Rafael Epstein: There are some central units in the Safe Schools program, the ones that have gone use terms like this: defining sexual diversity on a continuum, and recognising that same sex attracted people do not fit into stereotypes. Essentially the lesson on hetero-normative behaviour is gone as well. Senator Simon Birmingham has been this program through his party room and his Government, he’s the Education Minister in Malcolm Turnbull’s Government. Senator, thanks for joining us.
Simon Birmingham: G’day Raf, good to be with you.
Rafael Epstein: Have you been dictated to by the conservatives in your party?
Simon Birmingham: Absolutely not. This has been a careful and methodical process, that I’ve undertaken, and in fact, just even with your intro there, I’d want to correct a couple of things there. In terms of the resources that have been produced, we’re not proposing that entire lesson plans are gone, but that some of the activities in those lesson plans, which Professor Bill Louden from the University of Western Australia found to be not necessarily appropriate for all children should be taken out of those lesson plans.
Rafael Epstein: Why don’t we stop you there. Maybe the details are the best thing we can get from you right now. Which activities and teachings have been removed?
Simon Birmingham: So this relates to some of the role playing type activities that have been the subject of some criticism. Activities that have children either imagining that they are an older child in a same sex relationship, activities that have children sitting down at different stages around different statements of identity and sexuality and their views and values on them, that Professor Louden thought in a classroom context of children in year seven and eight would potentially be inappropriate for some children.
Rafael Epstein: So some of that language then? Hetero-normative, sexual diversity being on a continuum. Do they remain, or are they gone?
Simon Birmingham: These are obviously specific phrases that are more in guides that have been produced. Those types of things are details that of course have to be worked through the implementation of the Professor’s recommendations and the extraction from some of the lesson content that he has identified as being inappropriate will expect some of those lessons to be rewritten. So in a number of cases, yes, I would expect some of that language to be gone as we make sure that these lessons are age appropriate in future.
Rafael Epstein: George Christensen is one of those who’s lead the fight. He spoke to the media, what, 15 minutes ago now. He used phrases like fundamentally altering the program, that it has been gutted and that it remains to be seen whether funding will be removed. That very much sounds like a victory for the more conservative elements of your party.
Simon Birmingham: Well, I didn’t hear all of George’s interview, but what I did hear of his interview, I think he said that the areas of concern have been gutted, and in that sense George is right. George has particularly championed against, and expressed concern around a number of the linkages from the program. So areas where other organisations, entities, websites, et cetera, were referenced or linked to.
Rafael Epstein: [Talks over] Especially things like Minus18.
Simon Birmingham: That’s right. So what we’re saying here is of course first and foremost this program is about what is taught in classrooms: teaching tolerance, teaching a culture of being inclusive and supporting children who might be grappling with their sexuality. Therefore it’s about the resources provided in the classroom to help with that teaching. We don’t need a whole lot of other resources or reference points to go off that do expose the program to criticism and could expose young children to materials that those different websites that we don’t have the same control over could actually have on them. But…
Rafael Epstein: [Interrupts] Can I clarify some of the…
Simon Birmingham: [Talks over] We will, there’s an important exception there. We do believe that there should be clear information to Commonwealth, state or territory funded mental health or counselling services to ensure that students who want or need to access additional services to help them know where to go and know that they’re responsible entities to go to.
Rafael Epstein: Sure, and that’s important. But between the mental health services for people in crisis and the materials that are broadly acceptable for a broad year seven and eight group across the country, in the middle there’s things like Minus18. This is my query. Your press release is quite detailed. There does seem to be a lot of material that you feel is not appropriate for everyone but is available to some via the teacher. So which of those materials that a teacher might go, listen, I can see this child’s got issues, maybe we could help: what might the teacher, through Safe Schools, be able to provide to a student like that?
Simon Birmingham: Sure. So there are two sort of streams of information if you like. There is one which is the classroom teaching resources and materials and guides for the teacher and potential program lessons, which I should note Professor Louden basically found that he would be very surprised that any school would ever implement them in their entirety. Schools will use their judgement and teachers will use their judgement on what they do. Then there’s material that is developed more specifically, as you identified, for supporting an individual student in their needs. That material will still be available, but we’re making it very clear in the guidelines that based on his recommendation, that that material is not appropriate or suitable for broad classroom distribution. It should be provided in the context of a qualified teacher, a counsellor, sitting down with that student. There’s an important addition to that that we’re going to require as well, which is that whilst these guides exist for the individual student, and there’s a guide that exists to then talk to their friends as well, there’s actually not one for their parents. So we will seek to have one produced so that if the school finds itself in a situation where the child in question, the student in question, wants something to take home to their parents, or the parents are coming into the school, there’s actually material there to help in that specific instance with communication successfully and appropriately to parents.
Rafael Epstein: The Education Minister Simon Birmingham is with me. Safe Schools is being changed. You tell me whether you think it’s fundamentally still there. Not all of the detail has come out. This is a relative- it’s only come out in the last hour. What do you make of what you’re hearing? 1300-222-774.
Minister, there’s quite a number of people texting this: the Abbott Government in exile has had a win over Safe Schools.
Simon Birmingham: I reject both the term but also the implication. People have expressed concerns, and I think some of those concerns are genuine. Bill Louden is no radical…
Rafael Epstein: You said some of those concerns, so some of this is a stalking horse for internal trouble isn’t it?
Simon Birmingham: I don’t know about that. I think most of the people who have been most passionate about this do hold very strong and passionate views. Look, in this space, there are people who hold very strong views on both sides of the ledger and frankly I expect that the response I’ve announced today will be criticised by both extremes. I’ve tried to chart what I think is a sensible middle way that puts the interest of students first, that represents what I think most parents think is a reasonable approach. Now, what I would urge the extremes of this debate to do, is to think about, in this instance, we’re dealing with children in schools, their wellbeing and their future. People will have their hotly contested debates elsewhere in terms of moral objectives around debates like same sex marriage. They’re debates that can be had at another time, in another place. This is a debate about programs for children and their tolerance and safety in schools. And that’s where we should keep it focused at.
Rafael Epstein: Look, 1300-222-774, I’ll get to your calls soon. Minister, George Christensen seemed to very much be saying he didn’t think the people who designed the program, the Safe Schools group, will be happy with the changes. Have you spoken to them? Do they think that the significant impact of the program remains?
Simon Birmingham: I’ve spoken with the Foundation for Young Australians who are the entity that the Government has a contract with in relation to this program. Well, look, I don’t want to put words in their mouths. They will obviously speak for themselves.
Rafael Epstein: [Interrupts] Sorry, forgive me, it’s not clear to me. Are they the same as the people who created the Safe Schools program?
Simon Birmingham: They are the contracted entity. They have established a steering committee and so forth underneath that sort of constitutes then the so called Safe Schools Coalition. So they are the entity that we will deal with in terms of getting changes to the program as a Government.
Rafael Epstein: Are they happy?
Simon Birmingham: And they’re certainly committed to working through all of this with us.
Rafael Epstein: Just a quick final question Senator, I know you’ve a ridiculously busy day. The changes
Simon Birmingham: [Interrupts] And night. And day before that. [Laughs]
Rafael Epstein: Have you been to sleep?
Simon Birmingham: I had about 30 minutes on the couch last night.
Rafael Epstein: Okay, so you got some sleep. You have fundamentally changed the way that we vote in the senate. Does this not mean that somebody like Nick Xenophon who a lot of people think makes a fantastic contribution, and who voted with you, your changes mean that we are unlikely to ever see someone else like Nick Xenophon break the major party stranglehold on the senate.
Simon Birmingham: I don’t think that’s right Raf. I of course am a South Australian, so I have followed and at times been frustrated by Nick’s rise in career over the years. And I remember the 1997 state election when he was first elected, and he was elected with around three per cent of the vote at that election. It is by no means impossible that we will see candidates elected to the senate in the future, especially when or where double dissolutions are held, who may have votes around that three or four per cent mark. We will have to see how this reform plays out, but I think candidates who earn that type of level of support will quite often end up getting elected, still on the back of preferences that will flow from major party votes, but the difference will be it will be the voter who has decided on the ballot paper to put that person second or third preference, not some back room operator that’s made a decision to the complete exclusion of the voters’ will or knowledge.
Rafael Epstein: Surely you would only go through this amount of pain in the senate, to go through with a double dissolution election?
Simon Birmingham: A double dissolution election will be determined on the issues, and of course there is still the Australian Building and Corruption Commission which we are seeking to have legislation passed to re-establish to deal with union corruption and we’re eager to see that still dealt with and that will then help to inform what happens in relation to a double dissolution election.
Rafael Epstein: Come on. July 2?
Simon Birmingham: But Raf, no, I would happily say that if one is held, another important function would be that we have had a very dysfunctional senate over the last couple of years. It is a senate that I can say, as a Minister, trying to stitch together support, for the passage of legislation, has been an incredibly frustrating exercise where you are dealing, trying to get six different votes, and you get five-sixths of them only to find of course that when you do the deal with the sixth one you end up losing the first two. I don’t really think that’s the way Australians want their laws made. They want the senate to be a strong check on power, but they don’t want the senate to be an obstruction to Government.
Rafael Epstein: How many people, outside of parliament house, do you think you could go up to on the street today and get them to successfully explain the new way that we will be voting in the senate?
Simon Birmingham: I’m not sure that that many would have successfully explained the old way, but I do know that after the last election, and especially in the state of Victoria where we saw Ricky Muir, who is a lovely guy, but of course elected with a tiny fraction of a vote, that there was wide-spread concern that the voting system was not effectively representing the will of the voters. And the voting system that we now have, that will be in place from July 1 this year, will represent the will of the voters.
Rafael Epstein: Simon Birmingham, thank you. I appreciate you’ve not had much sleep, I appreciate your time.
Simon Birmingham: A pleasure Raf. Any time.
Rafael Epstein: Senator Simon Birmingham. He is education Minister in Malcolm Turnbull’s Government. There has been, what do we call it, significant changes to the Safe Schools program.