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Victoria defies Malcolm Turnbull’s Safe Schools fix


Victoria plans to sabotage the Turnbull government’s new ban on homosexual role-playing classes in schools by promising to pay for the Safe Schools program if it loses federal funding.

Malcolm Turnbull yesterday quelled a backbench ­revolt by conservative MPs by ­ordering the Safe Schools ­Coalition to curb its classroom campaign or lose its remaining $2 million in taxpayer funding.

The changes give parents the right to veto the controversial gender and sexuality lessons, and will ban the independent Safe Schools Coalition from referring students to third-party websites such as Minus 18, a gay and transsexual youth group that had promoted links to sex shops and gay nightclubs.

But Victorian Education Minister James Merlino declared that Victoria would pay for the anti-bullying program in full if the Turnbull government cut federal funding. “No changes to Vic safe schools program in wake of Turnbull Govt recommendations,’’ he said in a tweet last night. “Total cave-in to bigots. We know Safe Schools saves lives.’’

If Victoria steps in to fund Safe Schools, the independent group will be under no obligation to change its curriculum, which instructs students as young as 11 to pretend they are 16-year-olds going out with someone of the same sex.

Earlier, Mr Merlino said he was “confident with how the program is being implemented in Victoria’’, where it will become mandatory in all state schools by 2019. “If Malcolm Turnbull pulls the funding, the Victorian Labor government will step in and ­ensure this vital program remains because Safe Schools saves lives,’’ he said in a statement to The Weekend Australian.

The Safe Schools Coalition said yesterday it would “work through the proposed changes’’ with the federal Education ­Department and federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham. “We welcome the government’s support for the continued delivery of the program,’’ it said in a statement. It refused to say whether it supported the government changes.

Senator Birmingham said students had “every right’’ to be safe from bullying and homophobia at school. “They also have every right to be safe from inappropriate material … because of their age or from material that could expose them to things that parents and community rightly think young children should not be exposed to,’’ he said.

Senator Birmingham and ­opposition education spokeswoman Kate Ellis condemned a violent attack yesterday on the Adelaide electorate office of vocal Safe Schools critic Cory Bernardi.

Protesters defaced the office with graffiti, overturned furniture and tipped papers and documents on to the floor, forcing Senator Bernardi’s wife and staff to retreat into other rooms.

Ms Ellis said the protest by Safe Schools supporters was “wrong and dumb and entirely undermined any sort of argument they were trying to make’’.

But she said watering down the program was “a victory for the fringe elements of the Liberal Party’’.

Senator Birmingham said ­“advocacy and activism’’ must not be part of a program to protect gay and transgender children from bullying. “Just as proselytising is not part of the school chaplaincy program, advocacy must not be part of the Safe Schools program.

“People who might have engaged in the past as presenting themselves as representatives of the program and in doing so speaking about political matters … have frankly done themselves and the program an enormous disservice and would be well advised to keep their mouths shut on such matters in future.’’

Conservative MP George Christensen, who led the charge against the $8m program and had presented a petition from a majority of Coalition backbenchers ­demanding an inquiry, praised Senator Birmingham for “stripping all the bad out of it”.

“I am very surprised that he has gone as far as he has gone; it is better than an inquiry, it is gutting the program of all of the concerning content,’’ he said.

The Australian Christian Lobby welcomed the “substantial pruning’’ of the program and said “schools will be safer’’ with the ­removal of third-party websites.

Queensland’s Labor Education Minister Kate Jones said the federal government had made a “sensible decision’’.

NSW Education Minister Adrian Piccoli said Senator Birmingham “has outlined some sensible changes’’ and he had asked his officials “for urgent advice on how they are best implemented’’.

South Australian Education Minister Susan Close said she strongly supported the Safe Schools program, but would read the review before responding.

National Children’s Commissioner Megan Mitchell said she supported changes to make the classroom material “age-appropriate’’. “While we recognise the rights of parents to be informed … it is important to ensure children who have not yet ‘come out’ to their family can still access the program,” she said.

Olympian Ian Thorpe, who came out as gay in 2014, said the program probably would have helped him during his time at school. “I think it (would be) a mistake to scrap that program without considering what it’s trying to advocate,’’ he said.

The federal government’s changes go well beyond the ­advice of Bill Louden, emeritus professor of education at the University of Western Australia, who was commissioned to assess the Safe Schools Coalition program in a snap review last week.

Professor Louden concluded that all of the lessons were “educationally sound, age-appropriate and aligned to the Australian curriculum’’, but he said role-playing activities in which children as young as 11 were asked to imagine they were 16-year-olds in love with someone of the same or opposite sex “may not be suitable in all contexts’’.

Senator Birmingham said the federal government would require the Safe Schools Coalition to remove branding or links to third-party websites, apart from government-funded mental health or counselling services.

Teaching materials would be moved from the Safe Schools ­Coalition website to the Safe Schools Hub — a website supported by education departments across the country, with resources for teachers to combat racism and domestic violence. He said the remaining $2m in funding, which runs out next year, would not be extended in the next budget.


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