Andrews “caved” over Safe Schools

Farrah Tomazin

State Politics

Daniel Andrews’s progressive cre­dentials have come under fire from supporters of Safe Schools foun­der Roz Ward, who have accused the [Victorian] Premier of caving in to “right-wing bigotry “by cutting ties with the controversial academic.

But while Ms Ward has vowed to fight on, others have welcomed the government’s decision to take over the anti-bullying program, saying it would now be easier for the policy to be strengthened and ex­panded across schools.

As The Age revealed on Friday [16 December], the government has cancelled its contract with La Trobe University, which has delivered Safe Schools since 2010, allowing it to sever links with Ms Ward, who co-founded the initiative but has since become a lightning rod for many of its critics.

Instead, the Education Department will take control of the pro­gram from the start of term one next year, periodically review and improve resources, and ensure it is rolled out to every state secondary school by 2018.

As news of the shake-up rever­berated over the weekend — with some in favour, some against, and some saying the program should be scrapped altogether — a defiant Ms Ward took to Facebook asking followers to support a new page, Defend and Support Safe Schools Victoria, if they wanted to fight for “a real and independent program that supports LGBTI people in schools”. By mid-afternoon on Sat­urday, the page had almost 1500 “likes”.

The National Union of Students also lashed out, accusing Mr An­drews of throwing Safe Schools “under the bus” following relent­less attacks from the Murdoch press and conservative MPs in the Turnbull [federal] government. “This government says it’s progressive, that it stands with LGBTI kids, that it stands against bigotry. Yet . . . it caved in to right-wing pressure from The Australian and the far right of the Liberal Party,” said the union’s LGBTI officer Chris di Pasquale.

Others, however, took a differ­ent view. Dale Park, co-convener of the Victorian Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby, said the govern­ment’s changes showed an on-going commitment to Safe Schools and LGBTI students.

And Anna Brown, director of ad­vocacy at the Human Rights Law Centre said: “This is the right move in the long term and will en­sure this life-saving program is ex­panded into regional and rural Vic­toria and embedded in schools like every other government education program.”

The Safe Schools revamp is a major shake-up for a once-uncontroversial program devised off the back of La Trobe research, which found that schools were hotbeds for homophobia and bullying against same-sex attracted youth.

The policy received bipartisan support until this year when, in the context of a broader debate on marriage equality, the Australian Christian Lobby, conservative MPs and sections of the media began criticising the program and calling for it to be scrapped.

Much of that criticism centred around the teaching resource All Of Us (which critics claim is too radical in its theories about gender and sexuality) as well as Ms Ward’s Socialist Alternative views and tendency to fall into contro­versy (she has described the Aus­tralian flag as “racist”; discussed Safe Schools at a Marxist confer­ence; and was recently photo­graphed at an anti-Trump rally re­moving the cap of a Trump sup­porter).

With two years until the next election, some hope the decision will minimise some of the political heat and give the department a chance to “debunk some of the myths” perpetrated by Safe School critics.

“This is the next stage of its life, if you like,” said Education Minis­ter James Merlino.

Farrah Tomazin is Sunday Age’s state political editor.