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Safe Schools Program

Mr DAMIEN TUDEHOPE ( Epping ) ( 16:31 ): We are here today, in the very best tradition of grassroots democracy, to debate a vital issue that strikes at the very heart of our community—that parents, not the State, are the ultimate authority for their children. Such is the level of community concern that, in just four weeks, more than 17,000 members of the Chinese Australian community have signed a petition calling for the Safe Schools program to be abolished. I am proud to say that I represent the interests of thousands of signatories, and the majority of parents and mainstream Australians who share their views. No child in any school at any time should be bullied for any reason whatsoever. No-one wants their child to be a victim of bullying or to engage in bullying. Despite what the bullies behind Safe Schools would have us believe, the reality is that there would not be one person in this place today, on either side of politics, who would disagree with that sentiment.

But the debate today is not about bullying; it is about the content of the Safe Schools program and the manner in which it is being imposed. The fundamental issue is that the so-called Safe Schools program is not an anti-bullying program at all. Safe Schools is a Trojan horse for far Left extremists that is shamelessly exploiting the issue of bullying—a very real issue faced by many children. It imposes the pseudo-science of gender fluidity on vulnerable minors, a theory so extreme that it inhabits only the fringes of academia. At its best, this program is a profoundly misguided attempt to socially engineer a generation of vulnerable young children, force-feeding them a world view where gender does not exist. At its worst, it is nothing more than a recruitment drive for the radical Left, preying on impressionable children in a calculated attempt to undermine the very notion of parental authority.

The authors of this program openly boast about their radical Marxist roots and have on numerous occasions publicly stated that Safe Schools has nothing to do with bullying. I am indebted to Professor Patrick Parkinson for his scholarly analysis of the genesis and delivery of Safe Schools. His research reinforces the view held by parents that they ought to be very fearful of the pseudo-science philosophy and radical gender theory behind the program. He correctly identifies the dishonesty behind the research that underpins the necessity to deliver this ideology.

Professor Parkinson correctly identifies the reputational damage being done to La Trobe University by its continuing support for the intellectual bankruptcy that masquerades as academic research, and which is nothing more than the promotion of a Marxist agenda that has at its core the idea that the State is the best educator of the child and that parents and families must be marginalised. Apart from its content, the second fundamental problem with this program is the manner in which it is being imposed. The Education Act 1990, in section 4 (b), provides that "the education of a child is primarily the responsibility of the child's parents". Throughout the history of education in this State, that principle has been at the foundation of the culture of schools.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER: Order! The member for Blacktown will come to order.

Mr DAMIEN TUDEHOPE: Safe Schools is a vehicle by which the rights of parents are usurped to introduce children to concepts that are often age inappropriate and anathema to the preparation in life that their parents seek for them. This not only ignores the rights of parents but is also fundamentally disrespectful to Australia's multicultural and religious diversity. This is the new social order. The message we are sending today is that parents will not be bullied in this manner. They will speak out, because the State is seeking to hijack our children. It is clear that the supporters of Safe Schools are seriously out of touch with mainstream Australians.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER: Order! This is a petition representing the community. I ask that members show each other respect during the debate. I ask that there be no interjections from the gallery. Each speaker will be heard in silence. All members who have been interjecting are on three calls to order. If there are any more interjections, members will be ejected from the House.

Mr JIHAD DIB ( Lakemba ) ( 16:37 ): I speak in this discussion as someone who has spent his entire career, prior to entering politics, working in schools—especially in secondary schools, where the issues we are discussing are particularly relevant. I would like to think that my particular philosophy and approach—of recognising cultural and religious differences, working with families and really working to put the needs of kids at the centre of what we do—give me a helpful perspective in this debate. This is obviously an issue about which there are very strong views, from a variety of angles. We need only look at today's media and at the gallery to see that. All points of view deserve to be heard, but as a State we need to agree on a pragmatic way forward because we are talking about the wellbeing of young people, some of whom are at the most complex stage of their lives.

Complexity is where I want to start. Schools are complex organisations. Imagine working in an environment where there are more than 1,000 adolescents. Add to that teaching staff, support staff, at least 1,000 parents, and the Parents and Citizens Association. Additional layers include the departments of education, State and Federal, and all sorts of politicians, academics and media commentators.

A ll schools have incredible diversity— socio e conomic, religious affiliation, or none , and cultures. It i s an important job of principals, guiding their teachers, with the direction provided by policy and curricula , to manage the complexity; to balance the needs of all of these groups a nd always keeping front of mind what is best for the students. Most do a pretty good job and manage many situations concerning student wellbeing w hethe r it is about bullying in general, discrimination, racism or any other thing that might exclude or hurt students. Schools deal with this every single day. Let us not forget that the original purpose of Safe Schools, the reason why the Federal Government funded it as national program, was to ensure that schools became safer and more supportive by reducing homophobic bullying and discrimination just as schools reduce and address bullying and discrimination of any sort.

In this discussion that is heavily contested. On the one hand we need to distinguish between helpful content that addresses bullying of LGBTI kids and on the other hand what is perceived to be radical queer theory that is ideological in content and not appropriate for a school-based anti-bullying program. We want all schools to be inclusive places where all kids can focus on their learning and grow as well-rounded individuals. And that goal is in the knowledge that for some kids, from some families, school is the safest and most stable place in their life—for all sorts of reasons. And when I talk about safety I am not just talking about physical safety: I am talking about emotional and psychological wellbeing. We all want schools to be places where all kids thrive.

Last year a remarkable young woman, Georgia Valis, a former student of Burwood Gils High School, and a proud Christian, now studying at the University of Sydney, wrote a touching opinion piece in the Sydney Morning Herald.She talked about the process of coming out as a young gay woman; of coming out into a school environment. Pleasingly, that school environment, when put to the test, proved to be truly inclusive and affirming. I quote her as she described very well what, in her opinion, is at stake:

Being a gay person and attending school is not a philosophical issue—but forcing gay students to a life of invisibility and lies is .... We forget that discrimination of LGBTI students, denying them role models and visibility, is the first push towards poor health and death; from suicide, drugs or alcohol, or social death as they pull away from the mainstream altogether.

Similarly Murray Gatt, a student completing year 12 in New South Wales this year remarked when writing about his experience as a young gay man, in an open letter, said that throughout his schooling he had been taught about the importance of inclusion, of not bullying anyone for any reason. Those words of wisdom apply to all parts of society: All discrimination is unacceptable. My view is that to ban schools from accessing approved resources now residing on the Safe Schools hub is to deny teachers and principals the very help they may well need as they assess what their school communities and individual kids need.

The Safe Schools program was reviewed earlier this year and several changes were made. I support the conduct of a review by a respected education academic and imagine there may be further opportunities for a deeper review as time goes on. In education this is standard practice. Schools are complex places and growing up is and always has been a complex process of coming to terms with life being more grey than simply black and white. We train our teachers to be respectful and supportive professionals, able to deal not only with the academic needs of their students but also their wellbeing. But I do not think that completely banning such access will be helpful to anyone—certainly not students and certainly not teachers and principals doing their best to create a supportive and inclusive environment for all students, especially those most at risk of the harmful effects of discrimination and bullying. Banning something completely might offer a simple response, but working through the issues is the better response.

Mr MATT KEAN ( Hornsby ) ( 16:43 ): Adolescence is a challenging time. Trying to find your place in the world and who you are is something that is never easy. For those adolescents who identify as LGBTI that challenge is far harder. All the research shows that LGBTI people are at a far greater risk of self-harm and suicide than their peers. So it is absolutely appropriate that we expect our schools to cultivate an atmosphere of tolerance, respect and care for those people who may be different. However, the so called Safe Schools Program goes much further than that. It is a pervasive and radical ideological agenda devised by a group of Melbourne teachers without input from psychiatrists or paediatricians.

The Safe Schools material covers some extremely sensitive topics around gender, sexuality and identity, which is why the material must be used judiciously. I am alarmed that despite more than 100 schools in New South Wales having signed up on the Safe Schools website to access the materials, there are still no guidelines for teachers or principals about how those materials should be used. Currently teachers and principals determine how the material is used at the local level. As a result there will be a diversity of opinion on what is and is not appropriate. It is true that the Federal Government has provided guidelines and I know that the New South Wales Department of Education has contacted every school to ensure that they are operating in line with the Federal guidelines, but I would have thought that given that education is provided by the New South Wales Government, we too should be setting parameters about how this material is to be used.

The onus rightly should be on the New South Wales Department of Education to ensure that schools using the material act responsibly. Putting this aside, it is my firm view that parents or carers should be empowered to determine whether their own children are exposed to material such as this. That is why I support the idea of asking parents to "opt in" to the program rather than the current situation where all students take part unless their parents choose to "opt out". Given the sensitivity of the Safe Schools debate it makes sense that parents should be more engaged. There should be no place for discrimination or bullying anywhere. let alone in our school system. That said, it is entirely appropriate to ensure that parents are part of the decision-making process when it comes to exposing their own children to such sensitive material. That is not the role of the State.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER: Order! Members are discussing a petition from the community. I asked for silence, which is expected by Opposition members. But whenever Government members speak there are interjections. I ask that members respect one another and listen to the contributions in silence.

Ms JO HAYLEN ( Su mmer Hill ) ( 16:46 ): Every student has the right to feel safe at school, irrespective of their race, religious beliefs, gender identity or sexuality. As the shadow Minister for Education, the member for Lakemba, has noted other than their family homes, school is the place where our young people should feel safest. For many LGBTI students, school is not a safe place. A recent La Trobe University study showed 61 per cent of teenagers reported experiencing verbal abuse because of homophobia, 18 per cent reported physical abuse and 80 per cent of that abuse was experienced at school.

The organisation beyondblue notes that LGBTI Australians are significantly more likely to have suicidal thoughts, attempt suicide or indeed, take their own life. We have a moral imperative to consider why. We have to contemplate how our culture puts young LGBTIQ people at risk. We must acknowledge the impacts of these types of debates on the wellbeing of those young people. I understand and respect that many parents who may have signed this petition only have their kids' wellbeing at heart. But I say this to you with respect and with humility: It may not be your kids who are at risk. There is no danger in your kids learning to accept other's differences.

Safe Schools is about stopping the bullying and intimidation of our LGBTI people. It gives LGBTI students a framework to better understand their place in the world. It encourages young people to have self‑confidence and self-respect. The debate around the Safe Schools program has unfortunately become supercharged and politicised. There has been misinformation and inaccuracy. The program does not encourage people to be same-sex attracted—it simply supports those who are. The program does not encourage people to change gender. And it absolutely does not teach young people sexual techniques. To assert this is nothing more than a beat-up to scare parents and teachers into banning the program. It is also wrong to say that parents have no say in what their kids are taught. Parents may refuse permission for their children to participate.

Even though opponents of the program have the choice for their kids not to participate, they would prefer if no-one else's kids benefitted from it either. This exposes the underlying reality of this debate: There are some who would prefer young LGBTI people to stay silent and invisible. We have already learned the hard way that silence equals death. I say to the member for Epping, who has led this debate and contributed to misinformation and politicisation of the Safe Schools program, that there is no such thing as a gay agenda. There is only equality. There is no such thing as political correctness. It is about respect for difference.

Dr GEOFF LEE ( Parramatta ) ( 16:49 ): By leave: I support the petition tabled by the member for Epping calling for an end to the Safe Schools program. In our democracy individuals have the right to express their views on controversial topics such as this one without fear or favour in a sensible and respectable debate. I support the principle that parents are primarily responsible for their children's education. I will always stand up for the rights of parents in my electorate of Parramatta to decide what their children are taught when comes to sensitive topics and issues such as those addressed in the Safe Schools program.

The Safe Schools program is federally funded and therefore is an issue primarily for the Federal Government. It is important that we note that distinction. In February 2016 we welcomed the Federal Government independent review of the appropriateness and efficacy of the resources generated by the Safe Schools Coalition Australia. Shortcomings in the program were , such as age appropriateness of the program resources and the need for participating schools to consult with parents before implementing the program. I commend the Federal Government for taking steps to amend the program.

We all agree it is important to stand up to bullying and discrimination wherever it occurs and to do everything we can to stop bullying in our schools, homes, workplaces and communities. But when it comes to the Safe Schools program my office has received many visits, calls, letters and emails from constituents, local groups and other organisations asking for an end to the program. Many of the topics taught in the program are squarely within the domain of issues that belong to parents to educate their children about. Where appropriate, one-on-one counselling should be made available to students who are experiencing difficulties in their formative school years. This is available in schools and should continue to be made available to individual students who need support.

There have been reports that some schools have taught this supposed opt-in program without first asking parents if they wanted to have their children taught the content of the program. The program needs to come to an end if it cannot operate as a truly opt-in program. Members of the community who have contacted me feel that their rights as parents are being subverted by this program. Despite the rigorous amendments put in place by the Federal Government review, there are reports that some schools and teachers are not following the rules of the program. If the strict rules of the program set down by the Federal Government following an independent review cannot be followed I believe we have no choice but to end the program.

Ms TRISH DOYLE ( Blue Mountains ) ( 16:52 ): By leave: I stand here today for tolerance and acceptance and pride. I stand here today on behalf of young people like Murray in year 12 in my electorate and the many other lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and questioning [LGBTIQ] students and teachers, their families and friends. I say from the outset that I support the Safe Schools anti-bullying program and I am absolutely unwavering in my support in this place for the LGBTIQ community. I support the campaign for marriage equality. I am alarmed by heightened rates of homelessness for LGBTIQ people. I add my voice to calls for renewed focus on LGBTIQ health issues. I was also very proud to stand at this dispatch box and apologise to the gay and lesbian people who were attacked and arrested by police at the 1978 Mardi Gras.

According to beyondblue, between 24 and 36 per cent of the LGBTIQ community experience significant mental health issues, while the rate among their heterosexual peers is just 7 per cent. Lesbians, gay men and people who are bisexual are also twice as likely to have a high or very high level of psychological distress. The contrast between the mental health of LGBTIQ people and heterosexual people is greatest amongst young people. The average age of a first suicide attempt for a gay, lesbian or bisexual person is 16 years. This is why the Safe Schools program is so important.

Young people in the queer community are dying because of social pressures they experience and the mental health problems that those pressures produce. It is absolutely critical that this Parliament sets aside the bigotry, ignorance and hateful motives of conservative politicians like Cory Bernardi, George Christensen and their allies in this place. We need to engage with this issue on the facts. At a recent forum in the Blue Mountains the Safe Schools Coalition invited parents and teachers to discuss the anti-bullying program and to address some of the community concern that has been whipped up by malign elements of the Liberal Party and The Nationals. One parent who attended said:

I am glad that I went because I got the chance to find out what the program is all about. I had been concerned because of the negative publicity but then I learned that much of what is being said in the media is ill-informed and sensationalised.

As parents, we all want our kids to grow up with the necessary skills to keep them safe in the world. We want them to learn about road safety, stranger danger, the effects of drugs and alcohol, and eating and living well. In this age there are new threats like cyberbullying and our young people need new skills. Mr Deputy-Speaker, I seek an extension of time.

Extension of time not granted.

The Safe Schools program must be allowed to continue.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER: I appreciate that there are strongly held views on both sides of the discussion, but I ask that each member be heard in silence. That includes interjections from the gallery. I ask that everyone be afforded the opportunity to express their sentiments.

Mr BRUCE NOTLEY-SMITH ( Coogee ) ( 16:56 ): By leave: First, I relay the apologies of Minister Piccoli, who asked me to apologise on his behalf, for not being here this evening. He is on a plane to Adelaide to discuss Gonski funding with other education ministers as we speak. Otherwise he would be addressing this Chamber about some of the misconceptions about the Safe Schools program. As an openly gay man in this House I have some experience of going to a public school back in the 1970s and early 1980s, and living in fear for my life, for my reputation and for acceptance within my family if it was ever found out that I was gay. Students and schools now have the option to access this program and learn how to best address the situations that I found myself in all those years ago.

I believe that if you are going to present a petition to this House it should at least be factual. This one is not. Frankly, if this petition was placed in front of me I would find it difficult not to sign it as well because of some of the assertions that it makes, which are clearly untrue. Safe Schools is not mandatory in any public school in New South Wales. It is not imposed on any school. Parents are able to opt out and decline their child's participation in any lesson if that includes Safe Schools resources. Fewer than 1 per cent of public schools in New South Wales are signed up to the program. None of the public schools in my electorate has signed up to it, but Catholic and independent schools have.

Members of this House who have received these petitions and who are expressing such great concern about what is in the resources available on the Safe Schools website should go to the website and have a look. They should spend hours trawling through it. I have challenged anyone who has rung my office with problems with this program to do just that. After they have done that, people should then come back and tell us what they have a problem with. What is on the Safe Schools website and what is authorised to be accessed by public schools in New South Wales is entirely appropriate. It has been reviewed by the Federal Government. It has been reviewed by the Department of Education in New South Wales. That is why I support Safe Schools.

Mr ALEX GREENWICH ( Sydney ) ( 16:59 ): By leave: I join the member for Coogee as the other openly gay member of this Chamber. I begin by making two important points. First, I assure the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex [LGBTI] students who are concerned that this petition is being discussed in this place that there is strong support for the LGBTI community across all political parties in the New South Wales Parliament—the Liberal Party, The Nationals, the Labor Party, The Greens and the Independents. We are all committed to working together to protect them. Secondly, I assure the members of the multicultural backgrounds who are in the gallery today, and who have expressed their concern by signing this petition, that just as they do not want young people in their communities to be bullied, taken advantage of or treated poorly, I do not want young people in my community to be bullied or treated poorly. Indeed, that is why the Safe Schools program should continue to be available in New South Wales schools.

Some involved in this debate have politicised the program—a program that simply aims to reduce discrimination towards young people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex or same-sex attracted. Schools play a vital role in social and personal development, and the impact of discrimination, unfair treatment, abuse or bullying on children and young people at school can have long-lasting impacts. LGBTI students are particularly vulnerable. The 2013 National LGBTI Health Alliance briefing paper reported that LGBTI people have the highest rates of suicide and self-harm of any population in Australia, which is why we are concerned to protect this program. Programs are needed to promote inclusion and acceptance, and to prevent violence, bullying and abuse.

The Safe Schools program provides teachers with materials founded on evidence-based research and developed to suit various age groups in line with the Australian curriculum. This program is voluntary and each school can select materials that best suit the needs of its students. It operates in government and non-government schools, including faith-based schools. I believe that everyone would support a program aimed at preventing violence, abuse, bullying and harm, but I am concerned that attacks on this program have been based on scare campaigns and misleading information—and we have obviously heard some of that in this debate. This is at odds with the feedback that I have heard from parents, students, teachers and clergy who are grateful for this program. I am confident that the LGBTI community, our friends, allies, advocates and representatives in this place will continue to work with this Parliament and this Government to ensure that we do not get distracted by the politics of extreme, but we work hard to ensure that resources like Safe Schools are available to vulnerable students.

Mr JAMIE PARKER ( Balmain ) ( 17:02 ): By leave: Today I speak on behalf of The Greens in support of the Safe Schools program. I begin my contribution by saying to those seated in the gallery or those who maybe watching the parliamentary livestreaming that they have nothing to fear from this program. This program was funded by the former Abbott Government, hardly the most left-wing organisation in this country. An independent review was then conducted, after calls from conservative members of Parliament, and the Government adopted its recommendations. The program was reviewed by the Department of Education and this Liberal-Nationals Government has been made it available to public schools in this State. Indeed, to call it some kind of Marxist conspiracy is exactly the type of hyperbolic, outrageous discussion we are trying to address.

Schools decide in a completely voluntary manner whether they will take the program. If parents do not wish to be part of the program, they can simply opt out. It is important to recognise that this vital program is about inclusion and support. It helps to prevent discrimination and isolation. It creates a safe space for students no matter what their sexuality is, no matter what their gender identity is, and no matter what type of family they come from. It is an evidence-based program that has been created by educators. The materials and resources have been approved by the Commonwealth Department of Education and Training. It is implemented in New South Wales by the respected organisation, Family Planning NSW, and is supported by key lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual, and/or intersex [LGBTI] groups that include the AIDS Council of New South Wales [ACON], whose co‑conveners are present in the gallery today.

Attacks on the Safe Schools program by referring to it as a Marxist fantasy and by the use of other exaggerated language are purely misleading about what the program involves. It is no wonder that people signed the petition, which petition makes claims that are completely false and would not be supported by almost every member of this House. What is important to remember are the voices of young people like Caitlin, who is 18 and is in year 12, and Sarah, who is 14 and in year 9. Caitlin said:

The attacks on Safe Schools are nothing less than appalling. As an LGBTI+ high school student I have experienced homophobia throughout my schooling. The Safe Schools program represented a way forward. It is a program that allows students to feel comfortable with themselves and provides students and staff with resources that are so important.

Sarah said:

I need safe schools so that I can feel comfortable being myself … I need safe schools so that everyone is able to learn in a shame free environment. We cannot cancel the … program because without it bigotry and hatred will continue to flourish. Safe schools is important to me and many of my friends because everyone deserves to be accepted and everyone deserves to be educated.

Present in the gallery today are groups from the Asian Australian Alliance, in particular, and from the Asian Australian Rainbow Alliance, so this petition does not speak for any particular ethnic group. What we know is that there is broad support from all sections of our community for Safe Schools. That is why The Greens will continue to celebrate diversity and pride—for the benefit of us all.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER: Order! The discussion on the petition with 10,000 signatures having concluded, the House will now proceed to deal with Private Members' Statements.

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