Premier says government gag attempt is 'unusual'

Premier Will Hodgman
Premier Will Hodgman

Premier Will Hodgman says a government attempt to prevent adult educator Steve Biddulph from talking about school starting ages during a planned appearance in Tasmania is “unacceptable” and “embarrassing”.

The Education Department apologised to Mr Biddulph for asking him to sign a legally binding contract forbidding him from discussing “any topic that could be perceived as political or partisan” during a presentation at LINC in Devonport next weekend.

“I asked what this meant and was told, in writing, that it meant that I was not to discuss school starting age or related issues during my presentation. It was a legal and binding commitment,” he wrote in a Facebook post.

Mr Hodgman said he had been in touch with the department secretary asking for an explanation.

“I’m advised that it is unusual. It’s not the sort of thing that happens and nor should it … It’s unacceptable, it’s embarrassing and it shouldn’t happen again.

“An apology was extended, but that in no way excuses what was an inappropriate course of action.”

Mr Biddulph was due to speak at the Building Brighter, Stronger Families Program at LINC Devonport on Saturday March 11 along with Maggie Dent and Mem Fox.

“I had not intended to discuss the intense controversy that has arisen over school starting age in my two presentations, but it can still come up, and if asked, of course, professionally and ethically I am bound to speak the truth about the research picture on this subject,” he said.

"And so ethically, I could not sign, and I let the organisers know this. I conveyed also that I thought it very bad for the state. I received an email from Maggie, who holds similar views on school starting. Neither she or Mem had the requirement made of them. It was only me.”

As a result, Mr Biddulph will not be appearing next weekend, but said he would be in Devonport later in the year. "I appreciate the acting Education Minister’s apology, that was heartening to read about in today’s paper.”

Labor Leader Bryan Green said the move was intended to silence potential opposition to the government’s voluntary starting age plans.

“The Liberals say they’re for free speech but go to extraordinary lengths to silence their critics.

“Nothing goes out into the public sphere without approval from the Premier’s senior political staff.”

But Mr Hodgman distanced himself from the controversy on Thursday.

“It was not instigated by the ministers. It was not instigated by myself. It was done by the department, incorrectly so.

“It’s not part of the normal course of government business. We in no way want to impinge on people’s rights to speak freely and we welcome debate about public policy, particularly in key areas like education.”