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Government answers on chaplaincy program inadequate

Speeches in Parliament
Penny Wright 23 Jun 2014

Senator WRIGHT (South Australia) (15:28): I move:

That the Senate take note of the answer given by the Minister for Human Services (Senator Payne) to a question without notice asked by Senator Wright today relating to the National School Chaplaincy and Student Welfare Program.



The minister failed to answer the questions that I put. I asked the minister why the government was choosing not to recover $37 million paid out in advance for services up to the end of the year that have not yet been delivered under the National School Chaplaincy and Student Welfare Program. That program is now defunct. The school chaplains program has always been contentious. It was originated by the Howard government as a way to effectively get more Christianity into public schools. It was a way of foisting a particular ideology, a particular religious world view, on public schools then, and that is what the government is seeking to do again. This is particularly obvious when the answer to questions as to why the federal government was not intending to fund secular welfare workers, some of whom had been doing wonderful work in schools, has been, 'This isn't a welfare program.' That begs the question: what is it?

On 19 June 2014, the High Court ruled that the funding under the National School Chaplaincy and Student Welfare Program is invalid. It was the second time the High Court had found the program invalid in two years. This second High Court case of Williams and the Commonwealth, No. 2, found that the power relied upon by the federal government in their argument, the power under the Constitution in section 51 which allows the federal government to make laws to provide benefits to students, was not adequate to support the continued existence-or in fact the existence at all-of this particular program. The court found that the benefits provided to students were not direct enough and, as a result of that decision, the program was found to be unconstitutional and, as a result, it was found to be defunct.

At this point, I would just like to acknowledge that Mr Ron Williams who brought both Williams No. 1 and Williams No. 2 has been a persistent and tireless campaigner against the use of federal government and taxpayer funds to sponsor a religious program like this in public schools in Australia. He has again successfully highlighted the flaws in the means that the federal government has been prepared to use to subvert a proud history of secular education in Australia. The decision was that federal funding for the chaplaincy program is illegal and all payments that have been made to date are illegal.

This year $37 million of the allocated $74 million, has already been expended on the program. But a further $37 million remains to the end of the year for services that have not yet been rendered. The federal government has made a decision to waive what is effectively a debt that would be payable back into consolidated revenue. I questioned the minister representing the Minister for Education today as to the rationale for this and why the government has decided to do that. There was no answer forthcoming. There was absolutely no answer as to why that would occur. As a result, $37 million paid for the final six months of this year for services not yet provided has been paid to chaplaincy providers as a gift, essentially, of taxpayers' funding for a program that is no longer in existence and which is considered to be invalid.

This begs the question: why is the government preparing to do this at a time when they are constantly telling everybody else that the age of entitlement-not the Age of Enlightenment, but perhaps that too-is at an end? We are seeing cruel cuts in the federal budget to people who are in receipt of Newstart payments, pensions decreasing over time, and single parents being affected, yet the government has effectively decided to gift $37 million for the rest of this year to chaplaincy services.

The other question which the minister failed to answer is: given that the federal education department website acknowledges that the federal government can no longer fund or, indeed, administer this program, which means that all the guidelines, the codes of conduct and the administration which oversaw the safety of the program have now come to an end, the federal government has not been able to say via the minister's response how the welfare and safety of students can be guaranteed or, indeed, will be managed by the federal government until the end of the year. They have tried to put the responsibility on states, but that is not sufficient or adequate. It is a federal government responsibility if they are facilitating the continued operation of this illegal program. We remain to see how the safety and welfare of students will be guaranteed.

Question agreed to.

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