Caving-in to the right on Safe Schools

The Victorian state Labor government has caved-in to a relentless, reactionary campaign waged by the Australian Christian Lobby, the right wing of the Liberal Party and the Murdoch press.

Announcing on Friday the government’s decision to cut ties with the anti-bullying Safe Schools Coalition, education minister James Merlino acknowledged that the program is “about stopping the bullying and harassment of young people who are same-sex attracted and gender diverse. We know that it works – and we know that it saves lives”. He said that the government will incorporate the program into the Department of Education and roll it out to all schools – although no new funding has been announced.

Extraordinary, then, that Merlino threw under the bus the people who devised and have run the program for the last six years – La Trobe academics Roz Ward, Joel Radcliffe, Mel Gaylard and Matthew Parsons, who will now likely lose their jobs.

The government’s announcement is a transparent attempt to parry the repeated attacks on Safe Schools from the political right, which pounced on the program as part of a proxy campaign against lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and intersex (LGBTI) people when it became clear that it was losing the argument on marriage equality.

The anti-Safe Schools campaign has been a smear from the start, a classic case of throwing a ton of mud knowing that some of it would surely stick. Among the more egregious lies and slanders, the real complaints were always about the more mundane things that the conservative right finds detestable: assuring young LGBTI people that they have rights, that they should not be vilified and that they are perfectly normal human beings who deserve the same respect as anyone else.

It should come as no surprise that the Victorian Liberal opposition, which formerly backed the Safe Schools Coalition, not only used it as a cynical wedge against the ALP government – and in so doing used the lives of young LGBTI people as a political football – but also went all out to stymie further reforms. As Age journalist Farrah Tomazin wrote on 17 December:

“On the Tuesday before Spring Street adjourned for the year, Matthew Guy's opposition helped defeat two bills designed to improve LGBTI rights: the first making it harder for faith-based agencies to discriminate on the grounds of sexuality; the second giving transgender people the power to change their birth certificates without needing gender reassignment surgery.”

Exactly how the anti-bullying curriculum is developed and taught in the future remains uncertain. But as Roz Ward told Fairfax media, “I don't think backing down helps; it's like giving a drop of blood to a bunch of sharks”.