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Why is the government still funding the illegal chaplains program?

Penny Wright 23 Jun 2014

Senator WRIGHT (South Australia) (14:21): My question is to the Minister representing the Minister for Education regarding the High Court judgement in Williams v the Commonwealth (No. 2), which held that the National School Chaplaincy and Student Welfare Program to be invalid. The Commonwealth has chosen to waive the debt on program payments made to date including $37 million paid in advance to cover the next six months of the program for work not yet done. Why will the government not recover funds that have not yet been expended thereby effectively continuing to fund an illegal program?


Senator PAYNE (New South Wales-Minister for Human Services) (14:22): I thank Senator Wright for her question. As the senator said in her question-through the finance minister who has the power to do so under the Financial Management and Accountability Act-the Commonwealth's right to recover payments that have already been made under relevant funding agreements has been waived; however, I would advise the senator that this does not affect the fact that the program cannot be continued by the Commonwealth: no further payments will be made under the current program. The government will consider the High Court's decision closely in order to determine whether there are implications for other Commonwealth expenditure programs.

Senator Wright: I rise on a point of order-has the minister finished the answer?-because it did not address the question I asked, which is: why has the government made that choice?

The PRESIDENT: I cannot tell the minister how to answer the question. The minister has sat down after her answering your question.

Senator WRIGHT (South Australia) (14:23): Mr President, I have a supplementary question: the High Court decision means that the chaplaincy program can no longer be funded or administered by the federal government. It is finished. But this government decision means that chaplains and welfare workers will still be working in schools until the end of the year without any administrative oversight by the education department-including guidelines, codes of conduct or complaints procedures. How will the Australian government ensure the safety and wellbeing of students for these six months?

Senator PAYNE (New South Wales-Minister for Human Services) (14:23): In response to Senator Wright, I would advise the senator that the systems which were in place before the High Court decision have not disappeared into thin air. I should imagine that Senator Wright has not considered that in her question. Of course, the day-to-day operation of chaplains within the school system is the responsibility of state and territory governments-as the day-to-day operation of the schools is their responsibility-and the continued operation to the end of the year will be a matter for them.

Senator WRIGHT (South Australia) (14:24): Mr President, I ask a further supplementary question: considering the Australian government's supposed crackdown on the age of entitlement, and its cruel cuts to Newstart recipients, single parents, and pensioners, why is the government so intent on waiving debts to allow a further $37 million to be spent on an illegal program?

Senator PAYNE (New South Wales-Minister for Human Services) (14:24): I think Senator Wright's use of the word illegal should be perhaps be reconsidered in this regard. I have seen some tenuous links in my life, but the ones that Senator Wright has adopted in that question would probably beat them all. The senator's question has been answered by my previous responses. I have no more to add.

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