In 2014, the Abbott government was proud to launch the Safe Schools program. Then-parliamentary secretary Scott Ryan, representing the then-education minister Christopher Pyne, spoke at the National School Symposium to launch Safe Schools and gave a good speech on bullying.

“I am sure we can all recall times when we have been on the receiving end, but also occasions that we look back upon and regret, when we either did not stand up for the vulnerable or thought it was fun to make someone feel smaller than us.”

“We can and should provide a safe environment that makes tolerance of diversity non-negotiable,” Ryan went on to say.

Indeed.

Christian fundamentalist groups like the Australian Family Association and the Australian Christian Lobby have never liked this Abbott government program for its focus on acceptance of diversity and failure to promote heterosexuality, and they attacked it from the outset. But the issue never gained political traction until the hard right of the Coalition decided to use it against Malcolm Turnbull.

The result is a classic culture war in which the genuine benefits of a program for the lives of the intended beneficiaries — school students — have rapidly become collateral damage in a campaign (aided and abetted by The Australian) to destabilise Turnbull’s leadership. During the campaign the likes of that political version of scrofula, George Christensen, has compared the program to paedophilia. But that is of no moment — the impact on LGBTI kids is irrelevant as long as it can be used to damage Turnbull.

It’s similar to the way far right elements within the Murdoch press tried to use the far-belated government focus on domestic violence to attack “middle-class feminists”, aided and abetted by Mark Latham confecting a 19th-century socialist outrage at the slur on working-class males.

The fact that Tony Abbott, who funded the program, has now called for its defunding and reportedly signed Christensen’s petition to that effect (which has gone missing somewhere in Parliament, perhaps spirited away by the Vast Gay Conspiracy out to oppress heterosexual white males) elegantly illustrates how this has nothing to do with the merits of the program and everything to do with trying to damage the Prime Minister. It also confirms a pattern in Abbott’s post-prime ministerial behaviour of demanding his replacement do things he never did, like cut spending and taxes. Do as I say, Abbott argues, not as I did.

One far-right Liberal MP even suggested Education Minister Simon Birmingham — a South Australian moderate, and key player in the elevation of Turnbull — resign.

Turnbull’s handling of the issue has been of a piece with his approach since becoming Prime Minister — placate the right of his party at all cost. This being the man who lost his leadership in 2009 for failing to placate the right enough, such an approach is understandable. But repeated use of the tactic on same-sex marriage, on climate action, on tax reform, on backbenchers indulging in homophobic vilification, has created the impression we’re not getting the real Turnbull. That’s an impression Labor is exploiting, and it is the basis for Tony Windsor’s tilt at Barnaby Joyce in New England — Windsor argues that Joyce must be sent packing from politics in order to remove his noxious influence on a Turnbull government.

But placating the right was never going to work on Safe Schools. By agreeing to an inquiry into the program, Turnbull was validating the entirely fictional concerns confected by homophobes and fundamentalists and merely encouraging the far right. Now they have (predictably) rejected the inquiry outcome and are demanding defunding — a US tactic oft-used in the war on abortion in that country — and a parliamentary inquiry. Now it’s becoming an open challenge to Turnbull’s authority, particularly with the calls for Birmingham’s resignation. And the tone of the homophobic vilification coming from critics of the program is becoming worse and worse.

John Howard was an enthusiastic initiater of culture wars when it suited his political purposes, and he was adept at picking fights to signal to mainstream voters that he shared their values. But he also knew when to shut them down before they risked blowback on his government. Turnbull, as a moderate, is poorly placed to use the same tactic, but Howard’s self-proclaimed heirs are eager to use it against him.

It’s all a preview of what a same-sex marriage plebiscite would be like — a national debate in which some of the most malicious and bigoted voices in public life will seek free rein to attack others. And there’ll be no prime ministerial leadership to challenge them.

Peter Fray

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