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Education minister stubbornly oversees safe schools information blackout

By Greg Donnelly - posted Friday, 16 December 2016


This Premier and this NSW government regularly crow about how open and transparent the administration is. Transparent in how it makes its decisions and transparent in the way it goes about doing its business. It boasts about the information it publishes on various websites along with postings on Facebook, YouTube and other forms of social media. This is all regularly trumpeted by the Premier as evidence of his government's openness towards engagement with the citizens of this state. However, does such a claim stand up to scrutiny?

Let's just look at one example that many are familiar with – the highly controversial Safe Schools program. Most politicians in this state including myself have received not just hundreds, but thousands of emails and letters of complaint regarding the program. The program affirms and promotes a range of radical ideas relating to sexuality and gender.

Up until early July this year mums and dads could go to the Safe Schools Coalition Australia website and see if the school they sent their children to was a participant in the program. Just get on the tablet or smart phone, Google up SSCA and with a couple of clicks, the answer was available - dead easy.

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However, on 8th July everything went dark. The list of NSW schools disappeared off the SSCA website. Just like that. Without reason or explanation. Instead, as the vague message says on the website, mums and dads have to now ring up the school administration office and try and find someone who knows something about whether or not the Safe Schools program is being taught to their child. Good luck with that!

In June, arising from some parents contacting me to find out which public schools in NSW were part of the Safe Schools program, I directed a Question on Notice to the Minister for Education, Adrian Piccoli. My question of 23rd June was in two parts: As at 20th June 2016 which NSW public primary (and high) schools were participating in the Safe Schools program? Note that my question said "which schools". On 28th July I got a response. Instead of providing the two lists of schools as sought, I was told that as at 20th June 2016, 31 public schools were accessing the program. This is, of course, the perfect example of giving you an answer without giving you the answer.

Not wanting to restrict myself regarding using other options to get to the bottom of the matter, I also made an application under the state's freedom of information laws. On 26th July I sent off the paperwork and my cheque for $30 seeking the same information as was outlined in my Question on Notice but relating to a slightly later date, the date of my application.

On 5th September I got back a response from the Department of Education. In polite language I was told that my request for information had been declined. The response from the bureaucrat said, in part:

I consider that the release of the names of the schools could reasonably be expected to cause serious harm and harassment and would not be in the best interest of children and young people whose schools are registered with the SSCA.

Having got nowhere with my perfectly reasonable information request I thought that I would take the next step and seek a review of the Department of Education's response by the Information and Privacy Commission. The paperwork for the review was lodged on 12th October.

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On the 25th November I received correspondence regarding the review. Having examined all the reasoning given by the Department to reject my request, the Information Commissioner recommended that "under section 93 of the GIPA Act the agency make a new decision, by way of internal review."

Great, I thought to myself, we are nearly there. Not so fast. On 30th November I received a further email from the Department of Education. I was told that the Department had agreed to reconsider its original decision but as the end of the year was approaching they needed extra time, beyond what they are entitled to, to undertake the review. In fact they wanted to delay responding until 6th February 2017 so they could undertake consultation with school principals about the matter. These of course are the same school principals who were never consulted in the first place before the Department unilaterally decided to deny my information request. The Department deemed it unnecessary to consult with them before my application was rejected, but now wanted to consult them after the blocking tactics being deployed had failed. Is that a dead rat I can smell?

After consulting with the Information and Privacy Commission I decide, reluctantly, to give the Department the extension they sought. In truth I had little option. If I rejected the request, I would have had to commence legal proceeding before the NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal. That would have taken me well beyond the 6th February date being sought by the Department.

Now I am not one who is into conspiracy theories. As they say in politics, given a choice between deciding if you are looking at a conspiracy or a stuff-up, you can generally put your money on the stuff-up. However, what is going on here is not a stuff-up. It is a deliberate and calculated act by Minister Piccoli to do everything he can, at every opportunity, to run an extraordinary protection racket to blanket the Safe Schools program from proper scrutiny. The key question that continues to remain unanswered is why. Why is Minister Piccoli doing everything humanly possible to stop the Safe Schools program being subjected to transparent examination and critiquing, just like everything else that is presented to children in our schools?

It will be interesting to see if a small piece of the puzzle falls into place on 6th February 2017. We shall have to wait and see, but here's a tip: Don't hold your breath.

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About the Author

Greg Donnelly is a Labor Party member of the New South Wales Legislative Council. He has been in the Legislative Council since February 2005. He is currently the Deputy Opposition Whip in the Legislative Council. He is the Chair of General Purpose Standing Committee No. 2 and Deputy Chair of the Standing Committee on Social Issues. He is also a member of the Privileges Committee, the Committee on Children and Young People, the Select Committee on the Legislative Council Committee System and the Select Committee on Human Trafficking.

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