Former prime minister Tony Abbott has joined the ongoing debate over the Safe Schools program, calling for its funding to be stripped.
Speaking to The Australian, Abbott described the program as "social engineering".
“It’s not an anti-bullying program,” Mr Abbott said. “It’s a social engineering program. Its funding should be terminated.”
The program, which has been running in Australian schools for four years, has been under fire from conservative politicians and religious activists.
But Abbott's sister, Sydney councillor Christine Forster, says the former PM's comments are misguided, and show little understanding of what it's like to grow up as an LGBT child in Australia.
Forster says her brother is a man with a lot of empathy, but very little understanding of the innate nature of a person's sexuality or gender identity.
"It’s my view that you cannot engineer a child into being transgender or homosexual. And it’s my experience. It’s not something that’s engineered. It’s something that’s inherent to a person," she told BuzzFeed News.
Forster said she's disappointed by the language used by politicians who have been critical of the program.
"I don’t think it’s helpful. It’s negative and unconstructive," she said. “It's because they’ve never experienced it themselves."
"Anyone who has never experienced being gay or being transgender - I can see where they’d perhaps stuggled to get their head around it - But that is people’s reality. You cannot engineer people to be transgender."
The Safe Schools program is doing "good, necessary work", she said.
"I’ve only heard anecdotally good things about the program.That it’s seeking to educate children about diversity and teach them about the very negative ramifications of bullying. That’s why I believe the program should continue to be funded."
Prime minister Malcolm Turnbull last week agreed to review the program after right-wing senator Cory Bernardi raised the issue in the coalition partyroom, saying it pursues a "marxist agenda of cultural relativism".
He's been backed by LNP MP George Christensen, who has linked the program to child grooming, and Labor senator Joe Bullock, who called the program "terrible".
Some MPs and religious activists have claimed the program contains instructions for "penis tucking and chest binding". It doesn't, but an organisation linked to the program does offer instructions for gender diverse children to do those things safely.
Abbott was contradicted by government whip Ewen Jones, who said people need to show more trust in teachers to deliver the Safe Schools lessons in the proper fashion.
“We must address it. No one committed suicide when I was a kid, because we could go home at three o’clock, you get past the bully, you could get home and it was over. Now, the bullying can be 24 hours a day and anonymous,” he told The Australian.
“I don’t know any teacher who is going to sit down and talk about ‘tucking’ or anything like that. What they will do, what teachers and school principals will do, will take the bits of it that are relevant to their schoolchildren and they will make sure that what they’re saying to their schoolchildren is good and make sure that it’s appropriate.”
The program has the backing of the Labor opposition and the Greens. Labor leader Bill Shorten last week labelled Cory Bernardi a homophobe for his comments.
Rob Stott is a news editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in Sydney.
Contact Rob Stott at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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