17 May 2023

Vicki speaks about the success of the Safe Schools Program in Eltham and the Drag Reading Time event at Eltham Library

Vicki WARD (Eltham) (12:57): I stand here feeling both pretty angry but also incredibly joyful because of the things that are happening in my community right now. Before anybody on the other side wants to interject and say that I am going off topic, let me start by saying that my magnificent Eltham High School was one of the first pilot schools for Safe Schools in 2010 and has shown extraordinary leadership when it comes to inclusion. The work that they do is phenomenal, and I shout out to principal Vincent Sicari and all in that community for the phenomenal work that they do. As a parent at Eltham High School I could not be prouder of my school and the work that they do – just as today I am incredibly proud of my community in standing up for the bigots that descended down in Eltham and were thwarted. My community stood up, and they stood up with friends, to say that bigotry and hatred have no place in the community. My community stood up in 2016 and stared the racists down with butterflies, and we did it again today with rainbow butterflies, with song and with joy.

Drag reading time did go ahead in Eltham today. It was successful and it was beautiful, because people are beautiful. The joy that comes with the rainbow community and that comes with our drag queens is extraordinary, and for these bigots, these Nazis, these haters to try and shut people down for being who they are – for celebrating who they are, for being inclusive, for having the generosity to come to us and everybody in our community and say, ‘Let us share our love with you. Let us share our stories’ – and to want to threaten to shut them down with violence and with aggression is absolutely disgraceful. I am so proud of the people who went to Eltham Library today and stood out there in their angel wings, who stood out there in their rainbows of colours and who sang songs, listened to stories and celebrated who they are and the joy of who they are. I am incredibly grateful.


Sitting suspended 1:00 pm until 2:02 pm.


Vicki WARD (Eltham) (14:47): I will return to my debate. Before we stopped for lunch, I was talking about the amazing activities that were happening in my community this morning. It was just phenomenal to see how many amazing people came to Eltham Library and celebrated their diversity and celebrated love and respect. I really want to do a big shout-out to my librarians, who have done the most phenomenal job in my community. I want to thank those librarians for the work that they did during the pandemic, during lockdowns, when they were out delivering books personally to people’s homes and when they were checking in on vulnerable people. They knew they were vulnerable, because they spent time in the library. Now these incredibly kind, professional people have been targeted by people who are absolutely hideous. They have been threatened with violence by people coming into the library as well as people outside, people in emails, people on the phone and people of course online – because, as we know, there is no bigger coward than a keyboard warrior. I also want to thank Victoria Police for coming out to my community and having a really strong presence this morning, showing that this kind of dangerous, aggressive and bigoted behaviour is just not acceptable.

As with all of us, I go around to a number of our local schools, and as the Parliamentary Secretary for Education, I do spend time in a number of schools. I can tell you how heartbreaking it was to have a kid come up to me – a kid that I had met when they were in grade 6 – and speak to me about the loneliness of feeling like they were the only gay kid at the school. They felt clearly that they were an outlier and that they were an outsider. I know that it is so important with Safe Schools that kids are helped to feel included and that teachers are given the necessary skills and supports to help them support vulnerable kids in their school community, and for this kid to not feel that is just absolutely heartbreaking. I applaud my local schools, as I mentioned earlier, such as Eltham High, that do such fantastic work in supporting our kids and in giving tools to kids and to teachers to help them really give kids the support that they need.

I spoke about my pride in Eltham High School, and it is a phenomenal school. I also want to thank the Minister for Education for the tremendous work that she does, the absolute passion that she has for inclusion in our schools and the absolute commitment and passion that she has for equality in our schools and how strongly she is pushing this.

We have seen hate and division online surrounding drag story time at Eltham Library and a number of other sites across our state. Whether it has been raising the rainbow flag or having a trivia night at the local library, we have seen a lot of vitriol and we have seen a lot of hatred. Some of this is absolute bigotry, some of it is based in confusion.

I want to take this opportunity to talk about Safe Schools and where the seeds of some of this confusion begins. I am going to go back in time to 2016 and the Public Accounts and Estimates Committee when I was a member of PAEC and was at the table. I had the then member for Kew talking about Safe Schools and his concern that Safe Schools was teaching kids unnecessary lessons, that it was a part of the curriculum, that it was influencing kids’ behaviour, that it was teaching kids to behave in this way or that way, whereas actually it is a program. The then Minister for Education made this point very clearly: he said that Safe Schools does not teach sexuality education. The Safe Schools program is not and does not replace sexuality education. All government schools are required to deliver age-appropriate sexuality programs. But the former member for Kew continued, and he did this over a number of years where he tried to vilify the Safe Schools program. I went to the member for Kew and I pulled him aside and I said, ‘Mate, I am a parent at the pilot school for Safe Schools. I know what this school looks like. What you’re saying is happening in classrooms is not happening – it is my lived experience. What you’re saying my kids are not experiencing, my kids are not seeing, because my kids didn’t need that support.’ It is that confusion, whether it is deliberate or not, that really helps fan the flames of this extreme division and anger and aggression that we are seeing.

Safe Schools is about protecting kids, and it is about protecting kids from exactly the kind of behaviour that we have seen targeted at Eltham Library, that we have seen targeted at Monash council, that we have seen targeted at Banyule council for flying an LGBTIQ+ flag, that we have seen targeted at Lalor for daring to have a queer trivia night, that we have seen targeted across the state. We have even seen schools targeted for having drag story time. We have seen so much unpleasant, unwarranted behaviour that is hurtful and that is damaging. It does incredible damage to our kids. This kind of behaviour hurts our kids more than it hurts anyone. And we know that rainbow kids are the ones who are most vulnerable to self-harm and that they have terribly difficult problems with mental health when they are not accepted, when they are made to feel that they do not belong. And when we see this hideous behaviour – it is appalling as to how it can affect our kids. It is just shocking.

I want to talk about a couple of emails that I have received from people telling me that they do not feel safe in my community because of what they have seen happen around Eltham Library. And they are adults – they are adults who do not feel safe because of this behaviour. How do the kids feel? How do the kids feel that, for example, in Eltham we had someone drive all the way from Canberra to wave a sign saying how outrageous it was that we had an IDAHOBIT event at Eltham Library today. There is so much vitriol and hatred in these few people – how does this make these vulnerable kids feel? It is appalling, it is unconscionable that they would treat kids in this way, that they would use our vulnerable community for collateral damage. Who knows what it is they are actually trying to achieve? But what we do know that they are achieving is pain. But what we also know they are achieving is community solidarity, and there is no community more solid than mine.