the outcome.

“When I enter into a campaign to produce an outcome, I don’t ignore the position of the other stakeholders,” he tells The Saturday Paper. “This isn’t about going to war.”

O’Sullivan says he understands the anguish of those experiencing confusion over their gender. He is calling for everyone on all sides to listen to each other.

“Everyone take a Bex. Lie down for half an hour,” he says. “Be all ears as much as you are mouth and just listen. And I bet we’ll find more common ground.”

George Christensen was pleasantly surprised by Birmingham’s changes. He said he was happy the program had been “gutted”.

But the changes haven’t satisfied everybody.

Greens senator Robert Simms condemned them. “The moment you cave into homophobes on the backbench you let the genie out of the bottle and there is no pleasing them,” he said.

“We’re seeing this program being gutted; we’re seeing this program being significantly narrowed in terms of its focus.”

Daniel Andrews is vowing that his government will ignore the changes and continue to run the program as it was.

“It works,” he told ABC TV’s Q&A program on Monday. “It’s here to stay. If the federal government wants to tinker with it and compromise it, we will fund it fully and deliver it properly in every government secondary school across our state, no questions asked…”

The practicalities of his pledge are a bit unclear. If the national program is adjusted, the offending links removed and its resources shifted to the education department’s Safe Schools Hub, as Birmingham has proposed, it seems Victoria would have to set up a new, parallel program to restore them.

On the other side of the debate, the Australian Christian Lobby was also not satisfied with Birmingham’s response.

Its managing director, Lyle Shelton, said he remains concerned students will be told they can use either boys’ or girls’ toilets according to their gender identity, not their physiology.

“This is uncharted territory for the human race,” he said.

Shelton opposed what he said was the continued promotion of concepts such as “gender fluidity”.

“That’s theory, that’s not fact.”

He said he supported helping kids who struggled with sexual identity.

“We should do that. But indoctrinating the whole school into radical gender theory is a giant step into the unknown.”

Simon Birmingham says he believes the changes take account of all genuinely held views and prioritise the needs of children and their parents.

“The issue has been dealt with,” he tells The Saturday Paper. “We have proposed reforms to fit the program rather than cut it or leave it untouched. We have adopted a sensible middle way.”

The program’s original funding runs out in 2017. Advocates want it to continue but the Turnbull government has decided not to extend it. Birmingham argues the funding was to develop materials to train teachers and that development will be complete by next year.

5 . Playing politics

The federal opposition is accusing the government of capitulation.

“When you give in to the bullies of the extreme right they come back wanting more,” Bill Shorten said, in response to the backbench petition. “It’s time for Mr Turnbull to stand up for vulnerable young teenagers. Mr Turnbull, stop following your party; start leading it.”

Turnbull accused Shorten of playing politics. “The way that he has sought to describe any critic of the Safe Schools program as being an extremist or an ideologue or worse is utterly unworthy.”

But the prime minister also reminded everybody – including those on his own side – to focus on the children.

“All members expressing views on this program should choose their words carefully and remember the impact their statements can have on young people and their families.”

Birmingham acknowledged some were playing politics. “There are some on both sides of the debate who sadly used it as a proxy for other agendas. I’d urge them to desist because, first and foremost, this should be a program about the wellbeing of schoolchildren and not something that should play into opposition to a gay marriage plebiscite or to advance a gay marriage agenda.”

He said he was largely aiming those remarks at groups outside the parliament.

Lyle Shelton denied playing politics, but acknowledged he believed there was a link with “rainbow politics” and the same-sex marriage agenda.

“If the definition of marriage is changed in law, I think people will be asking, ‘Will these sorts of programs become unstoppable? Is this what’s next?’ And the experience in Ireland and Canada would suggest that’s the case.”

To some in the LGBTI community, and others who support changing marriage laws, his comments will be heard as a warning shot: that the Safe Schools debate is just the beginning.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 26, 2016 as "What happened to Safe Schools".

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Karen Middleton is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.