smh.com.au | 2 May 2017
It was a school anti-bullying program that became a lightning rod for culture warriors and conservative MPs – Safe Schools was either protecting gay kids from bullies or trying to sell Marxism in the playground, depending on who was talking.
Now, as the program prepares to shut down, a coalition of singers, actors and other high-profile Australians is urging Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to reopen that tinder box by funding a new version of Safe Schools – without the ideology.
Singer Missy Higgins, comedian Joel Creasey and actor Guy Pearce are among those who have joined a campaign for a federally funded school program to tackle anti-gay bullying and prevent domestic violence.
But in a concession the Safe Schools program went too far in antagonising conservatives, the group has shunned gender theory, equality or even "acceptance" in favour of a much more benign demand: tolerance.
"Make no mistake of our request: we do not seek a program that seeks approval of the way certain members of our society live. We seek only mutual respect and tolerance," the group's letter to Mr Turnbull says.
"We understand and accept that programs implemented in recent history, such as Safe Schools, have become highly politicised and controversial. We wish not for controversy but for a program with a goal that everyone can agree on: an end to bullying and domestic violence in Australia."
In a jarring reflection of lowered expectations, one of the signatories, 21-year-old singing sensation Troye Sivan, said it was vital students were "taught to respect and tolerate those who are like me".
Fairfax Media understands references to "acceptance" were controversially ditched from the letter so as not to alienate schools that may see accepting LGBTI people as inconsistent with their religious doctrine.
The campaign will argue homophobic bullying at school is often a precursor to domestic violence later in life, citing US programs such as Second Step that attempt to combat both problems simultaneously.
Any Australian version should put respect and tolerance for LGBTI people at its core, the advocates say, rather than being "just another anti-bullying program".
In a marked distinction from Safe Schools, the group says a new program should be advised by a board of experts handpicked by Education Minister Simon Birmingham, and consult paediatricians, education specialists and criminologists rather than sociologists.
"What Australia doesn't need is a program that is tied up in politics and controversy," the letter says. "If we don't act now, future suicides, self-harm, murders, and domestic violence will continue unabated."
Federal funding for Safe Schools ends in June and the Turnbull government will not renew it, arguing it is now a matter for the states. Even supportive MPs in the Liberal Party's moderate wing say the program overreached under the direction of its Marxist co-founder Roz Ward.
Victoria has opted to continue Safe Schools under government administration, while last month NSW announced it will be dumped and replaced with a broad-brush anti-bullying strategy.
Despite his government launching Safe Schools nationally in 2014, former prime minister Tony Abbott celebrated the demise of the "terrible program", decrying it "social engineering".
Marilyn Campbell, education professor at Queensland University of Technology, said it defied belief Australia lacked a national bullying prevention and intervention program.
She backed a less ideological approach to addressing bullying, arguing Safe Schools went too far on some points.
"It would have been a whole lot better if they had just stuck to what they were supposed to," she said.