In a concerning attack on academic and political freedom, Roz Ward, co-founder of Safe Schools, was suspended from her position at La Trobe university for misconduct on 1 June.
In a private Facebook post, Ward had described the Australian flag on top of the Victorian parliament as racist. Her comments followed the raising of the Pride flag after the Victorian Labor government’s apology for laws that criminalised homosexuality and that were used to harass and imprison gay men.
But just days after Ward was suspended, a combination of a legal challenge, staunch union support, and a wave of anger on social media from fellow workers and supporters of Safe Schools, has forced La Trobe management to back down and drop the allegations.
The Turnbull government, the Murdoch press and the Christian Right have led a vicious, homophobic assault on the Safe Schools program, which seeks to combat homophobia in schools and educate children and teenagers on LGBTI issues. The Australian Christian Lobby compared Safe Schools to Nazism and Liberal MP George Christensen has even likened it to paedophile grooming.
After the government cut back the program’s content and withdrew future funding, The Australian newspaper has targeted Ward, who is a member of Socialist Alternative. This is in an attempt to discredit the program in Victoria, after the Labor government promised to keep funding it.
Ward had already voluntarily resigned from another position advising the Victorian state government after coming under fire for the Facebook comments, before La Trobe took the extraordinary step of suspending her. La Trobe’s decision clearly came at the behest of figures like Federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham, and former Liberal Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett (who threatened to withdraw funding from Beyond Blue for Safe Schools related research projects at La Trobe if Ward was allowed to continue in the job).
The suspension was not only another attack on Safe Schools, it was also an attack on workers’ rights. A number of workers have faced losing their job for publicly criticising their employer and the government, such as SBS journalist Scott McIntyre.
For academics, the issue is also tied up with threats to academic freedom as universities become increasingly reliant on corporate and private funds. NTEU Victorian Secretary, Colin Long, pointed the finger at the university administration, saying, “That La Trobe University has apparently allowed itself to be cowed into participating in this anti-intellectual, anti-democratic attack reflects the dismal state of intellectual capacity at the senior management level.”
The NTEU’s strong response and the solidarity that flowed in for Ward is a lesson in the power of union and grassroots action to stop victimisation, defend Safe Schools and beat back the right.