The ripple effect

Maurie Mulheron

A recent retirement function for a school counsellor colleague gave me an opportunity to reflect on the critically important role that the school-based teacher counsellor service plays in our system. As I listened to the speeches I thought of the countless students who are provided with professional advice, comfort and support each and every day, sometimes in life-threatening situations. Students who have mental health issues or find themselves in conflict situations at home or find themselves struggling to form positive relationships or are just lonely and sad or are not coping with the pressure of school.

Many, of course, may seek the advice of a counsellor because of bullying or nasty peer behaviour that is a result of intolerance. We know that students who engage in intolerant behaviour are often influenced by adults. During the function I also thought back to the real stories, the real students who I remember were supported.

Of course, counsellors work closely with teacher colleagues in creating the supportive student welfare network that is a feature of public schools. An important role of student welfare is the work that goes into, not just responding to a problem, but establishing educative programs about gender, race, age, disability and sexuality as we create a positive school culture.

Some days after the retirement function, I had cause to think back to this important work when I opened the newspaper to see that the chief legal officer of the nation, the Federal Attorney-General George Brandis, was quoted as saying that a person has a right to be a bigot. It was simply a breathtaking and audacious statement which, at first glance, made me think that I had misread the article. But no, it was true. The Attorney-General was making good a promise made to a conservative shock-jock at the last election that the Racial Discrimination Act would be amended to make it much more difficult for him to be prosecuted and for citizens to be protected from racial abuse.

The Attorney-General used a classic straw man argument to justify his action, that is, that the Act prevents a person from being a bigot. It doesn’t. What the Act was intended to do was to prevent a bigot from hurting others. It was designed to protect people from insults, from being denigrated on the basis of their race. It was an Act that reflected important values of tolerance and acceptance.

Adults can be powerful role models, both for the positive and the negative. What will worry public school teachers is that we know that macro policy changes can be like a stone thrown in the pond with a ripple effect that is felt at the community level. Clearly the proposed changes to the Racial Discrimination Act by the Attorney-General do not reflect the values of the public education system. But worse, the real concern is, will this lead to some community members feeling that racial intolerance is acceptable?

The pressure to change the Act came from powerful vested media interests whose income may be threatened by fines for racial vilification and the possible loss of advertising revenue that may follow. But the natural sympathies for teachers will be with young people who need to be protected and supported, not with wealthy, right-wing radio announcers who refuse to conform to acceptable community standards.

So, what do we tell the child that turns up at the counsellor’s office asking for advice because they are being constantly called names which involves racial slurs? We would naturally provide support and advice which, hopefully, would lead to a whole range of protective strategies and positive consequences. The Federal Attorney-General seems to be saying that we should tell the child to rejoice because Australians have a right to be bigots.