The Federal government has made the following statement following the High Court’s decision in favour of Ron Williams’ contention that Federal funding for the National School Chaplaincy and Student Welfare program is illegal:
On 19 June 2014, the High Court of Australia found the National School Chaplaincy and Student Welfare Program to be invalid.
Thursday 19 June 2014
Following the High Court’s decision, the Commonwealth no longer has capacity to administer or control the National School Chaplaincy and Student Welfare Program.
It may be that services continue to be provided at particular schools – whether that is the case will be a matter for the individual schools and the providers of chaplaincy and student welfare services to determine.
The Commonwealth has decided to waive its right to recover payments that have already been made under the program funding agreements. In reaching this decision, the Commonwealth has given careful consideration to the range of factors that are relevant to the exercise of its power to waive debts owing to it.
The Department of Education will provide further information to schools, funding recipients and education authorities on the decision and its impact on the specific circumstances relating to each provider following further analysis of the decision.
What does the High Court decision mean for the new National School Chaplaincy Programme?
As part of the 2014-15 Federal Budget, the Australian Government allocated $243.8 million over four years to fund the National School Chaplaincy Programme.
Implications of the High Court decision on the future of the programme are being considered.
What does this mean?
It means that the National School Chaplaincy and Student Welfare Program is dead – set adrift by Abbott and his henchmen.
If the current funding arrangements mirror those of 20 June 2012 when the judgement in Williams I was handed down, substantial moneys are due to funding recipients on 30 June. In 2012 that amount was $16.44 million—which triggered the financial amendment bill required to keep the cash flowing to the para-churches.
And, it seems from this missive, that money cannot and will not be paid by the Federal government.
If schools want to keep their chaplains, it’s going to be up to them and the chaplaincy providers to find some way to pay their wages.
The government seems to have no heart for ‘saving legislation’ as occurred in June 2012 after the first Williams decision. The NSCSWP has been deemed unsalvageable. From now until at least 2015, the Federal government has washed its hands off the whole grubby, illegal affair.
What is more important is that, from 1 July, chaplains will not be subject to the NSCSWP guidelines – which at least, in theory prevented counselling and proselytising – because this program no longer exists. The terms under which they work will be entirely dependent upon local education policies, individual school’s policies and whatever requirements imposed upon the by bodies like Scripture Union and ACCESS Ministries.
It is notable that the Federal government and the states do not seem to have colluded to continue the program seamlessly by funding it through tied grants. That would have been constitutional via S.96 of the Constitution. But, it requires the states to agree to accept the funding and administer the program. Perhaps that has not happened.
With revelations of proselytising, inappropriate counselling, homophobia and links to homophobic hate groups, and, worse, court actions pending over criminal activities by chaplains the states would be taking on a poisoned chalice in agreeing to take responsibility for school chaplaincy. The funding recipients – particularly ACCESS Ministries – are really ‘on the nose’.
We can only speculate that, if the Federal government tried to anticipate a win for Williams by making arrangements through the states, the states were not as co-operative as the Federal government may have wished – and for good reason!
What the Federal government has now is a quarter of a billion dollar commitment to a new chaplaincy program they cannot administer themselves and for which, at least for now, there are now statutory guidelines. If funded through tied grants to the states, it will be up to each state to either agree to a single set of guidelines (unlikely!) or to negotiate the terms under which they are prepared to accept the money (messy!).
It can and will never be a ‘national’ program again. Given this, it provides little or no political value for the Federal government and is likely to cause only headaches and political liability to the states.
The allocation of a quarter of a billion dollars to chaplaincy in an austerity budget has caused widespread outrage. Whatever the funding recipients might say, there is clearly very little public support for the program. For example, a poll by the Sydney Morning Herald, following the judgement in Williams’ favour, attracted over 19,000 responses, with 82 per cent of respondents saying the program should now be scrapped completely.
So, for now, school chaplaincy is in limbo. There is no suggestion emanating from the Federal government that they will fund it through the states and we can only speculate on why this rather ‘obvious’ solution hasn’t been implemented. Meanwhile, Abbott and his team have done a Pontius Pilate on the scheme instituted by Howard in 2006 and meddled with by the Gillard government. It is no more and they have washed their hands of it. Williams has killed it.
Will another chaplaincy scheme arise from the ashes? Perhaps. But it will never be a national scheme and it seems very likely that the Federal government and the states have grown rather weary of this ill-conceived adventure of placing minimally qualified evangelical missionaries into state schools to deal with at-risk, vulnerable kids.
As someone wrote on Facebook recently: Bringing children and churches together – what could go wrong?