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7am Podcast

Leaked documents show the Morrison government is actively undermining respectful relationships education and preventing expert materials from being taught.

The website the government doesn’t want you to see

Read Transcript

In the middle of a growing national conversation about sexual harassment and consent, the federal government launched a campaign on respectful relationships for young people. 

The campaign was widely criticised by experts and advocates, including former Australian of the Year Rosie Batty, who say it ignores their advice and research.

They’re also concerned that it seems to have replaced another more evidence-based and expertly produced campaign, which was shut down 18 months ago. 

Today, journalist for The Saturday Paper Kristine Ziwica on the question of whether the government's social conservatism is influencing sex education for young people. 

Guest: Journalist for The Saturday Paper Kristine Ziwica.

Read Transcript

[Theme Music Starts]

 

RUBY:

From Schwartz Media, I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am.

 

In the middle of a growing national conversation about sexual harassment and consent, the federal government launched a campaign on respectful relationships for young people. 

 

The campaign was widely criticised by experts and advocates, including former Australian of the Year Rosie Batty, who say it ignores their advice and research.

 

They’re also concerned that it seems to have replaced another more evidence-based and expertly produced campaign, which was shut down 18 months ago. 

 

Today, journalist for The Saturday Paper Kristine Ziwica on the question of whether the government's social conservatism is influencing sex education for young people. 

 

[Theme Music Ends]

 

RUBY: 

Kristine, a couple of weeks ago, the federal government released a video about consent. Can you tell me a bit about that video - and the backlash? 

 

KRISTINE:

Yeah, so it wasn't just a video, although certainly that did grab the headlines. So it was a suite of resources badged ‘The Good Society’. It included about 350 resources that the government said was to underpin the national rollout of respectful relationships education in schools. 

 

A digital agency called Liquid Interactive developed the website and the resources. They cost approximately 3.8 million dollars to produce, and the resources included a number of videos that sought to teach young people about consent, but interestingly not mentioning the word ‘sex’.

 

Archival Tape -- Narrator: 

“To cross into the action zone both people must agree.”

 

KRISTINE:

...and yes, they did include that infamous ‘milkshake’ video... 

 

Archival Tape -- Girl:

“Do you wanna try my milkshake?” 

 

Archival Tape -- Boy:

“Yes I do!”

 

KRISTINE:

which will probably now live in infamy as the most cringe worthy of the lot. 

 

Archival Tape -- Girl:

“Is it better than yours?”

 

Archival Tape -- Boy:

“You know I think I prefer mine!”

 

KRISTINE:

And it featured a girl smearing a milkshake all over a boy's face saying, ‘drink it’.

 

Archival Tape -- Girl:

“Drink it all”

 

Archival Tape -- Boy:

“What are you doing?”

 

Archival Tape -- Girl:

“Drink it all!”

 

Archival Tape -- Narrator:

“This is what we call ‘moving the line.’”

 

KRISTINE:

The important thing to know is that they were near universally panned by pretty much every sex and relationships educator in the country.

 

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Commentator #1: 

“They are so problematic, in so many ways, first and foremost they minimise the experience of rape trauma”

 

KRISTINE:

All of whom said: look, we weren't consulted in the development of these resources and had we been, we would have done things very, very differently. 

 

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Commentator #2:

“and I have less idea about consent after watching that video than I did have beforehand.”

 

KRISTINE:

What makes the story of The Good Society quite interesting, and the criticism that it's received interesting, is that we know that more than 18 months ago, an alternative suite of respectful relationships education resources called ‘The Line’, which was developed by Our Watch, was pulled. 

 

RUBY: 

Ok, Can you tell me about ‘The Line’ and what happened to it? 

 

KRISTINE:

So in 2015, the NGO, Our Watch, which is the National Foundation to Prevent Violence Against Women, they launched ‘The Line’. And ‘The Line’ is a primary prevention social marketing behaviour change campaign that helps young people aged 12-20 negotiate healthy, respectful and consensual relationships.

 

Music from The Line video

 

KRISTINE:

It had really cool little animated videos tackling issues like toxic masculinity by promoting the message that there is no one way to be a man.

 

Archival Tape -- Actor:

“Funniest or most embarrassing sexual experience you’ve ever had?” 

 

Archival Tape -- Actor:

“The most embarrassing thing you’ve done/said on a date?”

 

KRISTINE:

Or things like a series called ‘Asking for a Mate’, which aimed at demystifying sex for teens and encouraging safe conversations.

 

Archival Tape -- Actor:

“...Lucy…”

 

KRISTINE:

There was a really powerful campaign a few years ago called ‘You Can't Undo Violence’.

 

Archival Tape -- Actor:

“...I tried to say I’m sorry…”

 

KRISTINE:

...that was really aimed at communicating to young people, particularly potential perpetrators, the long lasting impacts of their behaviour. 

 

And it won awards for promoting gender equality. But if you look at the website today, it says, “Thanks for visiting ‘The Line’. We're offline for a little while. We'll be back soon”.

 

RUBY: 

Ok so ‘The Line’ which was this much more direct campaign, that took on advice from sex education experts and advocates - it disappeared?

 

KRISTINE:

Disappeared, went dark. 

 

RUBY: 

And tell me how that happened?

 

KRISTINE:

So in November 2019, the Brisbane based tabloid The Courier Mail ran a story saying that ‘The Line’ was promoting sexting to 12 year olds. 

 

The tabloid included really incendiary lines, claiming that kids were being given quote: “state sanctioned sexting tips” and that most were, quote: “too raunchy for publication”.

 

The article included, interestingly, critical comments from the Australian Christian Lobby, effectively saying that the topic of sexting should not be broached in schools. And it was all kind of a moral panic. Immediately Anne Ruston, the Minister for Social Services, took action, so she ordered Our Watch to take it down. That was 18 months ago. 

 

So when The Good Society came out in April and was immediately subject to such criticism that it wasn't developed in partnership or in conjunction with experts and that it was in fact harmful, I thought to myself, I wonder whatever happened to ‘The Line’? That was, in fact, developed with experts, and I thought to myself: gee, I wonder what happened to that?, I think I’ll ask the Minister's office. 

 

So when I asked Anne Ruston's office what had happened to ‘The Line’ and why it had remained offline for so long, she essentially told me variations of the theme that it was Our Watch’s choice to keep it offline for so long to review and refresh the campaign. 

 

Archival Tape -- Anne Ruston: 

“Well what we did, was, ah, in conjunction with Our Watch, was to assess all of the links that were on the um, online and subsequent to that Our Watch has taken it upon themselves to do a complete review of the site, also to update it and make sure that they are absolutely happy it’s fit its purpose…”

 

KRISTINE:

But documents I've seen tell a very different story. 

 

RUBY: 

We’ll be back in a moment

 

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RUBY: 

Kristine, we're talking about ‘The Line’, which was a programme run by Our Watch that was taken down 18 months ago. You’ve been delving into why that happened and why it’s remained offline. Can you tell me about what you’ve uncovered? What is in these documents you’ve seen? 

 

KRISTINE:

So I'll just lay out the facts of what the documents tell us. They tell us very clearly that Our Watch cannot take ‘The Line’ back online without Ministerial approval and that that has not been forthcoming.

 

What's more, the Department of Social Services instructed two external consultancies, the last group in La Trobe, to conduct extensive reviews of both ‘The Line’ and Our Watch at a cost to taxpayers of $60,000 and $345,000, respectively. 

 

Now, the timing and circumstances of that La Trobe Review has raised eyebrows amongst several sources I spoke to, who say that they can't help but think, or conclude, it was deliberately designed to intimidate and silence Our Watch. 

 

One expert with knowledge of recent events told me that it had contributed to a culture of fear and effectively silenced this peak body at what is really a critical time.

 

What we also know is that a year after ‘The Line’ was taken offline in response to that piece in the Courier Mail, a brief was sent from the Family Safety Branch of the Department of Social Services to Anne Ruston's office, effectively asking for permission to take ‘The Line’ back online.

 

And here's the thing that really struck me is that it expressed concern and about the added urgency of the pandemic environment, saying that young people were spending more time at home, more time online, and therefore were more at risk. And during this time, Our Watch was receiving a significant increase in people who work on the front line of doing this work with young people saying: where are these resources? We need these resources, get this back online as soon as possible.

 

All the while, the Ministers repeatedly claimed, effectively, that it was Our Watch’s choice to keep it offline for so long to review and refresh the campaign. 

 

RUBY: 

And so Kristine, what do you think is going on here? Why would the federal government not want a program like the ‘The Line’ to exist?

 

KRISTINE:

A number of people I spoke to have a few different theories, and I probably have some of my own as well.

 

I think it's fair to say it's partly a reaction to tabloid criticism and also to criticism from the kind of usual quarters who tend to whip up, you know, that kind of moral panic about sex and relationships education. 

 

But it's also quite possibly about conservative social values around sex and relationships education. 

 

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison:

“How about we just have state schools that focus on things like learning maths, learning science, learning English…”

 

KRISTINE:

I remembered a few years ago that Scott Morrison, the prime minister, was quoted when asked why he chose to send his daughters to private school, had said something to the effect of this kind of content or this kind of relationships and sexuality education in schools made his skin crawl. 

 

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Interviewer #1:

“...She’s 14, she’s interested in girls, she’s not sure if she might be a lesbian, and all this is going on in the classroom, is that going to happen in classrooms under your prime ministership?”

 

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison:

“Well it's not happening in the school I send my kids to and that is one of the reasons I send them there and that's why I…”

 

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Interviewer #1:

“But they are not in a public school…”

 

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison:

“No I understand that, they are in an independent Baptist school…”

 

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Interviewer #1:

“Does that stuff make your skin curl?”

 

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison:

“Well it does Alan for this reason…”

 

KRISTINE:

You can't help but conclude that there might be, not only an assessment of the risk in the external environment and where that might come from, but also some deeply held conservative social values amongst some of our leaders who perhaps disinclined them to support this work, or might incline them to actively undermine this work. 

 

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison: 

“The values that I have as a parent, that Jenny and I have as a parent, I mean, they’re the val - that's where you get your values from. I don’t want the values of, of others being imposed on my children, in my school, and I don’t think that should be happening in a public school or a private school.”

 

KRISTINE:

So it's curious that The Good Society has remained online despite so much backlash, and backlash from the experts, while ‘The Line’ has remained dark, despite 18 months of repeated attempts to get it back up and running as a resource. So the tale of the two respectful relationships campaigns and how the government has responded to the different types of criticism levelled at each, tells us a lot about their approach and is very illuminating. 

 

RUBY: 

Kristine, what do those in the sector who have been fighting for more campaigns like ‘The Line’, that explicitly address issues of consent, and violence against women, and are built in partnership with experts…what do they say about the approach the government seems to be taking here?

 

KRISTINE:

Several experts in the sector I spoke to, including Rosie Batty, told me that events at ‘The Line’ and the possibly ideologically motivated political interference at Our Watch is deeply concerning. 

 

Archival Tape -- Rosie Batty:

“You know, in an era where we have been so misinformed and having things come at us that we don't know whether... how real they are or how truthful they are or how what the evidence, you know, is - I think this is really critical that we can have trusted resources that we can rely on.”

 

KRISTINE:

When Rosie Batty was Australian of the Year, she was a huge advocate for the development of respectful relationships education and as an ambassador for Our Watch, she helped get funding and support for this work. She really sees it as her and Luke's legacy. 

 

Archival Tape -- Rosie Batty:

“This is where I think that whether it's ministers or governments, interfering with progress is really concerning.”

 

KRISTINE:

We are clearly at a critical crossroads. We're about to have a Women's Safety Summit in July. We are about to develop and then fund the next iteration of the national plan to reduce violence against women. 

 

The point that a lot of experts that I spoke to who are speaking out now and feel like they really need to speak out now and just sort of put a line in the sand and to say to this government that further, perhaps ideologically but definitely politically motivated interference in this work will not be tolerated, is that we need to back the vision of what the evidence tells us is effective, and works.

 

RUBY: 

Kristine, thank you so much for your time today. 

 

KRISTINE:

Thank you. 

 

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[Theme Music Starts]

 

RUBY: 

Also in the news today: 

Victorian contact tracers are tracking down hundreds of AFL fans who went to the Richmond versus Geelong game last Friday, and then travelled on the same train as a man who has tested positive to Covid-19. 

Victorian health authorities believe the man acquired the virus in hotel quarantine in South Australia. 

And the death toll in Gaza continues to grow, with Palestinian health officials saying 35 people have now been killed in airstrikes conducted by the Israeli air force.

The Israeli government said three people were killed from rocket attacks launched from Gaza.

A 13-story tower block in Gaza city was also demolished in an air strike. The Israeli government claimed it was being used by Hamas militants.

I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am, see you tomorrow.

[Theme Music Ends]

Host

Ruby Jones is an investigative journalist and host of 7am.

Guest

Kristine Ziwica is a Melbourne-based journalist.