Interview on Weekend Sunrise with Monique Wright and Andrew O'Keefe

Topics: Politics in classrooms

12 December 2016

Andrew O’Keefe: Teachers in three states will go ahead with a plan to wear t-shirts to school, protesting Australia’s offshore detention policy. The planned campaign has been organised by a group called Teachers for Refugees and is being backed by education unions around the country.


Unidentified Speaker: Calling on all teachers in New South Wales public schools to stand up and speak out.

[End of excerpt]

Monique Wright: Education ministers in Victoria, New South Wales, and Queensland have warned teachers who take part in the campaign they will face disciplinary action and possibly dismissal. 

Andrew O’Keefe: We’re joined by Federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham, Lucy Honan from Teachers for Refugees, and social commentator Prue MacSween. Good morning to you all. 

Lucy, first of all, explain to us exactly what this campaign is aiming to do and how.

Lucy Honan: Well, today is Human Rights Day, International Human Rights Day, and next week is obviously the week following Human Rights Day. We want to draw attention to the human rights abuses going on in offshore detention camps, and to do that we’re going to be wearing these t-shirts next week to draw attention to the fact that there are kids in offshore detention who have been subject to abuse. They don’t have access to education, their parents and other adults are being abused as well, so we want to draw attention to that and we’re demanding that the Government close the camps and bring those refugees here.

Monique Wright: Right. Lucy, you’re getting slammed for the action; the Prime Minister says the campaign is quote, absolutely inappropriate, critics are coming out of the woodwork to say that the classroom is no place for the personal political beliefs of teachers. How do you respond to that?

Lucy Honan: I think the Government is very scared of losing this debate. Doctors have come out about what is happening in the offshore camps, unions have opposed what’s happening to refugees and refugee policy in this country, churches, and now teachers, and I think that’s why the Government is being very heavy-handed about this protest.

Andrew O’Keefe: Well, in terms of heavy-handedness then, if I could just go to the minister on that. You wrote to your counterparts in Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland, Minister, who are now threatening that teachers who take part might be disciplined or even sacked. Given that the Government is so pro-free speech, and I look at, you know, questions around 18C for example, does this Government really stand to gain much by silencing the critics?

Simon Birmingham: We don’t want to silence anybody. If people want to go out and protest, they’re free to protest in their own time. But teachers are employed to go into a classroom and to teach our children, and to develop skills in those children and they are not, though, employed to go into the classroom and proffer their own personal political views and to use Australian school children as a type of tool for a political campaign. 

Andrew O’Keefe: Well we try hard in our schools, Minister, of course, to impart values of inclusion, community, duty, empathy towards others, good citizenship. Isn’t the point that teachers are making is that these are precisely the values we’re not upholding when we contravene our international obligation and wash our hands of the people who need our help?

Simon Birmingham: No, Andrew. Look, there’s no reason at all as to why teachers, as part of the relevant elements of the curriculum, can’t go in there and talk to school children about border protection policies-

Andrew O’Keefe: Sure.

Simon Birmingham: -and indeed about the debate that may occur. But for teachers to walk into the classroom wearing close the camp t-shirts as part of a nationwide political campaign, is an abuse of the rights of those school children, is an abuse of the rights teachers have in terms of being able to go into those classrooms and impart knowledge and understanding, but not profess to impart their own political viewpoints, which is what’s happening here. 

Monique Wright: The teachers are saying that they are going to give both sides of the argument, a lot of the teachers are saying this. Prue, you’ve been very vocal about it, what is the problem with having teachers discussing an important social issue like this?

Prue MacSween: Well it’s one sided, that’s the point. And we send our children to school to learn, to not be brainwashed, and this is the problem: we have political activists masquerading as teachers and it is against the Code of Conduct of the Education Department to do-preach these kinds of political statements.

Andrew O’Keefe: We also have a federally-funded chaplaincy program.

Prue MacSween: So?

Andrew O’Keefe: Well, I mean, is that not espousing an ideology or even a religion in that case?

Prue MacSween: Andrew we all know your left leanings. The point is that we are talking about-

Andrew O’Keefe:  Well no, no. Answer the question: why is one more acceptable and one not?

Prue MacSween: No, I’m not going to answer that question because it’s a stupid question.

Andrew O’Keefe: Only if you’re stupid enough not to realise it.

Prue MacSween: We actually imprison paedophiles for grooming children. As far as I’m concerned, this is grooming children; brainwashing them- using brainwashing conversion techniques to, I don’t know, swing these children to these really radical views.  I mean we- instead of staging political stunts like this, I think that teachers need to focus on improving their skills. We have children who are failing, who are so behind standards in the rest of the world because teachers are spending so much time espousing – some teachers I say, not all of them because there are a lot of good ones, but some of them – espousing their political statements and views

Andrew O’Keefe: Well Lucy, that’s a good point Lucy. That is a good point, yeah. 

Monique Wright: Sorry Lucy, just your response to that. Do you plan to brainwash kids?

Lucy Honan: No, that’s not my plan at all and I think, you know, if this t-shirt was able to brainwash kids, I think it’d be a very, very magical t-shirt.

Prue MacSween: You’re kidding me.

Lucy Honan: I think if people are concerned about the falling standards in education,  you could look at the billions of dollars spent imprisoning people in the offshore camps and reinvest that into public education?

Prue MacSween: Are you kidding me? I hope you aren’t let loose in a school classroom because you are seriously a dangerous person. 

Monique Wright: Prue, I’m sorry-

Simon Birmingham: Let’s be clear. It would be just as unacceptable for people to walk into classrooms wearing stop the boats t-shirts. The issue here is bringing a political campaign into the classroom. Whether it’s close the camps, stop the boats, we expect teachers in schools to focus on teaching to the curriculum, absolutely part of that – at an advanced age – is talking about public policy issues, but it is not about bringing a political campaign into the classroom.

Monique Wright: Minister, Lucy, Prue, I’m sorry to cut in there but we are out of time. It’s obviously an issue you’re all passionate about and we really appreciate your contributions today. Thank you so much.

Simon Birmingham: Thank you.

Andrew O’Keefe: Thanks everyone. And do let us know your thoughts, of course, viewing this at home.