Australia’s federal education minister Simon Birmingham announced that a government-funded program designed to stamp out homophobia and transphobia in Australian schools will be placed under review.
Prime Minister Malcolm Tumbull initiated the review of the program Safe Schools after several conservative Australian senators and activist groups accused Safe Schools of featuring overly sexual and inappropriate content.
“This is a great first step to getting this program de-funded and taken out of our schools,” a statement from the Australian Christian Lobby read. “This is because thousands of you have taken action, emailed parliamentarians or signed various petitions. This is democracy in action and it works.”
Shalaiah Medhora, reporting for The Guardian, notes that the backlash against the proposed review of the program has been intense. The Safe Schools program was initiated by the former Labor government with the goal of fostering an inclusive, supportive atmosphere throughout the Australian education system. It has been operating for two years.
“Schools have to be a safe place for every kid – no exceptions. Teachers have to be given the tools to deal with every situation – no excuses. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this effective little program, which achieves the above two aims and nothing more,” said Daniel Andrews, an elected official.
His comments were reinforced by the South Australian education minister Susan Close, who said, “I am bitterly disappointed that the prime minister has raised questions about the merits of the Safe Schools Coalition.” Additionally, as Naomi Selvaratnam notes from SBS Online, the Australian Green Party vowed to initiate an inquiry into homophobic and transphobic bullying in Australian schools to counter the conservative-led push to review Safe Schools.
Jill Stark from The Age writes that the genesis of the opposition against the Safe School program stems from Australia’s impending poll on marriage equality. Reportedly, the objective of the Australian right wing is to create a culture of “misinformation and fear” ahead of the vote. 72% of Australians currently support same-sex marriage, so these activists supposedly are using the issue to stoke fears of parents and young people to chip away at support.
“Despite scare campaigns around the program, schools have control over where they use Safe Schools and how much of the program they use. Schools need to have the freedom to run these kinds of programs if they believe it is necessary to create a safe environment within the school,” said Australian Education Union President Correna Haythorpe.
Much of the opposition to the program comes from Western Australia, which tends to be the more rural and is a more conservative part of the country. Western Australia only recently adopted the program, and fewer than 20 of the 495 participating in the Safe Schools program are located in that territory. Critics accuse the program of “social engineering,” promoting non-traditional values, and being forced upon communities.
The debate over the issue mirrors that over education currently taking place in the United States. American conservatives accuse the federal government of forcing alien curricula and nontraditional values on local communities, and they are increasingly pushing for a decentralization of authority on matters of education policy so that local educators and institutions can educate their students as they see fit.