Harriet’s speech 24th May, 2017


Eastern Victoria


Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Ms SHING (Eastern Victoria) — I rise today to speak in relation to Dr Carling Jenkins’s motion and in doing so indicate that the government will not be supporting the motion as put. There are a number of components to this particular motion, a number of which have been canvassed at length not just in the previous motion put by Dr Carling Jenkins in relation to the Safe Schools program or in relation to education regulations and the way in which they are occurring across the state as we deliver the education state and the substantive investment in infrastructure reforms that we promised we would deliver when elected in 2014, but beyond that in the discussions that have occurred in the public domain as part of a progressive set of reforms that deliver greater integrity, greater capacity for compassion, equity and fairness for all students across Victoria and greater engagement with every student, irrespective of whether those students are male, female, gay, straight, same sex attracted, intersex or trans.
Young people in the state of Victoria have the right to an education which in fact gives them every opportunity to learn, invests in their potential and provides them with the greatest access possible to reach the potential that they would like to achieve, to achieve the momentum that they would like to achieve and to do themselves and their communities proud and to do their families proud. In this regard the motion itself contains at the outset a reference to the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights and article 26, which states amongst other things — and this is pertinent to the motion itself:
Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.
Nobody cavils with the fact that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights contains these principles. Nobody cavils with the fact that international law sets out a range of frameworks within which member states should ideally legislate and create regulatory frameworks that uphold the rights of individuals, that uphold the rights of communities and that strike proportionate balances between the rights of some individuals as against others.
What this motion fails to recognise or understand, however, is the significant role that other legislation has within the Victorian statute book. In this regard I note the charter of human rights and the way in which that is required to be considered as part of the impact of any proposed legislation before it is introduced and the fact that this forms part of the second reading speech. This is a key consideration for any Attorney General wishing to introduce legislation into the Victorian Parliament, and it is a crucial part of this. One component of the Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities under the Victorian Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities Act 2006 is the notion of proportionality. Proportionality requires a consideration of and a weighing up of competing priorities as they relate to the enabling of some rights on the one hand and the fettering of some rights on the other. In this regard I would like to move to the second part of Dr Carling Jenkins’s motion, which states that:
the government has limited …
the right referred to in the declaration of human rights, article 26 —
by failing to sufficiently consult parents in the implementation of the Safe Schools and respectful relationships programs in Victorian schools and early childhood education …
I intend to spend the bulk of my contribution today on these particular issues, because as we move to the other parts of the motion it will become clear that there are extensive consultation processes ongoing as part of homeschool education and that we do have a power of work to do. The Minister for Education, along with a number of other members of Parliament, continues to engage in making sure that this really important cohort of parents and their children across Victoria receive the recognition, the respect and the regard that their own choices require them to be given. There is an ongoing process, as I indicated, and I will come back to that.
At the outset I note that the implementation of the Safe Schools program is something that we brought as a commitment to the election in 2014. This is a program which will be delivered to every government secondary school — not primary schools but secondary schools — over the course of this particular Parliament. In this regard I note that I have previously made contributions on the importance of this program to this place and that I have also worked alongside communities right around Victoria as a Safe Schools ambassador.
I work as a Safe Schools ambassador, and I do this out of pride and a pride that was long fought for, as the first out woman in the Victorian Parliament. I do this off the back of a long period of feeling like I was less, like I was other and like I deserved to be treated badly because of who I am, and I do not want that for other young people in Victoria. I do not want young people to experience — as I did, as so many of my friends and as so many of the people in my community have experienced, as so many older Victorians experienced — discrimination, bullying or harassment, which comes at a significantly higher and disproportionate rate at school and throughout life than it does for people who are not LGBTI, same sex attracted or gender diverse.
It is pertinent and appropriate to note that today we are in this Parliament debating this motion on the one year anniversary of the Premier of this state, Daniel Andrews, apologising for historical convictions for same sex activity that saw people spend time in jail and that saw people stripped of their dignity for being who they are. It is one year today since the Premier got to his feet in a joint sitting of this Parliament — which was not attended by everybody but that engaged with the vast majority of parliamentarians — and said sorry for the many instances of pain, of heartache, of trauma associated with being legally prosecuted for who you are.
There was one instance of prosecution against women in the statute book, and this is where a lesbian couple was in fact charged and investigated for holding hands on a tram in the 1970s. A couple going about their business holding hands was the subject of a legal proceeding. In making his apology one year ago today the Premier stated very clearly that we had come a long way and that in apologising to those who have been convicted under this scheme we had moved on, that we had recognised the hurt and the pain and that it was appropriate to stop and reflect upon the damage that it had caused, and he urged people out there in Victoria, LGBTI folk, to hold their partner’s hand — to find the person that they love and to hold their hand in pride and in defiance. In fact pride is something that is really hard to come across when you are same sex attracted or gender diverse.
LGBTI people in Victoria, as I have said so many times before, are significantly greater in the representation of people who suffer from depression and anxiety, people who attempt self harm and people who attempt suicide. LGBTI people are more likely to receive less access to services. We are more likely to be discriminated against in the course of receiving services, in the course of the work that we undertake in our lives and in the course of the money that we take home. We are more likely to be damaged through the way in which we are treated than not.
It is with this framework in mind that I note that the Safe Schools program, which before the 2014 election had been rolled out under coalition governments, supported by the federal government and by federal government members, is in fact a program of resources which people can find on the Department of Education and Training home page, which sets out a range of resources for schools to implement in the course of the program — not as part of the curriculum, as some may have us believe. It is a range of resources to assist in understanding LGBTI young people — people like the young person I was, people like the young man at Xavier College who stood up bravely in front of his school assembly this week and came out because he was sick of the bullying and the discrimination and because he felt like he had no other option. These resources are designed to give students and parents the resources to understand that pride is a necessary part of acceptance and that it needs to go beyond tolerance and beyond putting up with something that is distasteful, that is inconvenient or that is uncomfortable. In fact the Safe Schools program is about resourcing people across the board to understand that LGBTI folk deserve dignity, recognition and respect.
This is not something that comes at the expense of self determination in any other regard. It operates alongside initiatives such as the respectful relationships program. It is geared in good faith toward making sure that children and young people — who may otherwise feel sick to their stomachs when they wake in the morning to find that they feel the way they felt yesterday, who may wish and dream and hope to be someone else and who may in fact do anything and everything to be someone else and may in fact spend an entire lifetime not being true to themselves — have an opportunity to understand and to value their own worth exactly as they are.
This program delivers on the importance of education and educational opportunity and the dignity and the opportunity that goes with that for more Victorian children. It is not a program that is designed to sway or coerce or influence anybody into what has been termed, in a somewhat hysterical fashion, ‘the homosexual agenda’. This is not a recruitment process. This is quite simply a way to make sure that young people feel okay about themselves for being exactly who they are. This is why we do not resile from the introduction of the Safe Schools program. This is why the resources are located within the Department of Education and Training’s own resources that they have published online.
This is not about teaching children how to bind their chests or tuck their penises. This is not about social engineering. This is not about a Marxist ideology. This is not about any of the things that the naysayers would have you believe. This is not about a threat which will come to you to undermine the way in which you manage or parent your children or the way in which you live your lives. This is about making sure that we deliver on the duty of care that we have to all children in a school environment to make sure that they, their teachers and the staff at their schools have the resources to understand, respect and accept difference. We need to continue to deliver on the promises that the Premier has made around integrity and around respect, and on this day, one year since the apology for historical homosexual convictions, we stand by our commitment to the Safe Schools program. We stand by the work that is being done in a dignified and in a compassionate way.
I thank every person who has come to me and engaged with me on this issue, and in particular I thank those who have in fact disagreed with me, albeit in a respectful way. There is always room for debate; there is always room for healthy discussion of differing points of view. In keeping that option available for people to approach their elected representatives to discuss the way in which a scheme might operate, there is a great capacity for me to learn. There is a great capacity for me to understand the fear or the misgivings that may arise in relation to a program like this. For those parents who have come to me with their children and for those young people who have come to me on their own, thank you for your courage in being prepared to explain to your parliamentarians the difference that dignity makes.
I know it has not been easy. I have seen firsthand the effects that discrimination can have on the often frail and often volatile ego and sense of self of young people who live in our state. I have also seen firsthand their capacity to get beyond that when they are in an environment where they are supported. I have seen schools which have introduced the Safe Schools program, and I have heard from staff who themselves are relieved to finally have the language and vocabulary to be able to talk with people, whether they are their peers, their students, their families or their communities, about the importance of dignity and acceptance.
These are not easy issues for many people to talk about, but they are important issues and they do warrant discussion. That discussion should be respectful and it should be well informed. It should be done with grace and with inclusion, and it should be done in a way that is accessible to everybody, not just to those in metropolitan Melbourne and not just to those in the inner areas of our state but to those across our culturally and linguistically diverse communities, across our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and across our remote and rural and regional communities. This program is important. This program saves lives. This program is an investment in the dignity of young people to grow up and to know more clearly that who they are is absolutely fine.
On this basis the second component of Dr Carling Jenkins’s motion around the Safe Schools program and the respectful relationships program in Victorian schools is in fact vulnerable to criticism around the claim that the rights of parents to be consulted have not been properly observed. Every day the Department of Education and Training consults with parents, with schools, with teachers, with staff and with communities. Every day the Minister for Education — as is every MP who is doing their job properly in this Parliament, irrespective of where they sit — is required to work with people and for people and to understand their priorities and their needs.
I hope that this continues to be the case. I hope that this program in fact defies and is not vulnerable to the political agenda which has seen it become a political football. Our young people deserve more than this. I do not think I am alone when I say that when I was at school I deserved more; I deserved a little better than what I got, and it was not through malice at the time, it was because I was different. In embracing everybody we stand a much better chance of adults understanding the importance of recognition and respect of difference as well. It makes us better overall.
The respectful relationships program is another component of education which has been a huge focus for the government. In teaching children that communication can happen in a collaborative, respectful and dignified way we are equipping young Victorians with the tools they need to communicate respectfully, to communicate openly and to communicate without violence in their lives. This government has invested in the number one law and order issue for the state — namely, family violence — in a way that is absolutely unprecedented across Australia, including by the commonwealth government.
Our $1.9 billion investment in implementing the Royal Commission into Family Violence reforms and recommendations is a part of delivering on prevention and on making sure that we take care of the victims of and witnesses to family violence. The respectful relationships program is a key part of this, and it provides teachers with a range of age appropriate resources — including in early childhood education — and with health and physical education in personal and social capability areas that give people tools to talk about how conversations should be raised to discuss conflict, why and how people are different, how people can get along and how people may in fact have views that require further discussion. What this does is it swims against the current of family violence that overwhelmingly affects women in our country.
It is not entirely women but it is overwhelmingly women who are affected by family violence. In Australia at least one woman every week is killed by her partner or former partner. Every single week a woman in Australia dies at the hand of her partner or her former partner. Few days go by when you do not see a small reference in a newspaper to another woman being bashed or injured so severely that when she is taken to hospital she lasts a few hours before dying. This is our number one law and order issue, and in tackling this and in making sure that we resource everybody to not only respond to the court processes and the legal processes but to also have a better legal framework to hold perpetrators accountable, we need to focus on prevention. We need to focus on providing resources to women and children who are fleeing family violence.
Victims and survivors of family violence have had a power of work done with them and for them by the very wonderful Rosie Batty. Rosie has put everyone else before herself. In advocating for the rights of women and children and advocating for systemic change to reduce and ultimately remove family violence altogether from our vernacular, she has spearheaded a range of reforms. These reforms include prevention initiatives that are designed to break the circuit between what it is that children see at home in a violent environment and what they often then go on to replicate in later life.
The respectful relationships agenda has also been incorporated into the curriculum. Unlike the Safe Schools program, it is a core part of the curriculum. The respectful relationships program delivers on planting the seeds now in our children’s minds that say to them that tolerance of family violence is not acceptable. It teaches children that physical response is not appropriate. It teaches them the importance of gathering communication experience and skills to talk about what they do not agree with. It teaches them about appropriate emotional responses. It teaches them that it is okay to be angry, to cry or to be frustrated, but that should never, ever result in physical harm to anyone. This in fact has been a focus of many family violence prevention policies and practices in Victoria and across Australia for over a decade. In this regard we stand proudly by the implementation of the respectful relationships program.
In point (c) of Dr Carling Jenkins’s motion she refers to imminent changes to home education regulations that are being pursued without sufficient parental consultation. I would like to pick up on a number of the things that Dr Carling Jenkins referred to in her opening comments on this motion and in particular to begin with the privacy breach that occurred and caused an enormous amount of pain, upset and distress for parents who found that the details of a number of submission authors had been published in contravention of their specific instructions. I am advised that this was caused by human error, and it is not good enough that it occurred in the first place. It did cause pain and distress, and it was not good enough.
As I understand it the Minister for Education became aware of this error the day after it had occurred, and he then ensured that submissions were immediately removed from the website. However, this is still one day that passed with this information being online. The department reported the incident to the privacy and data protection commissioner and contacted, as I understand, all of the affected people to apologise for the incident. There is an independent review of the privacy incident underway, and that is important too. It is crucial that we make sure this does not happen again and that recommendations are sought and provided for future process management to incorporate best practice in privacy design.
Further to that, the proposed homeschool regulations talk about introducing a new requirement for a family to submit a learning plan at registration and the ability for existing registrations to be reviewed. Despite what Dr Carling Jenkins may have referred to in relation to consultation about the design and cover of the report only, it is not intended that the learning plan would be long and onerous to complete or require a day by day description of learning activities. The learning plan is intended to prompt consideration of what instruction will most benefit the student, taking into account all of the circumstances. We note that the circumstances vary dramatically from family to family, from learning environment to learning environment, and the plan will also prompt consideration of how a parent will demonstrate that they will meet those individual needs.
Reviews of existing homeschooling registrations are also designed to ensure the requirements of registration are being met, and in fact it is intended that only a small number of families will be reviewed each year and that information gathered from the reviews will help to build a clearer picture of homeschool achievement in Victoria. We want to give homeschooling parents every opportunity possible to have the resources and assistance they need to give the very best outcomes to their children. What we want to make sure of is that every parent who homeschools can have access to resources and documentation that respect the diverse nature of the homeschooling community, and this is part of what the government wants to hear about.
The department’s recent public submission process on the proposed homeschooling regulations received over 500 submissions. The range of views expressed in these submissions makes it really clear there is room for a lot more engagement with this community. I know this also because I have met on a number of occasions with a number of homeschooling parents and groups around the differing needs that they have, not just in the community and not just within their families but from child to child in the same family.
Several changes to the regulations are being considered in response to the feedback received during the consultation process. This is a live process. It is not simply lip service. It is not about, as Dr Carling Jenkins intimated, feedback on the cover design of a report. It is an active process to make sure the department works alongside families and the Home Education Network (HEN) to increase engagement with the homeschooling community. This feedback will be really important in the early stages of implementation, and the minister is also particularly interested to ensure that representation will be sufficiently broad to accommodate all voices in the community. As I understand it, the minister is also meeting with the Home Education Network on 25 May. This follows on from a departmental meeting with representatives from HEN on 12 May. It has committed as well to further engagement with the homeschooling community in the lead up to the commencement of proposed regulatory requirements on 1 January 2018.
The Education and Training Reform Act 2006 recognises homeschooling as a legitimate form of education in Victoria. Nobody is disagreeing with that at all. It is really important that we resource parents and families to deliver what they see is best for their children in that learning context. The government recognises that families choose homeschooling for a range of reasons, and that is reflected in the diverse nature of the homeschooling community in Victoria. We also recognise it is a commitment that is taken very seriously by parents who are seeking the best educational and wellbeing outcomes for their child in their specific circumstances. The regulations aim to strike a balance between the need to regulate and the need to ensure quality for homeschooled children in Victoria. Even with the proposed changes, Victoria will still have the least stringent regulatory approach of any Australian jurisdiction — for example, other jurisdictions require homeschooling families to adhere to a particular curriculum or require home visits in order to grant or renew registration. The proposed regulations will not require either of these measures.
We do expect and we do respect that homeschooling families are doing a great job of educating their kids. I have seen the really wonderful responses that children have had to their homeschooling environments and to what they have learned and what they have managed to develop in skill sets, opportunities and experiences that they have had in the course of homeschooling. We need to make sure that we are meeting our duty to ensure that this is the case for all children. Under the current regulatory system there are very limited mechanisms available to ensure the quality of homeschooling, and this does not allow me or this government to ensure that all Victorian children are receiving a quality education and that all Victorian children are supported to learn, grow and succeed in life.
In this regard I move on finally to the ongoing parental concerns with these programs and regulations as they roll out, and the assertion at (d) of the motion that these issues have been largely ignored. They have not been ignored. They have been listened to. They have been considered. The framework in relation to the Safe Schools program and the respectful relationships program will continue to operate as it is. It is founded in respect, it is founded in dignity, it is founded in equity and it is founded in the importance of making sure fundamentally that our young people do not end up depressed, anxious, ill, hurting themselves or killing themselves.
In relation to homeschools we will continue to consult with and to work with and between the department, the Homeschool Education Network and homeschooling communities. We look forward to this feedback continuing to be taken on board. It is a diverse community. We need to make sure that every child has the best opportunities possible within the environment they are learning in. Again we affirm our commitment to the work that we are doing in this regard, and despite the wording and the contribution of Dr Carling Jenkins we again indicate that we will not be supporting this motion.