The VICE Guide to the Postal Plebiscite

Why Is the "No" Campaign So Obsessed With Safe Schools?

"I’m 16, I go to a high school in Perth... and my school runs the Safe Schools Program."

by Oscar Kaspi-Crutchett
05 September 2017, 5:25am

Shutterstock/Ben Thomson

As Australia's fight for marriage equality ramps up, the "No" camp isn't talking very much about marriage itself at all. In its first major TV ad of the campaign, the Coalition for Marriage featured concerned mothers talking about boys wearing dresses to school and "this type of program becom[ing] widespread and compulsory" in countries that legalise same-sex marriage.

To be clear, there's just one program that's causing all this concern: Safe Schools. It's become an obsession for Australia's conservative commentators and activists. With the postal vote looming, figures like Andrew Bolt and Cory Bernardi's entire argument has devolved to pointing at Safe Schools, and stubbornly refusing to talk about the real issues.

What is this obsession with Safe Schools? Where did it come from? And most importantly, do it's accusations have any grounding in reality?

The Safe Schools Coalition (SSC) was founded in 2010. Originally, it was made up of just 11 schools committed to the program's objectives, which primarily revolve around creating inclusive and safe spaces for LGBTI students. Funnily enough, that first 11 included a Catholic school as well a Methodist one. Clearly, the Australian Christian Lobby's fears the program is radical and anti-Christian at its core are well-founded.

Between 2010 and 2016 the SSC ballooned from 11 schools to 545 all around the country. And for a while Safe Schools had support from a majority of state governments, psychologists, gay-support groups, and even religious organisations such as the Salvation Army.

Then things started to go wrong.

The conservative wing of the Liberal Party put a petition to the government ordering the program be closed, a move spearheaded by George Christensen and Tony Abbott. A review was launched, a fiery fear-mongering campaign exploded onto the scene, and the psychologists and the support groups were dismissed. Finally, in early 2016, Safe Schools was defunded and dumped by the federal government. By November of that year even the Salvos had withdrawn its support.

But why did conservatives, seemingly out of nowhere, throw this program into the spotlight? As with anything in politics, there's never only one reason. Did conservatives want to undermine Turnbull by backing him into a corner and forcing him to choose between the students and party unity? Perhaps. Maybe Abbott's posse discovered the program and genuinely resented it.

When all is said and done, their reasoning doesn't matter. What matters is the fallout it had in schools, and in the lives of students like me.

I'm 16, I go to a high school in Perth, and my school runs the Safe Schools program. Frankly, I can't see what the fuss is about. In my school, the SSC consists of posters designed to encourage support and ally-ship. Teachers are given resources, students are given support, and young queers like me feel a whole lot more at home.

Back when I was in primary school, feeling more alone than I can even describe, I really could've used a program like Safe Schools.

Fast forward to mid-2017, as the marriage equality campaign is reaching fever pitch. Safe Schools is a program that's been defunded and dismantled in most states. Its membership has fallen drastically. And yet conservatives haven't let it go as their favourite scapegoat.

The Coalition for Marriage anti-marriage equality TV spot is just the tip of the iceberg. Scaremongering references to Safe Schools are peppered all over the group's Facebook and website. And it's not alone. Cory Bernardi's latest propaganda piece waves fingers at the "trojan horse" of marriage equality—destined to bring about the return of the Safe Schools Program.

The Australian Christian Lobby's website greets new visitors with a giant "What is Safe Schools?" tab, sitting just below one reading "Help Us Fight for Marriage." Its Twitter and Facebook are loaded with dramatic and bizarre accusations targeted at program. One of them stating Safe School teaches children that heterosexuality is abnormal. As a student who's been through the program, I can tell you this is not true.

Virtually any group, any Facebook page, any "community movement," any flyer in any mailbox against marriage equality, is laced with mentions of Safe Schools.

But why?

Because, to put it simply, the cobwebbed arguments about the "sanctity of marriage" and "Christian values" just don't make the cut anymore. Australians aren't churchgoers, we don't get married in cathedrals, and we don't really regard ourselves as a Christian country.

So the "No" campaign had to "pivot"—the cogs moved and the minds ticked, and they resorted to the strongest appeal of all:

"Won't somebody think of the children!"

But as much as they want to draw a line between the two, funding for a buried non-governmental organisation has nothing to do with the Marriage Act. They are fundamentally unrelated.

This isn't to say all issues regarding LGBTI rights aren't somewhat linked. Of course they are, and high support for equal marriage may indicate support for safe schools too. But we mustn't allow this debate to get bogged down by Bernardi and Abetz's red herrings.

When it comes down to it, we have enough battles to fight as it is. Returning to old ones prematurely is a recipe for disaster. I'm not advocating for us to abandon the SSC. I was an organiser at Save Safe Schools WA for more than a year—the last thing I want is to give up the fight.

But this debate is about marriage equality. The "No" camp is ushering us onto a new and murkier front, hoping to throw us off our stable ground and sink our hopes. We mustn't let them.

There is no immediate link between the two issues.

This is a fight for marriage equality, let's commit to that. Let's not fight on battlefields drawn by the enemy.

Oscar Kaspi-Crutchett is a high school student from Perth and is founder of Students For Marriage Equality.