Federal election 2016: Greens turn up heat on Safe Schools agenda
Paul Kelly, Editor-At-Large, The Australian, May 18, 2016
The Greens pledge for a $32 million four-year rollout of the gender fluidity Safe Schools program — combined with a frontal assault on religious liberty by toughening anti-discrimination law — lights up sexual and cultural values in this election and poses serious questions for Labor.
The revolt is now gathering pace — led by the ALP Andrews government in Victoria and the Greens — against the Turnbull government’s hefty curtailment of the Safe Schools agenda and its intention to stick by the original plan and terminate federal funding in 2017. Bill Shorten and Labor have been fierce champions of the Safe Schools program. They attacked the March 18 announcement by Education Minister Simon Birmingham that imposed major revisions in the teeth of hostility from the program’s advocates. Shadow minister Kate Ellis slammed the decision as an “absolute disgrace” and branded the critics as divisive and extremists.
Yet Bill Shorten during a full week of campaigning on education and schools last week failed to spell out Labor’s position.
That cannot last long since the Greens have now tried to wedge Labor yet again — this time on the Safe Schools program, seen as iconic by political progressives. So, where does Labor stand? The ideological anger over this program, on both sides, is intense and growing. It was bound to happen. Many observers were slow to fathom that the Safe Schools program — with its pervasive philosophy of gender fluidity and rejection of the male/female gender paradigm — was destined to become a values and culture war battleground between traditionalists and progressives backed by the LGBTI community.
The performance of political leaders on this issue has been astonishing. Premier Daniel Andrews regularly brands critics of the program as “bigots” and Greens leader, Richard Di Natale, regularly brands them as “homophobes”. Such inflammatory language from party leaders and premiers about their critics is almost unprecedented in politics these days. It is completely unacceptable coming from leaders, but reveals the depth of feelings around this issue.
Andrews and the Greens are turning up the political heat. Malcolm Turnbull has been extremely reluctant to get involved in this public debate despite Birmingham’s significant changes to the program last March after a revolt by a majority of the Coalition backbench.
The risk for the Coalition is that its conservative heartland — for example, think Senator Cory Bernardi — will re-engage and compound past errors with more counterproductive remarks. But since protesters defaced Bernardi’s office and intimidated his staff, his ongoing involvement is pretty much inevitable.
The Greens in their statement yesterday have escalated the stakes by tying changes to anti-discrimination law to the expanded Safe Schools program to deliver “a full suite of policy positions on the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia”.
The Greens sexuality spokesperson, Senator Robert Simms said: “Under current anti-discrimination laws, a gay man can be fired from working at a private school and a transgender person can be turned away from a religious homeless shelter.”
The exemption from anti-discrimination law for religious institutions and schools allows them to retain their religious character. It is a cornerstone for religious freedom in this country. Eliminating the exemption has long been a priority target of the Greens, many progressives and human rights lawyers.
The prospect is that legal changes would allow the state to impose agendas such as the Safe Schools program on faith-based institutions against their will. The Andrews government has long said it wants the Safe Schools program mandatory in all schools. The Greens are fully aware of the electoral clout of the LGBTI community and its supporters.
Last weekend the Andrews government confronted the Turnbull government by announcing it will reinstate the original Safe Schools material the federal government had concluded was inappropriate and had to be removed. Victoria intends to fund its own scheme and will proceed on that basis without national funds. This means Victorian teachers will be able to deploy the full resources of the original scheme.
The Safe Schools program derived from research at La Trobe University, championed by the LGBTI community and sanctioned by state education departments, is intended to combat homophobic and transphobic bullying and support lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex students.
The published materials show the program, from top to bottom, is a project in promoting gender fluidity. The materials are relentless and explicit. The project believes “it’s up to the individual to describe what gender identity fits them best.” It teaches that gender is not a binary male/female stereotype but a process of self-expression and “may change over time”. As a result, boy/girl stereotypes are to be avoided, the program says “phrases such as ladies and gentlemen or boys and girls should be avoided.” Gender fluidity is promoted as a worthwhile and desirable choice for young people. Students are taught in dealing with others, never assume people are straight. Components that constitute sexual identity “can be thought to sit anywhere on a spectrum between female and male.” There are many contentious role-playing exercises recommended for students.
Politicians defend the program on the grounds that it delivers results and has reduced bullying. Yet they fail to speak truth to this agenda. It is an anti-bullying program tied into a radical mantra that preaches gender fluidity in schools. By refusing to acknowledge this, the program’s political champions are being deceptive. Why won’t they defend the ideology they promote?
The public contempt for parents who have concerns has been astonishing. They are patronised and insulted. The language of “bigots” deployed by political leaders is designed to intimidate people and it has been successful.
Victorian Education Minister James Merlino accused Turnbull of standing with “the bigots and bullies” instead of backing vulnerable students. Andrews said he preferred to “get my advice from experts not from bigots.” Victoria is looking to expand the agenda with new curriculum resources for primary and secondary schools.
The main changes announced by Birmingham were removal of unacceptable content, a limitation to secondary schools, moving the program away from the Safe Schools Coalition website and involving parents. Birmingham tried to strike a responsible balance.
There are several questions for Labor. Will it restore the program in full and reject the modifications made by the Turnbull government? Will it fund the program beyond 2017 and if so, for how long and with what funds? Does it accept the Andrews agenda for Victorian schools? And what is its attitude to amending the anti-discrimination law to wind back religious freedom?