Interview on ABC AM with Sabra Lane
Topics: National Day of Action against Bullying and Violence; University hazing; Michaelia Cash

Sabra Lane: Chances are you or someone you know has been subjected to bullying, either in person or online. For those who are repeatedly tormented, it can be devastating. Fourteen-year-old schoolgirl Dolly Everett took her own life in January because of it, and that prompted a wave of public sympathy across Australia. The Federal Government’s pledged $1.37 million during the next three years to better tackle it in schools, and it’s writing to all principals around the country to enlist their help.

The Education Minister is Simon Birmingham. Minister, good morning and welcome to the program.

Simon Birmingham: Good morning, Sabra.

Sabra Lane: How effective can $1.37 million be in stopping bullying?

Simon Birmingham: Well, this funding comes on top of hundreds of millions of dollars that’s invested in youth mental health initiatives, student wellbeing initiatives, a range of other programs that support organisations like headspace, for example, and many others. But this is about committing and continuing the National Day of Action against Bullying and within that, ensuring that there’s a focus on the type of information that’s available to schools so that they have the best, most powerful information to provide to students, to parents, to teachers about all of the other services that are available and the way they can respond. Things like our world-leading eSafety Commissioner, which provides a real capacity and capability for action and response to instances of cyberbullying.

Sabra Lane: Alright. But that money, if you break it down, works out to about $49 for every school across the country. Is that really enough?

Simon Birmingham: Well, that’s it, Sabra. This is just a contribution towards the National Day of Action against Bullying on top of everything else. Now, as a dad of two young daughters, the instances of bullying – both traditional bullying and cyberbullying – terrify me, and I want to make sure that we’re doing all we possibly can which is why the Prime Minister has written to every single school across the country, urging them to participate in the National Day of Action against Bullying on Friday 16 March to make sure that we raise awareness and that school communities have those conversations; not just in the classroom, but also engaging parents because it is a whole-of-school community effort to make sure we successfully combat bullying.

Sabra Lane: The Prime Minister, like so many people, is deeply affected by the suicide of Dolly Everett. What more can be done to stop cyberbullying, especially forcing internet companies to be more proactive about it?

Simon Birmingham: Well, I know the Prime Minister, he, himself, indeed Malcolm and Lucy both spent time speaking with Dolly’s parents and truly engaged in talking to them to understand the circumstances that she had faced, and indeed as a grandparent to young children, he is very touched by this issue. Now, what can we do? Well, there’s no single silver bullet …

Sabra Lane: Oh, specifically about internet companies.

Simon Birmingham: … What we have to do is specifically in cyberbullying, in cyberbullying, is we do have world-leading laws already. The eSafety Commissioner, established by the Coalition Government, has the power to order takedown notices, to intervene, and it’s done that in hundreds of cases already. And the point of days like the National Day of Action is to make sure that schools are encouraged to look at the resources that are available to them, like the powers of the eSafety Commissioner, and to understand how they can refer people to the eSafety Commissioner, and encourage action to be taken and use those laws and powers.

Sabra Lane: What is the Government doing about the bullying and the bizarre initiation rituals that are still happening at university residential colleges, given the apparent glacial-pace to stamp this out as highlighted in The Red Zone report this week?

Simon Birmingham: Well, the report this week and some of those stories, as indeed other stories that have been highlighted over the last couple of years, many of which are stories that go back a number of years, are appalling instances of abuse. Now, the first point I’d say is that assault is assault, wherever it occurs, and students ought to feel empowered to take complaints. Not just to university authorities, but through to the police and to make sure that assault on campus or in university colleges is stamped out. Now…

Sabra Lane: Should they just go straight to the police, given how slow university bodies seem to be responding to this? A lot of them are saying that they’re independent, these colleges are independent of us.

Simon Birmingham: Absolutely. Look, assault is assault, as I said, and that’s why we have laws in place and we ought to make sure that people aren’t just threatened or fined or sanctioned in a polite way for instances of assault. That’s what we have criminal sanctions and charges for, and they ought to be pursued. Now, Australia’s universities did last year lead the way in terms of undertaking a comprehensive review and survey of instances of sexual assault and harassment, not just on colleges but across campuses. And I’ve met with the Sex Discrimination Commissioner on a number of occasions, including just a couple of weeks shortly before this latest report came out, to talk about the progress that’s been made by universities to instigate all of the recommendations from the review that occurred last year. And now, we’ve had good progress, but I agree: it’s not always fast enough, and the message has to be very, very clear that zero tolerance will be applied in terms of instances of assault on campuses, and that universities will help students go to the police or help students take action to make sure that this culture is changed.

Sabra Lane: So, they need to be proactive and encouraging students to go to police?

Simon Birmingham: Absolutely.

Sabra Lane: Michaelia Cash’s behaviour yesterday; do you endorse what she threatened to do?

Simon Birmingham: Look, I didn’t see exactly what happened. I understand she…

Sabra Lane: Surely you heard it.

Simon Birmingham: I understand that Michaelia withdrew those comments.

Sabra Lane: It was qualified.

Simon Birmingham: Many things in the heat of Estimates exchanges are said, and I’ve seen some unattractive things over the years, but these comments were withdrawn and I think rather than the Labor Party, who I’ve seen play some pretty dirty tactics in Senate Estimates, seeking to be morally outraged by this, everybody ought to just move on.

Sabra Lane: What do you know about attempts by the Chinese Government to dissuade students from studying here in Australia?

Simon Birmingham: Well I am not aware of any, and we see Chinese student participation in Australia at record numbers. All international students are welcome in Australia, when they come here and embrace our values of tolerance, our openness, the exchange of ideas under an environment of academic freedom. And we really want to continue to encourage that strong mobility of students, not just from China to Australia, but also from Australia to China, which is what programs like our New Colombo Program seek to do, to make sure this is about building strong two way bilateral ties.

Sabra Lane: There are reports of education meetings in Beijing being postponed with Australia?

Simon Birmingham: Look I’m not aware of any specific meetings that have been postponed. We have a strong bilateral relationship, but also it’s important that Australia always stands up for her interests, just as China will always stand up for her interests as a nation too.

Sabra Lane: Minister, thanks for talking to AM.

Simon Birmingham: Thank you, Sabra.

Sabra Lane: The Federal Education Minister, Simon Birmingham.