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Education Minister Simon Birmingham has rejected calls for the criminalisation of so-called hazing rituals at university colleges, arguing current laws – if enforced – are adequate to keep students safe.
But in his strongest remarks on the subject to date, he rebuked the major universities for “clearly” failing to address the problem of assault and harassment quickly enough, and agreed universities should sever ties to scandal-plagued colleges if they don’t get their act together.
“The first priority should always be to make sure people enforce the laws that exist today,” Senator Birmingham told Fairfax Media. “There are clear laws in relation to assault. There are clear pathways to complaint and to have actions applied in relation to sexual harassment.”
Colleges and universities needed to offer better support to students in those situations but the law “as it currently stands” was sufficient for that, the minister said
“I don’t think the case that there is a gap in the law has been clearly made,” he said. “What there clearly is, is a failure of culture to ensure that people are willing to report the problem and that’s where maximum assistance [is required].”
The criminalisation of hazing was a key recommendation of The Red Zone report by the advocacy group End Rape on Campus, which detailed accounts of alleged assault, abuse and misbehaviour at residential colleges around Australia. Parents Kathy and Ralph Kelly, whose son Stuart took his own life in 2016 after what they believe was a traumatic experience at St Paul’s College, supported the call to ban hazing and were disappointed with Senator Birmingham’s response.
“Unless you have intervention externally from government, then it won’t change,” Mr Kelly said. “These things happen because they’re accepted by the [college] administration. Definitely the Minister of Education of this country needs to take a closer look and get involved – it’s not acceptable that we ignore this culture which destroys people’s lives.”