Patricia Karvelas: This afternoon the Federal Government has delivered it’s response to the review of the Safe Schools anti-homophobia program. It seems to have appeased conservative Coalition critics of the program but is being labelled a back down by others. Senator Simon Birmingham is the Federal Education Minister, thanks for your time, and also for staying awake for us. I know you’ve only had about half an hours’ sleep. Is that right?
Simon Birmingham: That’s right Patricia. I grabbed a quick cat nap around 4am this morning on the office couch whilst the senate continued its business. But the end is near I think.
Patricia Karvelas: I think so. Now, let’s get this. The main pillars of your response is to remove some of the program content, particularly the role playing, to allow the program in secondary schools only, to remove website links to services that aren’t Government funded, and you’re also giving parents a bigger say. Here’s how George Christensen, whose been really the biggest critic of this program, sees it.
George Christensen: Essentially, we’re gutting most of the bad content, that actually these people wanted to remain in place. Once we’ve done that, or demanded that, they’ll probably reject that demand. So if they reject the demand my understanding is the funding will be pulled.
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Patricia Karvelas: Is that right, you’ve gutted the program?
Simon Birmingham: Well, I think if you listen to George’s word, we’ve gutted the content that was of concern. So that’s a particular differentiation. Now, George Christensen yesterday was calling for the entire program to be axed, and all of the funding to be cut. I’m very pleased that today we have reached, what I think, is a sensible middle road, where we have addressed the types of concerns that George has expressed, and many others have expressed. I think most of George’s most passionate concerns have been in this area of third party’s who have been associated with the program, links to their websites and what that takes students on to. And in that space I’ve taken a very clear line of believing the only type of additional resources and websites and other organisations that students should be referred to from the official resources of this program are Commonwealth, state or territory mental health or counselling programs that they may need to access.
Patricia Karvelas: Mr Christensen also said he expects the programs funding to be pulled when the funding ends next financial year. Will that be it? Will it be over then?
Simon Birmingham: Well this was a four year program set up by the previous Labor Government. We’re now going to make sure that in the last year of the program the funding is used to fix some of the problems that were there, but also then to make sure that the resources are mainstreamed in terms of where they’re located, and therefore will be there in a sense, forevermore.
Patricia Karvelas: Here’s Shadow Education Minister Kate Ellis this afternoon.
Kate Ellis: Sadly, I think, that this is a victory for the fringe elements on the Liberal Party’s back bench, and this is a defeat, once again, of any leadership from the Prime Minister. Malcolm Turnbull has shown that his leadership has now been defeated and damaged by his own back bench, as has the Safe Schools program.
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Patricia Karvelas: If 43 signatures on the Christensen petition can bring about these changes, can you still claim that stopping kids from being bullied is your paramount concern?
Simon Birmingham: Well Patricia, that letter, and the 43 signatures on it, were calling for the program to be axed in its entirety and for funding to be cut in its entirety.
Patricia Karvelas: [Interrupts] But so now you’ve just gutted it instead?
Simon Birmingham: Now, we are not doing that. Overwhelmingly the resources remain. The resources for teachers to use in schools remain but they will have certain problems with them fixed. The resources for counsellors in schools to use one on one with children will remain. So the resources that are there will remain, the funding remains to ensure that they are fixed, but also that the support for schools in terms of how they, in this stage, learn to use those resources effectively remain. This is a big shift from what George and others were calling for, and I think is a demonstration that what we’ve managed to do is take everybody on a journey of doing what I think most parents would think is common sense and that is ensuring that yes we have a program that promotes tolerance in schools…
Patricia Karvelas: [Interrupts] But can I ask you something very specific?
Simon Birmingham: Sure.
Patricia Karvelas: There are two streams now aren’t there? A general stream for all students and one which can be used one on one between a student and a teacher. What’s going to be in that? Will teachers be able to refer those kids, that sometimes might be expressing that they think that they’re gay, to Minus18 for instance, one of the groups that you’re now removing from the material?
Simon Birmingham: Well, the test for that will be are these associations that are funded by Government and are there to provide mental health services, counselling services, support for students. So that’s the test in terms of whether an organisation could be a reference point from one of…
Patricia Karvelas: [Interrupts] So in this one on one, sorry, I just want to set up the scenario. You’re a 16 year old gay kid, or you think you might be gay at that stage, you express it to a teacher, the teacher does this consultation with you. Will the teacher be able to say that this Minus18 group exists, which exists to connect other young gay people together. Will they be able to do that?
Simon Birmingham: Well, they will be able to refer that kid to Government funded counselling mental health services if that’s going to be of benefit to the child. Importantly, I want to stress here…
Patricia Karvelas: [Talks over] So not Minus18 then?
Simon Birmingham: … this is not a particular change in terms of the two streams. The objectives of this program are two-fold. One is about building tolerance, the other is about supporting children who have questions in relation to their sexuality and their sexual identity. So those streams have already and always existed. What Professor Bill Louden found, the Emeritus Professor of Education from UWA, was that, in relation to some of the resources developed specifically for individual students, they were not appropriate for distribution across a school. And so he’s recommended, and we have taken up this recommendation, that they should best be used in a one on one context between teachers, counsellors or otherwise and the student. But there’s an important extra thing that we’ve picked up from Professor Louden there, and that is that he said there is a gap there in relation to the school having any resources to know how to communicate with that child’s parents if that is the wish of the child after their discussion with the counsellor. So we will be asking for a particular resource to be developed to assist there. So there’s not just something to be given to and to help the child in question, but ideally something that can go home to help the parent, and to help with that very difficult relationship.
Patricia Karvelas: That’s right Minister. And you said in your press conference that parents should have the right to withdraw their child from classes dealing with such matters. What happens when a young child who identifies, or is starting to identify as gay, is withdrawn because their parents are opposed to what they see as their emerging sexuality. What would happen there?
Simon Birmingham: Patricia, I would hope in those circumstances that a child does take the opportunity to sit down and talk to their school counsellor. That is a right that of course any child has at any time to talk about problems that they may have. That is something that we’ve been very expressly clear that would continue.
Patricia Karvelas: [Talks over] But their parents would be able to withdraw them so they didn’t hear about any more gay issues.
Simon Birmingham: Patricia, what we are doing here is what has long been the case in relation to sexuality courses and teaching in schools, the teaching of sex education, the teaching of religious education, is that parents are properly informed. And yes, they can make a choice in relation to the participation. We’re asking and expecting…
Patricia Karvelas: [Interrupts] Okay, but I am asking on a personal level, perhaps you as a father as well, what do you think of parents doing that? Of withdrawing their children?
Simon Birmingham: I would generally discourage parents from doing so. My view is that we should trust our teachers, trust their judgement, and again something else that we have asked that we think is a gap in the program to be done is the production of some resources for parents that are uniform and consistent, to inform them about what actually is in the program and what it is teaching so that hopefully we can actually build the confidence of parents. And what I really hope we are at today, after the debate of the last few weeks, and indeed a much longer period of time in some ways, is that we can get confidence around this program, get confidence about how it is that these issues of tolerance are taught in schools so that parents embrace that and support that for all children.
Patricia Karvelas: You’ve told everyone to stop and think about the kids. So I want to put this to you. How do you think this debate has impacted on those kids struggling with their sexuality? These kids that are perhaps teenagers right now in Australia in our schools. Are you concerned that this debate, which has been a very mainstream debate, they would have seen it on the seven o’clock, six o’clock news. It’s been everywhere. Do you think it’s hurt them?
Simon Birmingham: I think the Prime Minister delivered a really important message yesterday, that people need to be very careful with their language when they’re talking about these types of issues. And that yes, elements of this debate, outside of the parliament and perhaps in some instances inside, would not have helped young people dealing with these types of issues. And yes, people should be free to raise legitimate concerns about the content of programs like this, because that is how we get them fixed and that’s how we make sure that they’re then supported by the maximum number of people in future. But they should do so in a calm and considered and respectful manner. Preferably I’d encourage people to do so by coming directly to me in the first instance if it’s something that’s within my purview as the Education Minister. But in general, whatever the issue is, whether it’s in relation to sexuality or anything else that goes to a person and who they are, we should be ever mindful that words can have harmful effects, that in this case in relation to…
Patricia Karvelas: [Interrupts] That’s right Minister. And in the last few days we’ve seen a back bench revolt on Safe Schools. Tim Wilson has been smeared in a Liberal pre-selection stout and Cory Bernardi's office has been trashed. What does all this say about the campaign we’re going to be seeing around a referendum, a plebiscite, on same sex marriage? How are we going to manage this conversation?
Simon Birmingham: I think all of this sends a very clear message to people and warning to people that we need to think about how we conduct ourselves in these types of public debates. I think the attacks on Tim Wilson, the anonymous attacks on Tim Wilson are deplorable. I equally think indeed, the behaviour at Cory Bernardi's electorate office today was deplorable, and that it is time for people to take a step backwards and think about how their words, how their actions, reflect upon themselves, but also can potentially cause harm to others, and that they do make sure that they exercise caution. That doesn’t mean don’t express a public opinion, but it does mean think about how you express it so that you are respectful of others.
Patricia Karvelas: You know you’re saying that. But are you confident that anything will change?
Simon Birmingham: I hope so Patricia. I’m an optimistic person.
Patricia Karvelas: We don’t have any evidence that it will though.
Simon Birmingham: Look I think, I would hope that people have learnt out of this debate. There have been colleagues I guess who’ve spoken to me as I’ve engaged with them in the last couple of days to talk about why I didn’t think that axing the program was a good thing, and did believe there were positive things we could do to restore and build confidence in it, who have said to me that they wish elements of this had been conducted in a different way, and sometimes even have reflected on some of the things that they themselves might have said or done. So I think that people do have an awakening if you like through some of these activities and some of these discussions, and I hope that this is a broad wake up for the country that if we’re going to have a significant debate in relation to an issue like same sex marriage, that we need to conduct it in the most responsible way, thoughtful and considerate way possible.
Patricia Karvelas: Minister, before I let you go, because I know you’re absolutely stuffed. You must be. You’ve done an all nighter! Like kids that are studying for their year 12 exams stay up all night like this.
Simon Birmingham: Not quite as stuffed as I think my good friend Mathias Cormann is, who barely left the senate chamber last night.
Patricia Karvelas: Well he revealed to me exclusively in a tweet that he only went to the toilet twice, which I think is quite impressive. I would have gone a bit more often. But I do want to ask you. Have you now- you voted- you’ve got the senate reforms through, have you basically killed the ability of a small player, an independent player, a small party to get elected into the senate?
Simon Birmingham: I don’t believe so. We have required that voters will be instructed to put preferences of up to six different positions on the ballot paper- sorry, a minimum of six different places on the ballot paper. That means that people will have to think about where their preferences go. But it just means they’ll be doing it themselves.
Patricia Karvelas: Many thanks for your time Minister.
Simon Birmingham: A pleasure Patricia.
Patricia Karvelas: And that’s Senator Simon Birmingham. He’s the Federal Education Minister.