Former prime minister John Howard has defended opponents of the Safe Schools program, saying it's wrong to label them homophobes.
Speaking on the eve of the 20th anniversary of the election of his government, Howard told Sky News that he is "totally baffled" by the Safe Schools program.
"I am totally in favour of any effective program that will deal with bullying. Bullying against people, whether they’re homosexual, whatever their gender disposition may be, or their beliefs, is quite unacceptable, and it causes an enormous amount of pain and grief, not only to children but to their parents," he said.
"But you don’t need such a social agenda as this document is clearly pursuing, in order to deal with bullying. I’m glad the government is looking at it. I’m just puzzled that it got their in the first place."
"To say that anybody who is alarmed about this Safe Schools booklet is a homophobe… really Mr Shorten, you are out of touch," he said.
The Safe Schools program has been under fire in recent weeks from religious activists and the conservative wing of the Liberal party. It is a non-compulsory lesson plan designed to raise awareness of young people dealing with sexuality or gender identity issues, and to help create a safe environment for them at school.
Prime minister Malcolm Turnbull this week ordered a review into the program.
Howard said Australia is at risk of becoming too politically correct, and that religious conservatives are less likely to speak their minds due to a fear of being persecuted.
"[To say that] if someone supports the traditional definition of marriage, they’re some sort of far right-wing homophobe [is wrong]. Now of course you have an obligation… to be respectful of other points of view," Howard said.
"But the tendency to brand anyone who takes a conservative position on these sorts of social issues as a bigot or a homophobe or somebody who’s reeking with prejudices has become far too prevalent, and I think people are entitled to be concerned about the anti-religious streak that is creeping into the attitudes of some parts of government around the country."
The former PM cited a Tasmanian case in which the Catholic church is being taken to an anti-discrimination tribunal over a booklet it distributed which supported the traditional definition of marriage.
"[The booklet] just states the traditional view. A view that had a wide consensus in the Australian community until fairly recently. Now attitudes can change, I accept that. But I think there is a feeling they have to be very careful what they say," he said.
Despite his opposition to marriage equality, Howard said politicians should be bound to respect the result of a plebiscite.
"If you have a plebiscite and there’s a clear outcome, I think that would be overwhelmingly reflected in the outcome of a vote [in parliament]," he said.
The former PM also stated his belief that marriage equality should be dealt with via a vote in parliament, as his government did in 2004 when it amended the Marriage Act to specifically exclude same-sex marriage.