Interview on ABC News Breakfast
Topics: National Day of Action against Bullying and Violence; University hazing; Michaelia Cash

Paul Kennedy: Now, bullying in the schoolyard is sadly nothing new, but the rise of social media means the torment and harassment inflicted by bullies now follows a victim into their home.

Virginia Trioli: Yes, there’s no privacy at home. It comes even through the front door. So when 14-year-old Amy Everett, known as Dolly, died by suicide earlier this year, it sent shockwaves across the country and it had the Prime Minister admitting that much more work from government was needed to prevent cyberbullying.

To take us through it, Education Minister Simon Birmingham joins me now from Parliament House.

Minister, good morning, welcome back to News Breakfast.

Simon Birmingham: Good morning, Virginia. Good to be with you.

Virginia Trioli: What does the government propose?

Simon Birmingham: Well, what’s happening is the Prime Minister is now writing to every school across Australia to encourage all 9,400 schools to participate in the National Day of Action against Bullying, which is really a call to action to say school communities on Friday 16 March, the national day, should across teachers and principals parents and children, access all of the different resources that we have available to make sure they understand the hundreds of millions of dollars that are invested in youth mental health initiatives like Headspace, to understand the world leading laws we have around the eSafety Commission established by a government, where people are able to refer complaints about inappropriate cyber content and behaviour and have that taken down as has been the case in hundreds of instances already.

So we want to make sure that we really raise awareness of what the tools are; how to promote safe, tolerant, inclusive learning environments in schools, but where the wrong thing happens to make sure that children understand what they can do or what schools can do to help children access the help they need.

Virginia Trioli: Is it your and the government’s view that perhaps schools, or some schools, aren’t as aware of what’s available and aren’t doing as much as they should?

Simon Birmingham: Well, we have seen tragic instances and as referenced in your introduction, I know that Malcolm and Lucy Turnbull have spent time on several occasions speaking with Dolly Everett’s parents and trying to understand this issue and they, as grandparents of young children and me as a father of young daughters, some of these stories absolutely horrify and terrify me about what can occur. Now bullying itself is as old as schools themselves and there is no silver bullet we can apply. But the new scourge of cyber bullying, which can follow children home is a really worrying thing. It’s why we’ve passed laws, it’s why we’ve got new resources available. We have to make sure that schools come up to speed in understanding what those resources are. Those referral points, how they can access help, and how they can help their children.

Virginia Trioli: Sure. I ask that specific question about whether the Government thought that maybe schools weren’t aware of these programs and weren’t doing enough. Your answer would seem to indicate in the way that you addressed it there and referencing the Dolly Everett matter, that in the Government’s view – and I’d like you to clarify this – that a lot of the bullying and the most adverse results of bullying are results of the schools not doing enough. Is that where you’re sheeting the responsibility?

Simon Birmingham: Look, I don’t think this is an area where we should sheet blame in any way. Some schools do…

Virginia Trioli: I’m going to jump in there, Minister, and I apologize for doing that but I’ll jump in because, listening to our viewers this morning, that’s exactly what they are thinking and they are wondering and they do want to find responsibility and they do want to not necessarily find blame, but find the end point where the buck stops so it can be changed. So I’m just going to ask again, and you can address it in whichever way you like. In the end, does it come back to the school and that’s why that’s where your focus is this morning?

Simon Birmingham: Well, our focus is absolutely to get each and every school to take action, because the school is absolutely the focal point the school is the way in which we can communicate effectively with children, with their parents, with that school, teaching and leadership community as well. Everybody has a role to play and there’s no point suggesting that schools themselves can simply fix bullying; that’s not within the power of schools to control every instance of behaviour and particularly when that behaviour goes outside of the school community, into the online presence and follows kids home.

But schools absolutely have to play the leading role in being the source of information, in raising awareness, in creating, firstly, an environment where all students understand they have to be respectful towards one another, they have to be tolerant of one another. If they see the wrong thing, they say they should speak up, not just turn a blind eye. But then, also, to know if the wrong thing is happening, how do we encourage people to access help? What are the resources that are available? How do you get in touch with the e-safety commissioner? What powers do they have to take action? These are all things that schools can use the National Day of Action to do, use the resources that are available on the website to make sure they understand the steps they can take.

Virginia Trioli: Do you believe there need to be special anti-bullying programs for particularly vulnerable demographics in schools?

Simon Birmingham: Look, I think schools have to make sure that across the board they are tackling the issues of creating tolerant and inclusive environments. Now, yes, students from different racial backgrounds, different sexual backgrounds, a whole range of different issues, different looks, different weights, can be the subject of bullying. As I said before, schoolyard bullying is as old as schools themselves and kids can be terribly mean sometimes.

Virginia Trioli: Sure, but do they need special protection, when we think of as really very vulnerable kids in schools, especially programs that particularly understand the issues they face?

Simon Birmingham: I think the most effective way which schools have been and school systems have been seeking to do is to say: how do you make sure that yes you raise awareness and tolerance across all the different areas where discrimination can occur, and to make sure that children understand from an early age that that is inappropriate to show any type of discrimination and particularly to convert that into bullying type activities?

Virginia Trioli: Can I just change subjects for a moment? I just want to go to the issue of university hazing and now I know that you’ve encouraged people to go to the police if an assault has occurred in that setting. Are you suggesting to students they just bypass the universities and the colleges and go straight to the cops?

Simon Birmingham: No, university colleges and universities themselves ought to be helping students through any of these instances. That if the wrong things happened, assault is assault wherever it occurs, whether it’s at a university, university college or anywhere else across Australia. Assault matters ought to be referred to the police. But university colleges and universities have a responsibility to help students in those circumstances, to take them to the police if need be, to make sure they can access counselling services in addition to that; but of course, first and foremost, to stamp out these terrible practices.

Now, last year universities took the lead in really shining a spotlight on the problems by surveying students across the country about instances of sexual harassment. They did this with work hand in glove with the Sex Discrimination Commissioner – who I’ve met with a number of times including just a couple of weeks ago – to talk about progress on addressing these issues. Clearly, we have to have a zero-tolerance approach. They are appalling stories. But when we come to the most serious of these issues, matters of assault, I don’t think we should mince words or talk about having light touch penalties. We should use the full force of the law, apply the laws of assault, refer the matters to police.

Virginia Trioli: I just wanted your response to Michaelia Cash’s comments yesterday in estimates, and wondering whether the Barnaby Joyce matter has perhaps in her mind and other people’s minds, made it open season on individuals now.

Simon Birmingham: Well, I like to engage in my politics as respectfully as possible. I think Michaelia acknowledged in estimates yesterday, that perhaps a line had been crossed, which was why she withdrew those remarks in the hearing yesterday.

Virginia Trioli: She withdrew those remarks if anyone had been offended. Is that what we call a non-apology?

Simon Birmingham: You can call it whatever you like, Virginia …

Virginia Trioli: What would you call it?

Simon Birmingham: For me? Well, I’m not a commentator. I’m going to go into my education estimates hearing today, hopefully talk about important issues like the ones we’ve been discussing and how it is we make sure that we have safe, tolerant, inclusive learning environments whether it’s at schools, at universities, right across the country.

Virginia Trioli: Or even at Parliament House, safe tolerant environments there, too.

Simon Birmingham: Indeed.

Virginia Trioli: Thanks for your company today, Minister. Thank you.

Simon Birmingham: Thank you, Virginia.