The news that the Safe Schools program will henceforth be run from within the Victorian Department of Education has sharply divided opinion within the LGBTI community. But it should not. It is a vital move to safeguard the future of LGBTI rights and the protection of LGBTI kids in Victoria.
We need to focus on the objective of the whole exercise: making all schools safe for LGBTI kids. Nothing and no-one else matters. Safe Schools is not the issue. Roz Ward is not the issue. The issue is getting LGBTI-focussed anti-bullying initiatives and LGBTI-inclusive sex and relationship education into schools. Safe Schools is only one way to do this: there are others.
Safe Schools had, and still has, the full weight of the Victorian government behind it. This can only be a positive. But the government cannot put its reputation and its political capital in hostage to an external provider over whom it has no control. Especially one led by someone who has consistently and repeatedly prioritized her academic freedom of speech and opinion over the good of Safe Schools and the children it helps.
Let me be clear: Roz Ward had and has every right to make a speech, post on Facebook, march in a demo. Academic freedom of speech is and must be sacrosanct. But to do these things when the vital program she led was under intense scrutiny and withering attack from the religious right, in parliament and out, was simply feeding the trolls.
The Andrews government has been left with no choice but to bring the program under its control to try to stop the political damage and prevent itself from being blindsided yet again by an ill-considered speech or an ill-judged Facebook post.
We do not know at this stage if the staff currently running the program, including Roz Ward, will be re-employed in some capacity by the Department of Education. But if they are, they will under strict civil service discipline, unable to speak to the press or make public pronouncements without prior ministerial authorisation.
Yes, Safe Schools may be renamed, even modified, in an attempt to take more political heat out of the issue. This is relatively unimportant. The only thing that matters that programs – any programs – to support LGBTI kids and save LGBTI lives continue to roll out to all schools. Even if they have a different name. Even if they come from a range of providers. The urgent need to protect LGBTI kids is a higher priority than protecting the income stream of La Trobe University.
Why does this issue matter so much? Put simply, the Andrews government is under pressure from a resurgent Liberal opposition. That resurgence is accompanied by an extremist Christian infiltration of the party, driving it further to the right.
The Baillieu and Napthine governments were rendered impotent on LGBTI rights because of the religious “loonies” (as Ted Baillieu once described them to me) like Bernie Finn, who once accused me of donning “Pink Jackboots” for criticising Margaret Court. This faction has grown and strengthened since then.
As the Age puts it, the Victorian Liberals are lurching to the right, turning into a poor man’s copy of the Tony Abbott federal party. Like Turnbull, Matthew Guy finds himself forced to pander to the loonies even though his instincts are far more moderate.
“Remember, for instance, when Guy told us he wanted the Liberals to do more to “reach out” to the gay community? Since then, the opposition has watered down same-sex adoption laws, vowed to scrap the Safe Schools program, and used its numbers to defeat the two equality bills Labor put forward in the last sitting week of parliament.”
In this situation, it would be disastrous for the LGBTI community to see the Liberals returned to Spring St. If part of the price for that is moving Safe Schools away from La Trobe and Roz Ward, and I believe it is, that is a tiny price to pay in the overall scheme of things.
People have been reacting with hot emotion rather than cool heads. And no wonder, given what Roz Ward and Safe Schools have achieved. But allowing ourselves to be led by that emotion could put us in a far worse position going forward. It is naïve and self-indulgent. Cool heads and hard decisions are required, and the state government is taking them.
The LGBTI community should applaud rather than attack them.