On Wednesday morning, as Australians were waking to news of the verdict in the trial of Derek Chauvin – the police officer whose murder of George Floyd last year sparked a resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement – New South Wales Police Minister David Elliott was in the middle of his own media blitz about BLM.
Elliott wasn’t, however, commenting on the outcome in the Chauvin trial. Nor was he reflecting on the demands of the movement in Australia – demands that became even more urgent following the death of five Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in custody in a six-week period earlier this year.
Instead, Elliott was speaking about a story on the front page of The Daily Telegraph, fed to the media by Mark Latham, the NSW leader of the far-right party One Nation. The article detailed that a school on Sydney’s leafy north shore was apparently displaying “anti-police” BLM posters made by students.
Elliott accused teachers at the school of “brainwashing” children with “anti-police propaganda”.
Photographs published by The Daily Telegraph included cardboard posters featuring the Aboriginal flag, drawn by year 5 and 6 students at the Lindfield Learning Village school. The signs were emblazoned with slogans including “Black Lives Matter”, “I can’t breathe” and “Everybody deserves to stay safe”. A poster that read “Stop killer cops” was also pictured.
The NSW Education minister, Sarah Mitchell, said the “posters should not be displayed in a classroom”, adding that teachers “found to be politicising a classroom will face disciplinary action”.
“Political activism has no place in schools,” Mitchell said.
But it was Elliott who really took the fight to Lindfield Learning Village. His first stop was Ben Fordham’s 2GB program, where he demanded an apology from the school on behalf of police, and for the teacher involved to be dismissed.
He also told Fordham that the posters were “racist”, while denying any evidence of racism within the NSW Police Force.
“If they think police are racist, how come on Friday I’ll be at the graduation ceremony where record numbers of Aboriginals are joining the police force?” Elliott said.
He then went on to attack the Lindfield school for not holding an Anzac Day ceremony.
Elliott followed up his 2GB interview with appearances on both Channel Seven’s Sunrise and Channel Nine’s Today, accusing the school of “indoctrination” and declaring that “we don’t have a race problem here in Australia”.
None of the interviews conducted with Elliott on Wednesday morning went to the substantive issues raised by the Black Lives Matter movement, despite the fact the biggest story in the world at the exact same time was Chauvin’s guilty verdict. Nor did they provide the perspective of the school.
Lindfield Learning Village, a state school, opened in January 2019 and has since become one of the most popular and in-demand schools on Sydney’s upper north shore. When it opened, with an enrolment of 350 students from kindergarten to year 10, there were an additional 2500 students on the waiting list. The school promotes a curriculum that focuses on “project-based, multidisciplinary learning”, prioritising collaboration between teachers and students.
The school’s principal, Stephanie McConnell, denied that students were taught to fear or distrust the police. She told the media on Wednesday that “posters referring to police were created in February this year as part of a prelearning activity aimed at identifying what year 5 and 6 students knew before they started studying contemporary Aboriginal history”.
“As part of their critical thinking, students were asked to write down all the issues they have heard from the mainstream news, other information sources or commentary,” McConnell said. “The comments on the posters were not taught to students.”
It emerged on Wednesday that the photos of posters were provided to The Daily Telegraph by politician Mark Latham.
Latham, who is the chair of an ongoing NSW parliamentary inquiry into education policy, harnessed the furore around the issue to grill the deputy secretary of the Department of Education, Georgina Harrison.
Under questioning, Harrison said the department had launched an inquiry into the school and that the principal “has also written to the commissioner of police in NSW, Mick Fuller, to offer him an apology”.
As chair of the parliamentary committee on education, this is not the first time Latham has used his position to rail against the current NSW curriculum. A committee report he endorsed argued that school syllabuses were politically motivated.
Latham has also drafted a bill that would ban discussion of gender fluidity and trans issues in NSW schools. On Wednesday, he told Ray Hadley’s 2GB program that Lindfield Learning Village was constructing gender neutral bathrooms.
In just a few days, one state MP was able to use conservative media outlets to push the Department of Education, the Education minister and the Police minister into berating a small school with fewer than 400 students.
But Latham’s role in the poster furore has been overshadowed by David Elliott’s remarks on race and policing, especially given their timing.
Elliott has been involved in a string of political controversies. In March last year, he was himself investigated by police after a photo surfaced of him firing a submachine gun at a rifle range. The inquiry focused on whether Elliott had breached the Firearms Act, as submachine guns are illegal except when used by the army, as well as some police and prison corrections officers.
Ultimately, police never laid charges.
In 2019, Elliott was accused of grabbing the arm of a 17-year-old who allegedly “clipped” the police minister’s Lexus with his ute. The teenager claimed Elliott told him he “worked for the cops”.
He claimed that when asked to show his badge, Elliot replied, “I pay for the badges, I don’t get one.” Elliott denies he made these comments.
NSW Greens MP David Shoebridge this week called for Elliott to be sacked, following the Police minister’s comments about Lindfield Learning Village.
“Thirty years after the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, and a week after the NSW parliament delivered a report into Aboriginal deaths in custody, it’s clear the problem of racism in the criminal justice system is ongoing,” Shoebridge told The Saturday Paper.
“The NSW Police minister has confirmed he is part of the problem, and he is not fit for the role. The reasons young people bring up police brutality against Aboriginal people when asked about recent history is because they have been paying attention.
“It’s extraordinary the Police minister is more outraged about posters protesting police brutality than the brutality itself.”
The last time Elliott made headlines for his comments about children was in 2019, when he strongly defended police strip searching minors.
“I’ve got young children and if I thought the police felt they were at risk of doing something wrong I’d want them strip searched,” Elliott said.
First Nations people, Shoebridge tells The Saturday Paper, are disproportionately the target of strip searches in NSW.
“The data shows that Aboriginal people are more likely to be arrested, more likely to be charged, less likely to get bail and more likely to receive a custodial sentence than their non-Aboriginal counterparts. I don’t know how to describe that other than as structural racism,” Shoebridge said.
Gomeroi, Dunghutti and Biripi woman Tameeka Tighe, whose 22-year-old brother Tane Chatfield died in custody in 2017, told The Saturday Paper Elliott’s comments were disheartening and infuriating.
“Every word that came out of his mouth made me so angry,” she said. “We see kids in years 5 and 6 not being allowed to have a political view, but at the same age they’re allowed to be incarcerated.
“It’s disappointing to see David Elliott say he wants to sack a teacher because they’re taxpayer funded. Well, I don’t like seeing my taxpayer money going to the NSW Police Force, who continue to kill my people.”
Tensions between police and First Nations people will be in focus as the trial of Northern Territory police officer Zachary Rolfe is heard in Darwin in July.
Rolfe is charged with the 2019 murder of Kumanjayi Walker, who was 19 when he was shot in the remote Northern Territory town of Yuendumu.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 24, 2021 as "NSW Police minister takes aim at school".
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