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.


Labor split emerges over assisted dying

Farrah Tomazin

A split has emerged in the highest ranks of the Victorian government over voluntary euthanasia, with Premier Daniel Andrews and his deputy at odds about the state’s plans to permit assisted dying.

One week after the government announced it would draft legisla­tion giving terminally ill people the right to an assisted death, Deputy Premier James Merlino has con­firmed he does not support chan­ging the law and will vote against the bill when it is introduced into State Parliament next year.

“My view is that the evidence clearly shows that, no matter the safeguards that a Parliament puts in place in terms of legislation, the safeguards don’t work. The outcome can go beyond the intention of the Parliament; that’s what I’m concerned about,” said Mr Merlino, who is aligned to Labor’s Catholic-affiliated SDA faction.

“People absolutely want control over the care that they receive and the care they don’t receive; but that can be delivered through the recent changes we’ve made around advance care directives, and by delivering the very best palliative care that we can.”

Mr Merlino’s view sits in contrast to the Premier as well as many other cabinet colleagues, who are in favour of reform.

However, he is not alone in his opposition, with factional Labor ally Daniel Mulino, Victorian Lib­eral leader Matthew Guy, and DLP crossbencher Rachel Carling-Jenkins among the state politi­cians who have already made it clear they will not back physician-assisted death when the issue is put to a conscience vote in the second half of 2017.

Nonetheless, the prospect of legislative change edged closer to reality last week, with the appoint­ment of a ministerial advisory panel that will help guide the gov­ernment as it drafts legislation in coming months.

The Sunday Age can reveal the group will be chaired by former Australian Medical Association president Brian Owler, a trained neurosurgeon who is seen as a strong appointment because he understands the broad-ranging views held by doctors.

The panel will also include Mar­garet O’Connor, professor of nurs­ing at Swinburne University, and Roger Hunt, a palliative care phys­ician.

The appointment of the advisory panel is an important next step in what will inevitably be a challen­ging debate, particularly for many MPs whose personal experiences shape their views.

Professor Owler said: “There are times when, despite the best efforts of doctors, nurses and other health professionals, people do suffer. I think it’s important that we do get legislation that is both safe but also compassionate, and allows people in particular circum­stances to access assisted dying.”


Safe Schools set for revamp as state cuts ties with founder

Farrah Tomazin

The Andrews government will overhaul the Safe Schools program and cut ties with its founder Roz Ward amid a public backlash that was set to intensify ahead of the Victorian election.

In a bid to protect the anti-bullying initiative, the Education De­partment will be in charge of deliver­ing Safe Schools from next year, en­suring the government is solely re­sponsible for rolling it out to every state secondary school by 2018.

The move is a significant shift for a program that was co-founded by Ms Ward almost seven years ago and has been delivered through her employer, La Trobe University, ever since.

But in recent months, Safe Schools has come under sustained attack by critics who claim it pro­motes “radical gender theory” or be­lieve Ms Ward’s history as a hard-line Marxist is too extreme.

“I think the campaign against Safe Schools has been quite dis­graceful from people who should know better and do know better, but are using it as a political tool,” said Victoria Education Minister James Merlino, who wrote to La Trobe on Friday [16 December] to inform the university its contract would be terminated six months early.

“But Safe Schools has always been about more than just one per­son; it’s about stopping the bullying and harassment of young people who are same-sex attracted and gender diverse. We know it works, and we know it saves lives.”

The Safe Schools Coalition began as a trial under the Brumby govern­ment in 2010, after teachers asked for a specific set of resources to help them support students who were “coming out” as same-sex attracted or gender diverse. Since then, about 60 per cent of schools in Victoria have signed up, but the government is keen to scale up the program with minimal controversy over the next two years in order to fulfil its elec­tion commitment.

Under the new structure, teach­ers will continue to have access to the same lesson plans to support LGBTI students, but the depart­ment will have the scope to review and enhance the material if required in future. “This is about making it better and stronger,” Mr Merlino said.

Despite receiving bipartisan sup­port, Safe Schools ran into contro­versy earlier this year when Mal­colm Turnbull initiated a review at the behest of conservative forces within his ranks.

Ms Ward, an active member of the Socialist Alternative, has also repeatedly come under the spotlight over her politics and private antics.

In June, for instance, the university educator almost lost her job at La Trobe after describing the Aus­tralian flag as racist on Facebook. And last month, she made headlines once again by being photographed trying to remove the cap from a Don­ald Trump supporter during an anti-Trump rally in Melbourne, while holding copies of the Marxist news­paper, Red Flag.

But on Friday, after hearing the news during an end-of-year lunch with her team, she said she was “shattered” by the government’s de­cision, insisting that bringing the program “in house” would do little to end the attacks by critics such as the Australian Christian Lobby or the Murdoch press.

“I don’t think backing down helps, it’s like giving a drop of blood to a bunch of sharks,” she said. “Four people are losing their full-time jobs. They have been told they are getting sacked a week before Christmas. We’ve spent the last six years build­ing relationships with schools in Vic­toria. We’ve worked with 280 schools with families that rely on and value the trust we had with them, and we don’t think that can be replicated.”

Equality Minister Martin Foley said making the Education Depart­ment responsible for Safe Schools would strengthen the program in the long term, ensuring more same sex-attracted and gender diverse students could get access to support,

An LGBTI reference group, co-chaired by Gender and Sexuality Commissioner Rowena Allen and education parliamentary secretary Judith Grayley, will also be expanded to include principals, students, par­ents and anti-bullying experts. The reference group would, in turn, sup­port the Education Department to deliver the program.


A tough but necessary call

Farrah Tomazin

The government’s decision to re­vamp Safe Schools and cut ties with its controversial co-founder Roz Ward is a tough but necessary move to preserve the integrity of program that is invaluable for so many young people.

Part of it, of course, is about polit­ics. Fairly or unfairly, Ward has be­come a flashpoint for critics who claim that Safe Schools is less about tackling homophobia and more about promoting Daniel Andrews’s “rainbow agenda”, or radical theories about gender and sexuality.

But part of it is fuelled by genuine concerns, within the government and across the LGBTI community more broadly, that a program that could save lives could be continu­ously undermined by sustained at­tacks from the Australian Christian Lobby, the state opposition, and sec­tions of the Murdoch press.

It’s also worth noting that, seven years after it began in Victoria, Safe Schools remains the only mandat­ory classroom program delivered by an external provider: in this case, Ward’s employer, La Trobe Uni­versity.

To that end, it makes sense to give the Education Department sole re­sponsibility for rolling it out, rather than a small team of academics, particularly if the government is serious about expanding the program to every state secondary school over the next two years.

Will this change what the program looks like in classrooms? Not ini­tially. Under the new structure, teachers will still have access to the same lesson plans for the same-sex attracted or gender diverse stu­dents, and pupils will still have ac­cess to the same kind of support.

But the program will be continu­ously reviewed and improved through the Education Department with the support of an LGBTI refer­ence group co-chaired by Gender and Sexuality Commissioner Rowena Allen, as well as principals, students, parents and anti-bullying experts.

This can only be a good thing, giv­ing the community more ownership over the program’s direction, while ensuring the government is publicly accountable for it.

It’s unfortunate that it had to come this: after all, Ward and her team have effectively lost their jobs a week before Christmas, although it’s fair to say her tendency to court controversy (just as she did again last month when she was photo­graphed at an anti-Trump rally try­ing to remove the cap off a Donald Trump supporter) didn’t exactly help her cause.

But as Education Minister James Merlino put it on Friday [16 December]: “Safe Schools has always been about more than just one person; it’s about stopping the bullying and harass­ment of young people who are same-sex attracted and gender di­verse. We know that it works, and we know that it saves lives.”


Anti-gay leaflets handed out as “presents”

Henrietta Cook

The children assumed they were receiving an early Christmas present when their school bus driver handed them golden envelopes.

With a cheery message on the front, “To the wonderful people who care for me. Merry Christmas”, Kyabram P–12 College students gave the envelopes to their parents on Wednesday night [14 December].

But many parents were shocked to discover that they contained anti-gay marriage leaflets from the Mar­riage Alliance. The leaflets also criticised the Safe Schools Coalition.

The school’s principal, Stuart Bott, wrote to parents yesterday to say the information was “not repre­sentative of the school’s position”.

He told Fairfax Media that he was unhappy about what had occurred and concerned parents had contac­ted the school.

“We are an inclusive school, and are working with families to say that won’t happen again,” he said.

Mr Bott said a “member of the community” handed the leaflets to school bus drivers and asked they be distributed to students. Some refused to pass them on. He would not say how many school bus drivers distributed the leaflets, but Fairfax Media understands that it could be up to ten.

The school has refused to sign up to the controversial Safe Schools program, despite the Andrews gov­ernment making it compulsory for all high schools to sign up to the program by 2018.

The college’s council said earlier this year that its school already pro­moted acceptance regardless of a person’s sexual orientation, race, religion, or age and “do not believe they need to align themselves to the Safe Schools Coalition to do this”.

It is not known whether this is why students at the school were targeted.

LGBTI advocate Damien Stevens, who lives and works in Shepparton, said the tactics were designed to scare people.

“To do that around Christmas and to disguise the information in the form of a present is foul,” he said. “The parents have opened it up in front of the child, the child says, ‘What is this’, and then they have a conversation about it.”

He said that the Marriage Alliance had also distributed the leaflets in the local newspaper and it was a sign that they felt threatened by changing attitudes in the region.

Murray Nationals MP Damien Drum supports gay marriage, and the area has received funding to sup­port LGBTI youth.

A Marriage Alliance spokesman said a volunteer had handed out the flyers, and it was not part of an offi­cial campaign. “This was not an ac­tion that was part of a campaign from Marriage Alliance and is not condoned or endorsed by Marriage Alliance,” he said.


Dutton’s Christmas crusade

Michael Koziol

Immigration Minister Peter Dutton has called for Australians to “rise up” to defend Christmas against “political correctness gone mad”.

Annoyed by a talk back radio caller’s description of secular carols at a grandchild’s school, Mr Dutton said it made his “blood boil”. “It is political correctness gone mad and I think people have just had enough of it,” he told Ray Hadley on 2GB.

Jim, a constituent of Mr Dutton’s Dickson electorate in Queensland, told Mr Dutton there was “not one Christmas carol” and the final song replaced the lyrics of “We Wish You A Merry Christmas” with “we wish you a happy holiday”.

Mr Dutton linked the issue to the “Teachers for Refugees” campaign in which many teachers in New South Wales and Vic­toria wore tee-shirts protesting about Australia’s off-shore de­tention camps for asylum seekers.

“If they want to conduct these sort of cam­paigns, do it on line or do it in your spare time. Don’t bring these sort of views into the minds of young kids.” Mr Dutton said.


Turnbull MP backs Victorian pro-life candidate

Richard Willingham - State Political Correspondent

Controversial Liberal preselection candidate Stephanie Ross has won the backing of a Turnbull govern­ment MP who has declared the 25-year-old a ministerial prospect.

Deakin MP Michael Sukkar’s de­cision to write a reference tor Ms Ross’s challenge on state MP Gary Blackwood’s seat is at odds with Opposition Leader Matthew Guy who is backing the incumbent.

Ms Ross grabbed headlines last weekend when it was revealed she opposed abortion even in cases of rape. She has also inflamed some tensions in the party by running against a sitting MP.

In the past week Ms Ross has been inundated with abusive and threatening phone calls, e-mails and social media posts threatening assault and rape over her nomina­tion; police have been contacted.

Sources believe some of the threats are coming from Liberals.

“This is part of a cancerous cell in the party,” one source said.

In a written reference, Mr Sukkar says that Ms Ross is “an intelli­gent, principled woman who has strongly articulated Liberal and conservative values in the public domain”.

“Having the courage to publicly stand for these values has proven to me that Stephanie has the mettle to fight for the Narracan electorate and serve in a ministeri­al capacity in the future,” Mr Sukkar’s reference says.

Narracan, which stretches from Pakenham to Moe, is held by the Liberals by 11.3 per cent.

Ms Ross is the partner of new numbers man Marcus Bastiaan who has become a divisive figure due to allegations he is a branch stacker.

Ms Bastiaan denies being a stacker.

He also has the backing of presi­dent Michael Kroger in his cam­paign to recruit new members to the Liberal party.


Hot on the trail of a holy-roller mystery

Tom Cowie

It’s the case of Christ on a bike.

For the past few years, mysteri­ous bicycles have been appearing in Melbourne’s CBD carrying signs preaching that “Jesus died for our sins” and urging people to “turn or burn”.

The Jesus bikes can sit for up to a week shackled on bike racks with heavy-duty reinforced clamps before disappearing again, only to be resurrected elsewhere.

Despite vandalism and abuse, the bikes continue to appear.

While the City of Melbourne sometimes removes bikes parked for “illegitimate purposes”, the council is essentially powerless to fine the owners because tracking them down can be difficult.

Linking most of these holy rol­lers is a mobile phone number painted in the bottom corner, urging people to call for “Christian guidance”.

When Fairfax Media rang the number after a bike appeared in Collins Street this week, a man who wanted to be known as only “Barry” picked up.

Barry declined to provide his second name or the suburb where he lives. Although he did say he was 64 and goes to church in Box Hill.

The bikes, Barry said, were about promoting the gospel and “encour­aging people to get saved”. He repurposes old BMXs and moun­tain bikes that are donated or re­trieved from hard rubbish.

Barry said he converted to Chris­tianity at 19 and eventually turned to street preaching. About four years ago, he started making the bikes.

But not everyone is happy with his methods. The bikes are often vandalised, while a Twitter account was set up devoted to tracking them. “People attack the bikes all the time,” he said.

Barry also gets abusive phone calls, mostly from non-believers and people angry that he is taking up valuable parking real estate.

“There are a lot of crackpots around. Some ring up and swear away, we get all sorts of weirdos.

Particularly on Friday or Saturday nights.”

Producing each bike with an off-sider can take up to eight hours, Barry said, which includes a decent chunk of time painting the sermon on the side.

The shackles, which look like a Dickensian torture device, are made out of steel and reinforced with concrete. In Barry’s words, the clamps are “pretty tough”.

The bikes are typically deployed either late at night or early in the morning. Hoops towards the end of bike racks are the best locations, because they maximise exposure.

If someone rings up seeking genuine spiritual guidance, Barry says he is happy to chat about the Bible or refer them to a church.

He doesn’t mind that people get angry at his methods: “At least peo­ple are seeing them,” he said.


Islamic centre firebombed, tagged with IS graffiti

An Islamic community centre in Melbourne’s north has been firebombed after the words “Islamic State” were scrawled on the build­ing, which had already been the sub­ject of several recent arson attacks.

The Imam Ali Islamic Centre in Fawkner was gutted by the massive blaze on Sunday [11 December] morning, which is being investigated by Victoria Po­lice’s arson and explosives squad and the Melbourne Fire Brigade.

Photographs reveal the words “Is­lamic State” in English and Arabic on the building, but it remains unclear what motivated the arson attack, which is believed to be the third incident in the past six months.

A member of the local Shiite com­munity who attends the Lawson Street prayer centre said the fire would have a devastating impact.

He refused to speculate on who might have been responsible.

“Everything is on the table and I don’t think anyone really knows.”

Mosques and Islamic community centres have been targets of re­peated attacks by far-right groups across Australia, while detectives are also expected to examine sectari­an tensions between Shiite and Sunni Muslims in Melbourne.

In January, members of the Imam Ali Islamic Centre were denied ac­cess to the prayer hall following a dispute with [the] local council. It is un­derstood the dispute stemmed from a notice issued by Moreland Council about fire safety concerns.

Another community member said the graffiti was a ruse to distract investigators.

“I can tell you it has absolutely nothing to do with Islamic State, and I hope the media and everyone else don’t allow themselves to be manipu­lated. We have a very good idea who’s behind this,” the man said.

Abortion never the answer, says Libs candidate

Farrah Tomazin & Josh Gordon

A sitting Victorian Liberal MP is be­ing challenged for preselection by a pro-life campaigner who believes women should never have abortions, even in cases of rape.

Stephanie Ross, the partner of “Young Turk” and party numbers man Marcus Bastiaan, is preparing to challenge 65-year-old incumbent Gary Blackwood for his Gippsland seat of Narracan.

The looming preselection stoush has heightened concerns about a push to drag the Liberals further to the right, which many fear could hinder their chances of defeating Labor at the 2018 Victorian election.

Ms Ross, 25, is aligned with the Menzies branch of the party, which is controlled by conservative warrior and former defence minister Kevin Andrews.

While some argue the preselection of Ms Ross would give the Liberals some much-needed youth, and help narrow the party’s gender gap, others say her views on abortion are too “extreme”.

In a January 2015 interview with on-line magazine Vice, Ms Ross, a Catholic, argued women can “heal from rape”, and “there is no situation in which a child should be killed”.

Asked if a rape victim should have her baby, she told the publication: “Well she’ll never forget the abor­tion, which means she will never for­get the rape. Whereas, so many wo­men who are raped, they find love through their child, and they can grow or they can adopt and know they’ve given it a life. And they can heal from the rape, in a way,” she said in the article, “At Home With Three Young Anti-Abortion Protesters”.

“I still think that, because it is a human being, for me personally there is no situation in which a child should be killed.”

Ms Ross declined to comment, with party rules banning preselec­tion candidates from speaking pub­licly in the media. However, in a Face-book post confirming her nomina­tion on Friday [9 December], she argued that, in the face of the Hazelwood closure, the Narracan community “needs fear­less advocacy and the Liberal Party needs new faces and a fresh approach” to win the election.

In an opinion piece penned for Fairfax Media in November, Ms Ross, a self-described anti-family viol­ence advocate and founder of aged care service Kookaburra Care, also argued the focus of modern pro-life advocates should not be about cri­minalising abortion or shaming women, but “lowering the rate of abor­tion by addressing causational issues and promoting alternatives”.

Nonetheless, her preselection nomination is seen by some as part of a broader push by a group of Lib­erals aligned with party president Michael Kroger to redefine the power lines in the Victorian branch.

It comes a week after conservative Turnbull government MPs, including Mr Andrews, had been accused of recruiting members of hard-line micro-parties such as Family First and the Australian Christians, a move some insiders called “horrifying”.

Mr Kroger and state Liberal dir­ector Simon Frost declined to com­ment about Ms Ross’s pro-life inter­view, while Opposition leader Mat­thew Guy said: “I disagree with that view”.


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