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Thursday, 26 February 1987
Page: 685

Senator COLSTON(12.49) —Mr Deputy President, the matter that I intend to raise this afternoon has been mentioned before by me in this chamber. I refer honourable senators who may be interested to pages 2622-3 of the Senate Hansard of 8 May 1986. I am compelled to raise the matter once again because there are certain people working in the Queensland Department of Education who are perfectly content to defame me in order to further their career prospects. I stress that these people are few but that does not excuse their actions. If I may be permitted to digress I would like to mention that I spent about 11 enjoyable years with the Queensland Department of Education. I taught at the primary and secondary levels and later worked as a guidance officer. In these capacities I formed many friendships with teachers and educational administrators throughout the State. In my travels as a senator for Queensland I have often had the opportunity to renew these friendships. Because of this it pains me to mention the actions of a few in that Department but I would be remiss if I did not do so.

The matter that I raise this afternoon had its source in some remarks that were made in Queensland about the wearing of school uniforms in state schools. Although there are no regulations which permit educational administrators to compel the wearing of school uniforms, many attempt to insist that students in their schools should do so. The fact that their actions are not lawful does not concern them. When I made comments to this effect the Minister for Education in Queensland, Mr Powell, took exception. I understand that the Queensland Parliament has a similar standing order to our standing order 418, which prohibits the use of offensive remarks against members of Australian parliaments. However, that provision of the Queensland Parliament seems to be breached with impunity. Therefore in criticising my comments Mr Powell accused me of, amongst other things, `attempting to mischievously ferment trouble and rebellion in Queensland's schools'. He also said that I had `engaged in a disgraceful display symptomatic of the Left Wing's trends to undermine traditional values of authority and responsibility'. Mr Powell's assertions are absolute rubbish. Far from inciting rebellion in Queensland schools, all I was attempting to do was to set out what was the legal position in relation to the wearing of uniforms in the State's government schools. Mr Powell's comments were made under parliamentary privilege and even though he abused that privilege I have no recourse to any legal remedy for his defamatory comments. It was my original intention to ignore his remarks for the idiotic vitriol that they are, but subsequent events have convinced me that I should make some comment myself.

After speaking in the State Parliaments Mr Powell issued a media release repeating his remarks about me and going on to imply that, although there was no way to compel students to wear uniforms, if a particular uniform had been chosen for their school students should wear it. Apparently that media release was circulated to Queensland state schools. The first evidence I saw to suggest that was its reproduction in a secondary school newsletter which was distributed to parents of a large secondary school on the south side of Brisbane. I mentioned that matter in this chamber on the occasion referred to earlier. It has been brought to my notice that Mr Powell's media release was recently handed to a student in a near-Brisbane state high school. The message in the release was meant for the information of the student or the student's parents, or both. That particular student could not wear the school uniform for financial reasons but was being pressed by the school to obtain and wear it. Because it is official ministerial policy to ignore the regulations to the State Education Act and illegally insist on uniforms, some teachers apparently see their advancement prospects improved if they too insist on their students wearing a uniform. I am sure that the issue will blow up one day when a courageous parent takes on a school or officers of the Department of Education.

An interesting case occurred recently in New South Wales, where a parent took a similar matter to the Ombudsman and won his case. But before that happens I would issue this warning to those who would like to hand out Mr Powell's media release together with its defamatory statements about me: Mr Powell can say what he likes under the privilege of Parliament but there are doubts whether that privilege still holds for an educational administrator who distributes defamatory material. If this material is again used in the way I have described I shall consider taking legal action. The vast majority of teachers in the Queensland Department of Education are far too decent to contemplate distributing Mr Powell's release. But those who are tempted to do so I invite to reflect that legal action may result.