Jeremy Cordeaux: Now this story’s kind of occupied a fair amount of time and controversy and discussion and debate. That’s this Safe Schools initiative, which costs money, millions of dollars, so controversial I think the Coalition decided that they would bring in Professor Bill Louden, Emeritus Professor of Education, University of Western Australia to review it. Well the review, while I think they sat on it for a while, the review has been released by Simon Birmingham, Senator Simon Birmingham today. And he’s on the line. Senator, thanks for your time, I can imagine how busy you are.
Simon Birmingham: Good afternoon Jeremy and listeners. Yes, it’s been a long day, long night and long yesterday.
Jeremy Cordeaux: When did you get this review?
Simon Birmingham: The review I received last weekend. So since last weekend I have been both meeting with Professor Louden, discussing it with my colleagues and others, and of course considering other aspects that whilst not directly affected by the review are important considerations in relation to this program.
Jeremy Cordeaux: Well, it seems that the back bench was pretty divided. I saw this morning that the number was something like 40 Coalition members of parliament are petitioning the Prime Minister to shut this down. What’s the latest? And tell me what you made of the review.
Simon Birmingham: Well, what I’ve done is work quite hard with colleagues from across the Coalition to get people to a point of appreciating that there are very important and sound objectives behind this program, which is to stamp out homophobic bullying and harassment at schools and to support students who might be grappling with issues in those school environments. But also of course, that everybody needs to appreciate that the resources and information provided in doing so needs to be age appropriate, needs to be educationally sound. What Professor Louden’s review found was that some of the lesson content that had been developed for this program was not appropriate for all students so we’ve taken the decision to have that lesson content removed, but more broadly there were concerns in relation to the online links to some of these lessons and some of the other organisations that were referenced as part of that. So I’ve taken a very firm line there in saying the only external organisations that should be linked in any resources that make their way into the classroom or to a student are organisations who are funded by Government agencies for the delivery of mental health or counselling support so that we can have confidence that they are legitimate organisations delivering real help to students.
Jeremy Cordeaux: But Senator how did it slip through? How did it actually get through? I’ve heard some terrible things about the program. I know it’s aimed at kids who may – may – be confused. I thought to myself when I saw some of the detail, if they weren’t confused before, they’d certainly be confused after.
Simon Birmingham: This was a program that was initiated by the former Government, a contract that was let that says the resources developed outside of Government. Now, the contract has about 12 months left to go. And through the actions that I’ve announced today, we’ll be making sure that that time and that funding is used to fix problems in the resources so that parents can have confidence that those resources are fit for purpose in the school environment. And teachers and students should have confidence in that as well. And importantly, that rather than these resources sitting somehow out there on a limb with an external organisation, they will shift into the educational hub that the Commonwealth and states and territories house a whole bunch of educational resources, particularly around dealing with some of these sensitive issues, like racism, domestic violence, help and support and inclusion of students with disabilities, a whole range of issues that exist on this hub, and I think it is entirely appropriate that we make sure that resources that do seek to increase tolerance of people who might be same sex attracted and provide support for individuals who might be grappling with those questions of sexual identity, actually exist and coexist with all of those range of other anti-bullying and tolerance programs at the same type of standard of quality and confidence that they’re appropriate for the classroom.
Jeremy Cordeaux: Well, when I heard some of the things that George Christensen was saying, it was just mind-boggling that anything as controversial as that would have been embraced by anyone. I mean- you know- you look at- are you familiar with the people who put the whole thing together? Did you know anything of the background of these people?
Simon Birmingham: Jeremy, much of what George particularly was criticising was material on some of these third party websites, or from third party organisations, which is why, in the response here today, I’ve taken a very strong line, as I mentioned before, to make sure that we don’t run the risk that material developed by third parties that might not be appropriate for school children is somehow inadvertently being promoted to them. We should be confident that the resources developed are fit for purpose in the school environment and if they’re referring somebody off to something outside of the school environment, or somebody outside of the school environment, that is for good reason. And in this case good reason is that they might be seeking counselling or support or of course recognition that we should do. Young same sex attracted Australians are far more likely, not just to be subject to bullying, but also far more likely to subject to self harm and suicide, so of course we want to make sure that they can access the support services to prevent that in future.
Jeremy Cordeaux: It would seem to me that the whole thing was wide open to either be implemented in a very moderate and sensible and sane manner, or it could be, if in the hands of zealots and people with an agenda, it could have been used to manipulate children in a most undesirable way.
Simon Birmingham: I think that’s a fair observation Jeremy. And one of the steps I’ve taken today is to ensure that activism, political activism, social activism, is not to be tolerated by those who are equally acting as representatives of this program. But I’ve really picked up some of the criteria that exists in relation to the school chaplain’s program, about the fact that school chaplains should not proselytise, should not preach in schools, should not be activists themselves. They’re there to provide a wellbeing and support role, and just the same in this space, those who are working on this program and supporting it, should be there first, foremost and solely for the wellbeing of students.
Jeremy Cordeaux: Did you know anything about Roz Ward, one of the architects of the entire program, and her background as a leftist Marxist?
Simon Birmingham: Look, I have learnt only of Roz Ward in becoming the Education Minister and the result of her involvement in this program. But I guess, more so as a result of some of her other comments and activities. And I guess I have made some strong comments today related to that requirement we’re putting in that this program should not be used for activism or the like, and I’ve made it very clear I think that people who want to run other political agendas, who want to use the platform they’ve got to promote other issues, should not be using a program that’s focused on the wellbeing of children to do so.
Jeremy Cordeaux: Shouldn’t be using our children. Children as young as eleven encouraged to play gay teenager games, wear dresses, use other sex toilets and things like this, I mean, it really is something that one would find hard to believe getting through a sensible authority like the education system.
Simon Birmingham: And I’d say a couple of things there. Firstly my response today makes it clear that the program should only have its resources used in secondary schools. That the changes to some of the lesson content will require that some of those types of role playing activities be taken out of the program, because they were the ones that Professor Louden found may not be appropriate for all children in all circumstances. But of course, lastly and most importantly, what Professor Louden was at pains to stress to me and to others, teachers of course have a big curriculum to teach. It’s highly unlikely that any teacher or school would take all of the contents of these types of resources and apply them as they’re presented. That they get resources like this, they pick and choose for what is appropriate for their school environment, and that ultimately it comes down to the sound judgement of our schools, the teachers, and the extra criteria that I’ve put in place today which is of course that parents must be informed and advised about what is happening and must have proper information and therefore can make decisions about what is appropriate for their child.
Jeremy Cordeaux: So do you reckon that what you’ve done is going to hose down your colleagues to the extent where it’ll just continue on in a modified form?
Simon Birmingham: I’m sure that there will be some criticisms from both extremes, but I’ve been really heartened by the reactions of colleagues. George Christensen, who you mentioned before, had called for the whole program to be axed, and the funding to be axed. George has welcomed though the actions that I’ve announced today. I think that is an important step of him recognising that we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bath water. We should recognise that there are sound objectives that should be met about the safety of our children, their inclusion in a safe school environment. We just need to make sure that they are met in a way where that safety is. Not jeopardised by being exposed to inappropriate material, or endangered in any way.
Jeremy Cordeaux: I don’t think we want to turn something into a recruitment program, which it looked a bit like to me.
Simon, just finally, how do you feel? I mean, were you on your feet, or on the bench, for that, what was it, 28 hour sitting of the senate?
Simon Birmingham: Something like that Jeremy.
Jeremy Cordeaux: So you’ve had no rest? You haven’t been to bed?
Simon Birmingham: I got about 30 minutes of snooze time on the couch around 4am this morning in my office and was given about 20 minutes leave at about quarter to ten this morning to have a shower, a shave and put on some clean clothes. So it’s been a very long, a gruelling process in the senate. Frankly, completely unnecessary. People should remember that the senate reforms that we’ve been debating, which the Labor Party has dragged this debate out in such a long and torturous manner, are reforms that the Labor Party themselves recommended in a senate inquiry less that two years ago. A parliamentary inquiry where they said we should get rid of group voting tickets, we should stop back room operators deciding where senate preferences go and put it in the hands of the voters. That’s exactly what the senate has done. The Liberal Party, the National Party, Greens and Nick Xenophon, all worked cooperatively to do this, it was just the petulance of the Labor Party that had a farcical situation that of course meant we sat right through the night. But importantly in the end we got the job done, and at the next election voters will go in and they will determine where their preference goes when they put their pencil on their ballot paper.
Jeremy Cordeaux: I don’t know if you’re across it, or whether you’ve heard or not, but a group of Flinders University students broke into Cory Bernardi’s electoral office, trashed the place, put graffiti on the walls, terrorised the staff, all because of his position, the position that he took with this Safe Schools program. Do you have a comment or some advice for those university students?
Simon Birmingham: I do Jeremy. I have seen some of the pictures and reports, and the behaviour was deplorable. And of course, the idea that people who go out and say they are protesting because they want to take a stand in favour of tolerance, they want to take a stand in favour of programs that accepts diversity, and yet then they walk in, destroy public property, cause that type of damage, and yes, indeed, harass the staff in that type of way, is completely unacceptable. It shows them up for being immature, it shows them up for being inconsistent in their actions, and that really, if we’re going to talk the talk about tolerance and understanding, then we all need to walk the walk as well.
Jeremy Cordeaux: I totally agree with you. I’m sure you’ll have a restful weekend Senator. Thanks for your time.
Simon Birmingham: Hope so. Thank you Jeremy, a pleasure.
Jeremy Cordeaux: Simon Birmingham, Minister for Education and Training.