Not Safe Yet: Reading Benjamin Law’s Quarterly Essay

This week I opened the mailbox to find two things: my housemate’s subscription to Quarterly Essay and the Australian Marriage Law Postal Survey. Issue 67 of Quarterly Essay is entitled ‘Moral Panic 101: Equality, Acceptance and the Safe Schools Scandal’ and is written by Benjamin Law. Like Law, I thought I knew a few things about Safe Schools and the furore it led to. My inner-city high school was one of the 11 initial signatories to the Safe Schools Coalition program in Victoria. When I graduated in 2013, Safe Schools had already been around for three years. I did not know, however, in what order the program had been developed, and by and for whom exactly.

At my school – which was for the most part liberal and accepting – the program consisted of a straight-gay alliance as well as some ad hoc publicity for accepting gender and sexuality diverse students. It was, to my knowledge, largely uncontroversial. So too I thought was the general program, which was launched nationally in June 2014. That was until The Australian ran a front-page story with the headline ‘Activists push taxpayer-funded gay manual in schools’ in February 2016.

In his essay, Law astutely tracks the maliciousness of The Australian’s attack on Safe Schools – a saga that he says amounts to a ‘beat-up’. The newspaper has published over 90,000 words on Safe Schools – roughly the same size as a standard PhD thesis. In not one of these articles, Law remarks, was a single school-aged LGBTIQA person ever consulted. Law reminds us that children who don’t feel safe at school stop going to school. Even the straight-talking principal from Frankston High John Albiston, who Law interviews, remarks: “These are the young people – it makes me feel emotional – who are most at risk of suicide … They’re the young people we’re losing. Obviously our general anti-bullying programs haven’t necessarily worked” (page 18).

So, if general anti-bullying programs are not working, then surely it is our responsibility to change that. Right? This is what the creators of the Safe Schools program set out to do.

The program started from the research that teacher Jen Sainsbury undertook as part of a Winston Churchill Memorial Trust of Australia Scholarship. Based on the disproportionately high rates of bullying LGBTIQA kids faced in Australian schools, Sainsbury set out to discover what worked in other countries. In her travels to the US and UK, she found that only programs that specifically acknowledged this group within bullying had any reliable impact.

What troubled me at this point when reading Law’s essay was the distinct sensation that he is preaching to the converted. That while he uses demonstrative facts to clarify the mistruths that have been peddled about Safe Schools, he does not speak to people’s very real fear about change within our society. But then again perhaps this is not his job. Why must the minority continue to ask for inclusion by the majority? However, nuance trumps universalism, and later on Law tackles this. “The present can be complicated and the future sounds frightening. We romanticise a time when things were simpler, when boundaries were clearly defined” (page 71), he writes. We humans are always searching for order, for neat binaries and tidy piles to put things in. What we are most afraid of is that children will have agency and that they will be exposed to risks that we cannot, as adults, mitigate. Law confers that there is no doubt that both the Australian Christian Lobby and Safe Schools have the wellbeing of children in mind – it’s just that they have very different ideas about what it means to be ‘all right’.

The current ‘No’ campaign charts defending traditional marriage as a David versus Goliath struggle. The ‘No’ campaigners argue that big business is stacked on the side of marriage equality. What I see, and as David Marr outlines in his 9 August article in The Guardian, is the hard right and certain unrelenting Christian forces determined to push back against the tide of history. These groups seek to protect their construct of a world, which was built on and relies upon the oppression of minority groups. Law explicitly tallies the influence of Rupert Murdoch’s press in taking down Safe Schools: “Formerly powerful people and institutions are in decline and battling for relevance” (page 73).

Towards the end of last year, upset and exhausted, I whispered concern about the same-sex marriage plebiscite to my now ex-girlfriend. “I am worried they will say mean things,” I said. I certainly did not feel very big at all. Nor did I expect the continued unrelenting campaign against Safe Schools. This week in parliament as people talked about R U OK Day, I thought about the moral reluctance that still confines acceptance to the too-hard basket. What we are missing in this moment is moral courage. The courage to probe why some things discomfort us, and how acting according to this discomfort might affect others.

Those involved in the creation of Safe Schools, perhaps naively, thought that certain milestones had been reached. This was a program that commanded bipartisan support and that was set to be rolled out in many Australian schools. In his essay, Law deftly charts the history of the program and its downfall, weaving media coverage and personal observation alongside his own interviews with key figures in the debate. At the end, he notes that under the current federal government the program’s funding will not be renewed, though some states and territories will continue it using their own funding.

On the bus as I am reading this, a small faint rainbow stretches across the sky. When I turn back it is gone, and I think maybe I have imagined it. Just like the rainbow outside the window, his essay is over too soon, but for the time it lasts it is bright and shimmery, measured and hopeful.