Interview on 2CC Canberra with Tim Shaw
Topics: National Day of Action against Bullying; School Chaplains, SA election

Tim Shaw: The National Day of Action is Australia’s key anti-bullying event for schools. And in 2018 schools are called to imagine a world free from bullying and to share their big ideas. And if you want to know more; bullyingnoway.gov.au/NationalDay.

Senator Simon Birmingham, Minister for Education and Training joins us now.

Senator, good morning, welcome back to 2CC Breakfast.

Simon Birmingham: Good morning Tim. Great to be with you.

Tim Shaw: This is a really important measure; tell us why?

Simon Birmingham: Well, it is. The fight against bullying and for inclusion and respect across schoolyards around the country is, of course, a year-round, 365-day a year proposition. But the National Day of Action against Bullying is a chance to call to arms school communities, from principals and teachers, students, parents, all those working in a school environment, to really get them to focus on the different resources, knowledge, tactics, policies, programs that are available to help address bullying and to build the type of respectful environments in schools we expect. And what we have available to schools are a range of resources and information that they can use across their school community, identifying how to tackle the newest scourge of cyber bullying, how to use our world-leading eSafety Commissioner which provides a really strong process and powerful process to take complaints about online content, have them addressed, have them taken down if it can’t be dealt with in a less legalistic way, as well as the type of resources that are available to support young people such as Headspace, the extra funding, millions of dollars we’ve put into the National Support for Child and Youth Mental Health Program, a range of different tools that are available to schools that they can access and learn more about this Friday.

Tim Shaw: Look, we’re both parents, and the word hate is a very strong word. It’s a word that shouldn’t be in our vocabulary. And Chief Minister Andrew Barr ran into problems here in the ACT over that last Thursday. Does this bullying start from a hatred between one kid and another? What are your people telling you about why bullying happens?

Simon Birmingham: Indeed, Tim. And you know I have two young daughters, five and seven. And some of the stories that you read and hear and the very tragic ones such as the Dolly Everett case earlier this year, it really scared the bejesus out of me as a dad, and reminds us all of the importance of working on these issues. Yet equally, we have to be realistic, schoolyard bullying is as old as schoolyards themselves. This is not a new problem. The cyber bullying problem is, of course, new, it’s an extension of the bullying problem and it’s a problematic extension because it allows bullying to potentially follow children home into private spaces which were usually or traditionally sanctuaries from such problems.

So, what we have to do is, of course, continue to try to tackle the original source of the problem, which is a lack of respect. And that can be driven by a range of factors and intolerance towards difference. And difference, of course, manifests itself in race, in gender, in sexuality, in looks, in abilities, in a whole range of different ways where old fashioned teasing has occurred. But we really do need to make sure that children understand how inappropriate that is. We need to, of course, set good positive examples for them ourselves as parents, as leaders, as educators, and make sure that we are demonstrating how to be respectful towards one another and to embrace those differences. But ultimately, we also need to ensure that where it occurs; there are appropriate policies and practices in place to tackle the perpetrators, to help them reform and fix their ways, as well as to help and assist the victims and to give them the support they need.

Tim Shaw: Look, it’s really important. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull spoke with me on the program earlier this year and he said: Tim, all of these schoolchildren come to our Parliament and they see how we behave sometimes so badly in Question Time. He said: the glass is up and we always used to think it was so that the noise of the schoolchildren wouldn’t interrupt the Parliament. But what he actually said to me, he thinks it’s the other way, the schoolteachers are telling the boys and girls: don’t behave like this when you get back to school, these blokes are doing it here. Leadership, this is a bipartisan measure here that you’re talking about. What we need to do is to improve our behaviours right across the spectrum, don’t we? Because children simply emulate the adults that they see and that are around them.

Simon Birmingham: Well indeed, Tim, and I think there’s a very powerful message there in terms of- particularly when we look at online mediums and new technologies, that sadly there seems to be an additional wave of intolerance, of hate speech, if you want to use those phrases; of people who think that the anonymity of online fora, the detachment from staring somebody in the face, allows people to say or do things that perhaps historically they wouldn’t have done. And that really is something that we all need to take a very strong stance against. To recognise that that is just inappropriate, not acceptable, and to try very hard to lift the overall standards of society in the type of example that we set.

Tim Shaw: Your department had a quarter of a billion dollars since 2015 invested in the School Chaplaincy Program. Now, that measure is up for review. I’m not asking you what’s in the May 2018 Budget, but are you seeking a continuation of the chaplaincy funding?

Simon Birmingham: Well, I’ve had representations from many, many schools around the country, arguing in favour of the continuation of that program. Now, that’s something that, of course, we will consider in this year’s Budget. It is important for listeners who may have misconceptions about it to realise that there are strict qualification criteria that sit around school chaplains, that they have to be well-trained and versed in terms of their capacity to provide counselling and support to students, that they are not allowed to proselytize or preach religion, as such, in schools.

Tim Shaw: Sure.

Simon Birmingham: But many schools find it a valuable additional resource. The chaplains bring a different perspective, but a very helpful one to dealing with students in times of crisis or need.

Tim Shaw: Yeah, but I’ve got the Education Minister in the ACT, Yvette Berry, empowering the principals of ACT schools to make a decision about what their needs are in their particular school. Twenty-three schools in the ACT applied for a $20,000 grant, and that was for 400 hours of chaplaincy services each year. That was back in 2015. Do you support the idea of principals on the ground – they know their students, they know their schools’ needs – that if there was to be funding from the Federal Government, that they’re able to divert that to certificate-trained full professional counsellors, if that’s what they want instead of chaplaincy? Do you support that?

Simon Birmingham: Well, we take all of those arguments and views into consideration in the Budget process and there’s an independent review that has been undertaken of the Chaplaincy Program to look at its merits and how we might be able to strengthen it in the future. I’d also note that we’re providing a significant lift in funding to ACT government schools in particular. Very rapid rates of growth under our school funding reforms that seek to treat the ACT on the same basis as every other state or territory, which is something that has not historically been the case. Canberra’s traditionally got a dud deal out of the Federal Government when it’s come to government school funding.

Tim Shaw: So you’re delivering more to the ACT than previous education ministers?

Simon Birmingham: We absolutely are and, of course, Yvette and the ACT Government are entirely within their rights to empower school principals to use that record and growing funding to put additional resources behind the types of measures that they think will best help their children.

Tim Shaw: I can’t let you go without asking you about South Australia. Has Jay Weatherill been a lazy Premier and are you likely to see him lose government this Saturday?

Simon Birmingham: Well, I wouldn’t describe Jay Weatherill as a lazy Premier. I would say that I think he’s been a failure in terms of the policy prescriptions for the state. That we’ve seen tragic circumstances of child abuse and neglect going undealt with. The elderly in State Government-run aged care homes being abused. Of course, as many of your listeners would know, the ridiculousness of the lights going out and the highest electricity prices in the nation with the least reliability. As well as, of course, economic growth, employment growth, that trails the rest of the nation. So, after 16 years I would fully expect and hope that there will be a change of government in SA and that really is a reflection of the many failings of the current mob.

Tim Shaw: I’ll ask again, a quarter of a billion dollars was the last four years funding for chaplaincy. It’s a line item in your own Budget. Are your senior team strongly suggesting that could be diverted to professional counsellors rather than counselling from chaplains?

Simon Birmingham: Well, I won’t get ahead of the Federal Budget, which will be released in May. As I said, there’s a review process to look at the way the Chaplaincy Program’s worked over the last few years. That will inform the decision we take into the Budget as to whether that’s re-funded, reformed or otherwise.

Tim Shaw: I’ve got three daughters myself and one of them said, when she was very young, I hate that person and we said, you know, hate’s a very strong word, not particularly fond of, Senator. So maybe what we need is a little change in the narrative, better leadership and example from some of our senior politicians in Question Time, and maybe we can get rid of some of the bullying that we see in our schools. As well as this great measure of the department’s – bullyingnoway.gov.au – an important day this Friday. We want to thank you very much for your time this morning.

Simon Birmingham: Absolutely, Tim. Thank you and thank you for your promotion of this very important cause.

Tim Shaw: Great pleasure. Senator Simon Birmingham, Minister for Education and Training.