Dear Joe Hockey, If you’re serious about cutting expenditure, you must axe school chaplains

As promised during the 2013 federal election campaign, one of the first actions of the Tony Abbott-led Liberal-National Government was to establish a National Commission of Audit, to review all Commonwealth expenditure in an effort to reduce spending and ultimately deliver a Budget surplus.

Indeed, the Terms of Reference for the Commission of Audit described it as a “full-scale review of the activities of the Commonwealth government to:

-ensure taxpayers are receiving value-for-money from each dollar spent;

-eliminate wasteful spending; …

-identify areas or programs where Commonwealth involvement is inappropriate…” [among other objectives].

The Commission’s first report was delivered to the Treasurer, Joe Hockey, in mid-February, and the second was handed over at the end of March. The contents of both reports were, quite cynically, kept from the public ahead of the Western Australian half-Senate election on 5 April (because you wouldn’t want an electorate to actually be informed about impending spending cuts before they vote), although, with only one month left until the Federal Budget is handed down it’s highly likely they will be released in the next week or two.

It is expected that the Commission will recommended that the axe fall on (or at least make significant cuts to) a wide range of different programs, with apparently ‘authorised’ leaks focusing on things like the aged pension, Medicare (through a $6 co-payment) and other vital health, education and welfare services.

However, there is one program that, I believe, meets all of the above criteria and thoroughly deserves to be cut as part of any serious expenditure review: the National School Chaplaincy and Student Welfare Program. It is almost impossible to argue that putting ministers of religion into government schools could ever be value-for-money, when compared with almost any other government expense. As well as being enormously wasteful spending, it would also seem to be the definition of a program where Commonwealth involvement is inappropriate.

And yet, given the highly political nature of the Commission of Audit, I suspect it is unlikely the National School Chaplaincy Program is under any real threat. Even if the Commission were to recommend its abolition, it is hard to believe that Joe Hockey would actually follow through on any such advice when he rises to the dispatch box on the night of Tuesday 13 May.

More’s the pity. The National School Chaplaincy Program is amongst the worst examples of public policy over the past decade (and there have been some absolute shockers in that time). It was introduced by John Howard in the dying days of his government (2007), as he realised his grip on power was loosening with age – basically, it was a sop to ultra-conservatives and religious fundamentalists (both of which can be found in the form of the Australian Christian Lobby) to entice them to remain aboard his sinking electoral ship.

Alas, in a demonstration that poor policy, and religious pork-barrelling, can be bipartisan, the incoming Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, maintained the National Schools Chaplaincy Program throughout his first stint in the Lodge. When it came time to review the first three years of its operation, frustratingly he and his then Deputy, Education Minister Julia Gillard, chose to continue, rather than close, the program.

As Prime Minister in the lead-up to the 2010 poll, Gillard then announced a $222 million extension of the program til the end of this year (2014). This money was also provided to allow for expansion of the scheme’s coverage, from 2,700 schools up to 3,550 schools.

The only figure that accomplished anything to at least partially mitigate the genuine awfulness of the National Schools Chaplaincy Program over the past seven years was Education Minister Peter Garrett, who changed the program guidelines from the start of 2012 to allow schools to choose between chaplains or qualified student counsellors (hence the revised name). He also attempted to introduce a requirement that all workers, including chaplains, have some level of relevant qualifications, although recognition of ‘prior learning’ on the job was also encouraged.

Nevertheless, the vast majority of people employed as a result of this scheme remain ministers of religion. Imagine that: in 2014, the Commonwealth Government provides up to $24,000 per year to more than three and a half thousand schools to subsidise the employment of someone whose primary ‘qualification’, indeed whose primary vocation full stop, is to proselytise.

Ironically, the National School Chaplaincy and Student Welfare Program Guidelines then go to great lengths to attempt to limit the ability of chaplains to proselytise or evangelise from their position of authority within the school community, which is about as useful as telling a tree to stop growing leaves (or telling Cory Bernardi to stop being a bigot). It seems like the apotheosis of a set of rules where adherence, rather than breach, will be the exception.

The Guidelines themselves are also full of loopholes, allowing chaplains to “provid[e] services with a spiritual content (excluding religious education) including facilitating discussion groups and lunch time clubs” with approval and consent, as well as “performing religious services/rites (such as worship or prayer during school assembly etc), with… appropriate prior consent”.

This is an obvious and serious contravention of the principle of the separation of church and state. In the United States, such a program – paying for men (and some women) of faith to introduce their religion into government schools – would be struck out as unconstitutional by their Supreme Court.

Sadly, the anaemic interpretation of section 116 of the Constitution adopted by the High Court of Australia in the “DOGS case” [Attorney-General (Vic); Ex Rel Black v Commonwealth [1981] HCA 2; (1981) 146 CLR 559 (2 February 1981)] meant that it was never going to be struck down here, or at least not on those grounds.

Even after the program was successfully challenged by Toowoomba father, and man of principle, Ron Williams in 2012, with the High Court finding that the scheme did not have a legislative basis to appropriate money, the Government squibbed the ideal chance to abandon a flawed program and instead rushed through legislation to support its ongoing operation [as an aside, the High Court will be hearing a further challenge from Mr Williams, on May 6-8 2014, that the rushed omnibus Bill was itself unconstitutional].

And even if the National School Chaplaincy Program is ultimately found to be constitutional, there is still absolutely zero evidence that it is effective at improving the overall welfare of students.

If any of the Howard, Rudd, Gillard, Rudd (again) or now Abbott Governments genuinely considered that student welfare was a matter of priority, they would properly fund, rather than part subsidise, actual student counsellors or social workers to perform that function in every school, not implement a scheme where cashed-up churches could target individual cash-starved schools and offer the ‘services’ of ministers of religion, essentially as a backdoor way of indoctrinating a fresh generation of children.

There are ways in which the introduction of ministers of religion into schools can lead to direct harm too, not least of which being the issue of potential child sex abuse. In fact, at the same time as the hearings of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse, the Government continues to encourage the employment of ministers of religion in public schools, with a code of conduct that allows them to have physical contact with students because “there may be some circumstances where physical contact may be appropriate such as where the student is injured or distraught”. [NB Obviously I am not saying that most, or even many, school chaplains are child sex abusers, but it seems unnecessary, and unnecessarily risky, to bring in people from institutions with a long history of covering-up such abuse and placing them in positions of trust in public schools.]

In addition, some (although obviously not all) ministers of religion also present a clear and present danger to young lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) students, given the blatant homophobia adopted by particular churches and their officials. This threat is explicitly acknowledged by the Guidelines, which in response attempts to prohibit discriminatory behaviour on the basis of sexuality (although it doesn’t appear as though either gender identity or intersex status are mentioned at all).

In the same way as the prohibition on ‘proselytising’ described above, however, it is inevitable that there will be some ministers of religion, in some schools, who deliberately flout those rules, and in the process cause untold harm to young LGBTI students.

In short, the National Schools Chaplaincy Program is philosophically unsound, has no evidence that it benefits student welfare, is expensive, potentially causes harm and is clearly an inappropriate activity to be funded through taxpayers’ money. Surely, out of all of the programs funded by the Commonwealth, across almost all areas, it should be at or near the top of any Commission of Audit ‘hit-list’.

Even if the Commission of Audit abrogates its basic responsibility to recommend that the National School Chaplaincy Program be axed, Treasurer Joe Hockey will still have to make a decision on the future of the program as part of the 2014-15 Budget, because, as noted earlier, funding for the scheme runs out at the end of this year.

What action Joe Hockey takes on this will reveal a great deal about what kind of Treasurer he intends to be. Of all the incoming Abbott Ministers, Hockey has been the loudest in condemning middle-class welfare, in arguing that the role of Government must be smaller, and that inappropriate or unjustifiable programs should be cut.

Well, here is an ideal opportunity to live up to at least some of that rhetoric, savings upwards of $222 million in the process (that’s the equivalent of one and a half $6 GP co-payments for every person in Australia). If he does so on 13 May, then he should be applauded for it (noting of course that there might, just might, be some other things in the Budget that warrant a somewhat different response).

If Hockey fails to rise to the occasion, and extends or even expands funding for ministers of religion in our public schools, then it will show that he is not serious at all about reining in inappropriate spending, and does not believe in small Government – instead, it will simply demonstrate that he believes in big government of a different kind, one that takes money from genuine welfare programs and places it in the hands of ministers of religion for the propagation of their beliefs.

So, now it’s over to you Joe: would you rather take money from people who simply want to see their doctor via a bulk-billed appointment, or from a program which funds the placement of ministers of religion into our public schools? I know which one I would choose. I guess we’ll find out on Budget night which one you do.

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12 thoughts on “Dear Joe Hockey, If you’re serious about cutting expenditure, you must axe school chaplains

  1. This is a total misunderstanding and misrepresentation of the chaplaincy program. Chaplains in schools are NOT usually ministers of religion and in any case, they are not allowed to “proselytise”, even if they are from a church. Chaplains must have specific and approved training in working with either primary school-aged or high-school aged children and counselling whole families, not just students.
    In my local high school, a chaplain proved to be THE MOST COST-EFFECTIVE person to employ, since they run courses and programs for students and staff, ranging from: leadership, anti-bullying, assertiveness training, mentors, respectful relationships, dealing with stereotypes, inclusivity, positive personal development courses, stress, conflict resolution, effective communication, optimism and resilience, belonging and connectedness for students at risk and even parenting strategies to support struggling parents. The chaplain has time to schedule for individual students (and their families when necessary), whereas class teachers must be responsible for classes as a whole and do not get the time for the in-depth follow-up needed for many troubled students. Also, a chaplain does refer students and their parents to other (professional) groups and organisations for further help appropriate to the specific circumstances.
    There are long waiting lists for students to access Government Psychology services and the cost of private services is prohibitive, especially for the families who need it most. Supporting students through transition periods and hard times of life pays dividends, as they more likely to resolve issues, show improved attitude, successfully complete studies and get a job, and far less likely to drop out or act out against society – and a well-chosen chaplain is the best-value person to fulfil this role.

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    • They are not supposed to proselytise or engage in counselling but they do both – you call it “in-depth follow up” . Correct, they are not ministers of religion, they have minimal qualifications and are not equipped to deal with the needs of vulnerable students who seek proper counseling.

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    • ….and to address your last paragraph, Yes, adolescence is a transition period and many students need support. But only a leap of faith could lead to your conclusion.

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  2. Thanks very much for your comment Beth, although I am sure it won’t surprise you that I disagree with most of the points you make.
    In terms of whether they are officially consecrated ‘ministers of religion’, or simply faith-based appointments (ie they are only employed because they are office-holders within a particular church or religious organisation), I don’t think really makes a difference – it remains completely inappropriate to place the welfare of young people, in publicly-funded and supposedly secular schools, in the hands of men (and sometimes women) of faith. I have also used the phrase ‘ministers of religion’ because that is the closest approximation of the role they perform.
    As for the prohibition on ‘proselytising’, as I noted in my post, this ban is not worth the Government paper it is printed on – the fundamental nature of chaplains, ministers of religion, or other religious office-holders (or whatever other name you would like to give them) is to proselytise or evangelise – and that might be acceptable, if somewhat annoying, when they are preaching on a street-corner, but is clearly unacceptable when funded by taxpayer dollars, or in the schoolyards those dollars fund.
    In terms of training, again, as I noted in my post (which I am starting to suspect you didn’t actually read properly) Minister Garrett introduced a minimum level of training requirement in 2012. Which meant that between 2007 and 2011 there was no such requirement. And, when those requirements were imposed, it was intended that prior learning would be recognised – so those chaplains already serving in schools would never have to be qualified (and certainly not in the same way that secular counsellors would).
    As for value-for-money, you are correct to note that chaplains can seem like good value – because that was exactly the financial trap which John Howard set for schools. Rather than properly fund student welfare positions (ie fully fund people with real training to support the emotional wellbeing of primary and secondary school age children), Howard offered a smaller amount, to part-fund a position which could then be supplemented by payments from the school community AND from churches. If schools had the money to employ a genuine counsellor they would have – but instead were left with the choice of a chaplain or nothing. It was a sneaky move to insert more religion (and in particular, more christianity) into public schools, while trying to dress it up as something else (Senator Brandis may have even described it as ‘rat cunning’).
    As I wrote above, if Howard, Rudd, Gillard or Abbott were serious about student welfare, they would make funding it a matter of priority, and find the room in the Budget to employ real counsellors. Instead, we are left with an inappropriate, ineffective and unjustified scheme, the only outcome of which is that we now have more than 3000 religious office-holders employed with taxpayers dollars. And that is just not good enough.

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    • Just wondering whether or not you have had any experience with a school Chaplain? Have you been to schools that have school Chaplains? As far as I’m aware – from my own reading- the program has received nothing but praise from the schools involved – schools have employed chaplains in growing numbers. Surely if the program were a waste of money and detrimental to students then principals would condemn the program, whereas the evidence would show that principals are thankful for the support of school chaplains and find the program beneficial for the school community.

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      • Thanks for the comment, Kim. I went to school in the days before the Chaplaincy Program although, as someone who went to a religious boarding school, there were plenty of chaplains around (including one who thought it appropriate to discuss, in front of a chapel full of 500-600 15-17 year old students, the suicide of someone who he said was ‘struggling’ with their sexuality, and then suggest it wasn’t the worst thing the person could have done).
        But leaving that egregious lack of humanity aside, I am not actually that interested in what the principals or even most parents have to say about the program, I am much more interested in:
        -Whether the chaplains have inappropriately brought their religion into the supposedly secular school environment (and there is mounting evidence that many have, quite predictably, done so) and
        -Whether the students themselves have benefited from having chaplains in their school, performing roles which should be provided by qualified school counsellors, or whether students have been let down by having unqualified and inappropriate people in these roles?
        In short, even if every single school principal said that having a chaplain in their school was great, still doesn’t mean the program is right in principle, or is actually for the benefit of the students.

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  3. Your obsession is sad Alistair and would appear to be influenced by your own memory of an experience interpreted through childish eyes. Hardly a rational basis for a clear and reasonable response.
    Many hundreds of students benefit directly from this program. The reality is that no government will fund psychologists to the number of hours they fund chaplains. Many chaplains are highly educated people who are altruistically supporting their fellow human beings by doing this important job for a salary that is far lower than they get elsewhere.
    It is beyond my understanding why a person would go to such great lengths to deprive children and young people of a source of encouragement and support that truly makes a positive difference to their lives.
    To a regular community member it does appear that your crusade reeks of childish arguments, irrational and bitter foot stamping and a good dose of self centred attempts to indoctrinate others with your belief system at all costs.
    Perhaps it’s time for you to let go of your emotional baggage and give others the freedom to receive support and care.

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    • Thanks for your comment, AJ. First, I was asked a direct question (whether there were any chaplains at my school) and I answered. And the story I raised did happen – after all, I was there (besides, is it really stretching credulity to suggest that something like that would happen, when some religious extremists are responsible for things like ‘ex-gay therapy’, telling people that their sexual orientation is inherently wrong, and that they must somehow change themselves, or else?).
      Second, I never said that all chaplains were like that, nor did I say that this was the primary basis on which I opposed Commonwealth Government funding of chaplains in schools. If you read the article, I also didn’t say that I expected chaplains to be replaced by psychologists in every school – I merely said that, if the Commonwealth Government was genuinely concerned about student welfare, they would put people into schools who had qualifications in that area, not religious office-holders.
      But it is two gaping flaws in your logic that I really wanted to address. In your last comment, you ask me to ‘give others the freedom to receive support and care’. Umm, this issue is not about individual freedom for a parent or, more importantly, student to decide what they want for themselves in terms of religion, this is about a centralised, taxpayer-funded program which pays for the introduction of religious office-holders into public, supposedly secular schools. That doesn’t seem like it is really about freedom at all.
      But it is your contention that I am the one in this argument who is ‘self-centredly attempt[ing] to indoctrinate others with [my] belief system at all costs’ that is the most laughably hypocritical. Please remind me again, who in this debate is calling for the introduction of religious office-holders into public schools, where they are able to indoctrinate children and young people? I’ll give you a clue – it’s not me.

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    • I daresay these chaplains are being altruistic in the name of Jesus and not just because they are altruistic.

      There is no need for religion in the government funded chaplaincy program, so why outsource to parachurches?

      They don’t do this type of work because their primary concern is the welfare of students. They do it for Jesus.

      That’s a very good reason a secular government should not be giving them a single cent.

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    • You say: “It is beyond my understanding”, which I think sums up your position. Clearly, you fail to understand the problems that crusading, under-qualified chaplains present to vulnerable students. Yes properly trained school psychologists are paid more. – our kids deserve that

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  4. Thanks for replying Alastair. I have to disagree with your seemingly poor understanding of the chaplaincy and student welfare program. A program by which principals – with parental input decide whether to employ a chaplain OR student welfare officer with no religious affiliation. I would encourage you to speak with students and or parents before disparaging a program that has received incredibly favourable feedback from those who are actually experiencing it – as opposed to those who think they know what it looks like based on assumption rather than actual current experience.

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    • Thanks Kim. Looks like we’ll have to agree to disagree then – after all, I continue to believe in a secular education system, where, if students need welfare support, they receive it from trained professionals, while you continue to support having religious office-holders perform (at least some of) these roles, even in government schools, and using the taxpayer dollars of ALL Australians.

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