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A PETITION from close to a thousand people in the ACT was a catalyst for a debate on defending minorities within our community. The real challenge for democracy is looking after minorities, for even some of the most atrocious dictatorships have looked after their majority.
The petition presented in August by MLA Andrew Wall, shadow minister for Education, called on the government “to stop any and all current and future ACT government support and funding to the Safe Schools Coalition program”. It also called for “the removal of the SSP and associated resources from ACT schools where it may already be in use”.
Education Minister Yvette Berry immediately lashed out at Wall with “I am appalled” and “he should be ashamed of himself”. She was “deeply saddened” pointing out Wall had initiated the petition as well as presenting it to the Assembly. She argued the petition will say to LGBTIQ young people: “There is something wrong with you, you are not welcome, you are not to be included in our schools”.
The petition identified “families have serious concerns about the political and social agenda of Safe Schools Coalition, the Safe Schools Program”. It went on to express serious apprehension about “materials and associated resources” being “inappropriate” leading to “identity confusion and anxiety in developing children”.
There is no question about the right of Wall to initiate or to present a petition. Nor is there doubt about his petitioners’ right to make a request of the Legislative Assembly. There are genuine concerns regarding this program right across Australia. Putting such concerns to the Assembly is an appropriate and effective tool in the democratic process.
However, such petitions also provide an insight into where different members of the Assembly stand on social issues, on equity and the rights of the vulnerable and minorities. The terms of the petition identify the discomfort felt by just 998 conservative members of the community who had signed the petition. No doubt there are many others who would have supported the approach had they known about the petition.
Greens MLA Caroline Le Couteur decried the timing as “very unfortunate” being at “the time of the same-sex marriage voluntary postal survey”. Le Couteur denounced Wall, saying: “The time that has been chosen to decry the one program that we have in our schools that addresses the bullying that these young [LGBTIQ] people face”.
Conservative MLA Elizabeth Kikkert probably thought she had a debating triumph by quoting a student: “I have been told my whole life that people don’t have a right to touch my body in a way that makes me feel uncomfortable, so why is it okay for a teacher to touch my mind in a way that makes me feel uncomfortable in the exact same way?”
The quote backfires. The very point of the Safe Schools Program is, first, to reinforce the importance of this concept of the right to feel comfortable. Then, more importantly, to have such students put themselves in the shoes of another, a more vulnerable person – thereby understanding what makes the “other” feel uncomfortable.
Ploughing through the Safe Schools Coalition website will reveal issues such as alcohol and other drugs, online safety bullying and diversity at the primary school level as well as safe and responsible choices and healthy minds and bodies at the secondary level.
Benjamin Laws summed it up well stating: “In reality, Safe Schools was an opt-in program aimed at supporting teachers help LGBTIQ students, consisting mostly of professional learning resources for teachers”.
The site itself states: “The national program resources do not include posters related to uniforms or include role play activities. Nor do our resources discuss sex education.”
Minister Berry identified our public schools, our independent schools and our Catholic schools.
“The ACT government will not be changing its mind about Safe Schools. I will make sure that the duty of care that each of us has in ensuring the safety and wellbeing of every child is met”.
The danger of conservative politics is the inclination to support majorities at the expense of minorities. This concept is sometimes called “populism” and the last thing we need is a populist government.