Laura Jayes: Joining me now is the Education Minister, Senator Simon Birmingham. Thanks so much for your time. I understand it’s been a long night for you in the senate as well.
Simon Birmingham: [Laughs] It is still Thursday isn’t it?
Laura Jayes: Yes. No, no. Friday. Sorry. It’s been a long week for us as well. Look, I’ve had a little look through the report, and obviously there was a lot of concern about the links to inappropriate content, but whatever the concern and suitability of that content, the report actually says it still fell within the range of professional teacher judgement.
Simon Birmingham: Look, there is of course an issue here that- Professor Bill Louden who undertook the review, had a look at the classroom resources that were produced and then he also had a look at, in a very broad sense, the idea of linkage to websites. We didn’t ask him, I didn’t ask him, in his terms of reference, to look at what those other websites were, what those other organisations had…
Laura Jayes: [Interrupts] But why not? That was the biggest concern.
Simon Birmingham: It was a big concern, but of course they’re also actually not part of the Government funded program. So what I’ve sought to do here is to, based in part on his advice, but also on what I think is sound judgement here around safety for children in the online environment, and say- let’s draw a strong line and say develop the resources for the school environment, for the learning environment, for teaching children about tolerance and to support children who have specific issues or concerns themselves, that’s fine. Provide links and information if you want to mental health services, to counselling services that are recognised by state or territory or the Commonwealth Government, but we don’t necessarily need to have others. That- of course, they’re websites. You can’t continually monitor the content of them. If you’re not responsible for them, then they can change at the drop of a hat, and it is much safer and more appropriate in the school environment to say here are the trusted organisations that if you need extra assistance or help, that’s where you should go.
Laura Jayes: When it comes to some of the inappropriate lessons as well, the strongest line in this from Bill Louden is activities in three of the lessons – lessons two, six and seven – may not be suitable in all contexts but their suitability falls within the reasonable range of teacher judgement. So why are you removing that content?
Simon Birmingham: To err on the side of caution. To make sure that in terms of actually—students and confidence that teachers and parents actually have in a program as well. That you know that students won’t feel like they might in some way be being victimised as part of those activities. We’re not withdrawing the lessons, the lessons themselves remain, just the activities that Professor Louden has expressed some concern about their appropriateness for all children. And ultimately what he was also at pains to say to me, and to others whom he’s spoken to about this, is that he wouldn’t really expect that any teacher or school would necessarily take all of the lesson plans and apply them all exactly as they’ve been presented, that there are many such resources that exist across a whole range of different topics, and that yes, in the end, schools and teachers will pick and choose what’s most appropriate for them. We’re just of course making sure we apply maximum caution so that we’re not presenting options that may not be appropriate in some contexts.
Laura Jayes: Minister, it looks like you have gone beyond just erring on the side caution here, it looks like you‘ve gone a lot further than this review has suggested. Is that a fair assessment?
Simon Birmingham: Well there are two things that I’ve undertaken here. One is a response particularly to the work of Professor Louden, but his terms of reference were to look exclusively at the official resources that have been developed. The other is to deal with some of those other concerns about the other websites, about suggestions that some of those running these programs are also engaged in some type of political advocacy type activities and to really draw firm lines there, because I want parents and schools to have confidence in this program. I think it’s incredibly important that we do have this type of message of tolerance taught in our schools, that we do encourage people. Just as there is no room for racism in a school environment, nor is there room for homophobia and that we should support all students and make sure it’s the most successful learning environment possible.
Laura Jayes: Did you feel like you had to go this far, and essentially strip out all these controversial areas because of the 43 in your party that signed this petition. Were you forced to go further because of them?
Simon Birmingham: No, I’ve acted in a way that I think is sound, cautious, but ultimately is very middle of the road, is doing what I think the average parent would think is a reasonable thing for us to do in terms of how these matters are dealt with in our schools, to give those parents confidence. And therefore I hope to ensure that more schools make appropriate use of the parts of these resources that they can rely upon to build a more tolerant and accepting environment in their school. And of course, what we saw was that Mr Christensen and some others called for the entire funding to be axed. Well that’s not what we’ve done. We are supporting the conclusion of this program, the contract that was there. We just want to make sure that some of the concerns that have been identified are fixed and that we use the fact that there is a contract there to get them fixed.
Laura Jayes: So, just to be clear, it’s not going to be defunded, but this program is only scheduled to be funded until the end of 2017. Is that correct? So what happens then? Does this program then just fall by the wayside? Will it continue?
Simon Birmingham: Teacher resources, guides and information like that will live on after the program. They will be housed in future on what’s known as the Safe Schools Hub which is an Education Department, a Government run website that already has information and resources for teachers and schools around racism, domestic violence, bullying in general, making so it’s really [indistinct]
Laura Jayes: [Interrupts] So you’re confident the same support will remain beyond 2017, it’ll just be moved into this Safe Schools Hub. Does that need ongoing funding?
Simon Birmingham: That gets ongoing funding from the Government as it is, to make sure that…
Laura Jayes: [Interrupts] How much?
Simon Birmingham: Well, look, I can’t tell you off the top of my head Laura.
Laura Jayes: We’ll forgive you for that today.
Simon Birmingham: But it receives support and boosts of funding I guess from time to time as well, to ensure that particular resources are updated, so that they are still there for schools to use in a contemporary way as you go on, but we should expect that if a teacher is looking for information to help structure a class to deal with issues of tolerance in relation to kids sexuality, that they logically go to the same place they go to look at issues of tolerance in relation to racism, issues of tolerance in relation to students with disability. It’s a one stop shop in a sense, and it’s the appropriate place to ultimately ensure that these types of resources are available well into the future to support schools.
Laura Jayes: And this importantly does empower parents, but if I could just ask you from your perspective, some of the debate we’ve seen around this, some of the accusations that have been flung around from members of the backbench, but also as you say the other side, their advocacy outside of politics. This has been a little unedifying hasn’t it?
Simon Birmingham: Look, I think parts of the debate that have existed probably have been, and I was pretty clear in my comments at the press conference there that I would urge everybody to remember. This is a program about protecting kids in schools, and they’re the ones we should put first and foremost and they should not be used as political footballs from either side of the perspective here.
Laura Jayes: Has this been damaging to Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership do you think? Because there’s some suggestion that a proxy war from the conservative wing against the moderates here, and also the way this was elevated. Because it has been pointed out that this was, yes, introduced by Labor, but implement at the acquiescence of the Abbott Government, and there wasn’t this vitriolic debate under his Prime Ministership.
Simon Birmingham: Some of the resources that were very hotly contested and debated are resources that haven’t existed for very long. So they were really finished at the end of last year for use from this school year, so I can understand the timing as to why the debate got more intensity now, and I understand the passion that people have in relation to some of these topics, but again, I come back to the point. Really, when you boil it down, it’s about the welfare of children in schools, and I have sought to make sure that we meet, really, the key tests. That we are promoting a tolerant environment in schools amongst all children. We’re providing support for children who have particular questions or needs around their sexuality or their gender identity. And that we are making sure that the resources and information that flows into those schools is safe and appropriate for the children in those schools.
Laura Jayes: Does this concern you that this was just a two million dollar program, yes there were passionate views on both sides, but when it comes to issues of sexuality, very strong views on both sides, doesn’t this give us an idea about how personal the debate ahead of a same sex marriage plebiscite could be?
Simon Birmingham: It gives a very strong message that people ought, from this experience, be very mindful of the type of language they use when talking about the lives of other people. Because words and comments do have real impacts on other individuals and it doesn’t matter really what the debate is, when we’re talking about the lives of others, and the way in which they live their lives and the issues they face in their lives, we should be ever respectful of that and make sure that we do indeed show the type of tolerance that a program like this is exactly trying to promote.
Laura Jayes: This is a peace offering to the right wing. The party’s going to be united going forward to an election, probably on July 2 now?
Simon Birmingham: Well I think, I’m confident the party will be united. This isn’t a peace offering for anybody. This is about doing the right thing. The right thing by kids in schools, by giving parents confidence, by giving schools the right resources. I fully expect that there will probably be extremes of both sides of this debate, who will still criticise me, who will criticise the decisions that I’ve taken. That’s fine, they can do that. But again, I would suggest that a program about wellbeing for children, yes, deal with the issues where you think there are real issues, but don’t make it a political proxy for anything else.
Laura Jayes: Right. Senator Simon Birmingham, the Education Minister, thank you so much for your time, especially after a sleepless night in the senate.
Simon Birmingham: [Laughs] Thank you very much Laura.