Just over a month ago I wrote to you arguing that, if you were serious about cutting Commonwealth expenditure, you must axe the National School Chaplaincy Program. (link: <https://alastairlawrie.net/2014/04/12/dear-joe-hockey-if-youre-serious-about-cutting-expenditure-you-must-axe-school-chaplains/ )
This program is a completely unjustifiable breach of the principle of the separation of church and state, supporting the appointment of people whose primary ‘qualification’ is their religion to positions in secular, government-run schools. It is also ineffective, with little or no evidence that employing chaplains benefits students overall (especially when compared with appointing properly-trained and qualified student welfare workers or counsellors).
Above all, with the National School Chaplaincy Program costing more than $50 million each and every year, this initiative is the epitome of waste. $50 million per year may not have seemed like a huge spend when it was first introduced (as Howard and Costello bathed in the rivers of cash flowing into the treasury coffers) but, in a post-GFC world, when the revenue stream has well and truly dried up, the largesse of this scheme is apparent.
Since I wrote to you, the final report of the National Commission of Audit has been released, and, much to my surprise, they recognised both the extravagance of, and lack of policy rationale for, this scheme, recommending that it be abolished. Even your hand-picked, right-wing Audit warriors thought funding school chaplains could not be justified.
So, when you rose to your feet to deliver the Budget on Tuesday night, the pressure was on you: were you in fact serious about cutting expenditure, including abolishing wasteful and ineffective programs irrespective of which side of politics had introduced them, or did balancing the Budget not matter as much as supporting narrow, ideological interests?
Alas, in the Budget papers, we the Australian public quickly discovered that, despite all the talk of ‘fiscal responsibility’ and ‘repairing the Budget’, you nevertheless had chosen to provide $245 million to the National School Chaplaincy Program, to continue its operation from 1 January 2015 to the end of 2018.
That decision in and of itself was terrible, but it is made worse, by several orders of magnitude, when it is contrasted with some of the other decisions contained in the Budget, including:
- The introduction of a $7 co-payment for visiting a doctor, as well as a $5 increase in the cost of prescriptions through the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme;
- A $7.9 billion cut in the foreign aid budget over the next 5 years;
- A $500 million cut to expenditure on indigenous programs over the next 5 years (this under the ‘Prime Minister for Indigenous affairs’);
- A rise in the pension age from 67 to 70 (phased in to 2035), as well as a reduction in future pension increases;
- An increase in university fees, with loans to be charged at much higher interest rates and the repayment threshold significantly lowered; and
- The introduction of a 6-month wait for access to unemployment benefits for people under 30 (and even then, payment at a reduced rate).
That list sounds like a ‘Tea Party’ inspired re-imagining of The New Colossus: “Give me your tired, your (global) poor, your sick, your Aboriginal, your elderly, your young, your students and your unemployed, and we will make them pay.” When you spoke of ‘sharing the burden’, it seems like you almost went out of your way to ensure that the burden was shared, disproportionately, by the most vulnerable.
In that context, it looks more than bizarre that one of the main groups who do not have to experience any Budget pain are school chaplains. The decision to give them almost a quarter of a billion dollars doesn’t even make sense when looked at exclusively in the context of the Education Budget.
The $245 million provided to the National School Chaplaincy Program is the single biggest spending initiative in the budget for schools, which implies that it is the Abbott Government’s biggest school-related priority for its first year in office. This funding also stands in marked contrast to the decision not to provide any additional funding for students with disabilities, despite that being a major pre-election commitment.
Do you really think that subsidising chaplains is more important than funding students with disabilities, or indeed funding anything else to do with schools?
The worst part is that the decision to refund the School Chaplaincy program is not even the worst part about this announcement.
In Tuesday night’s media release (“Keeping our Commitments: Funding a National School Chaplaincy Program”, issued by Senator the Hon Scott Ryan, the Parliamentary for Education) the Government stated that “[t]he renewed programme will be returned to its original intent; to provide funding for school chaplains.”
As made clear, in supporting documentation and subsequent media coverage, this means that, from 1 January next year, only religious appointees, from ‘recognised denominations’, need apply.
This is a return to the Howard Government designed scheme from 2007, and abolishes the only redeeming feature of the entire program – which was the 2012 amendment, made by then Education Ministers the Hon Peter Garrett MP, to allow schools the choice to employ secular student welfare workers rather than chaplains.
In doing away with qualified student welfare workers, you have also removed the only fig-leaf of credibility which (partially) covered up the nakedly-ideological, and evidence-free, nature of the overall scheme.
It is impossible for you, and the Commonwealth Government in general, to claim that the National School Chaplaincy Program is genuinely about improving the welfare of students, when you are explicitly denying schools the opportunity to employ the best people for the job.
In the absence of any student welfare-based rationale, everyone can now see that the decision to provide new funding to the National School Chaplaincy Program is, at its core, a joke. The changes to the scheme’s rules, which mean that all 2,900 people employed under the scheme must be religious appointees, and cannot be secular student welfare workers, make it a bad joke at that.
But maybe we only see it as a bad joke because the joke is on us. After all, we the taxpayers are the ones footing the $245 million bill to allow chaplains and other religious office-holders inappropriate access to the schoolyard, and the classroom.
There are, of course, others who are laughing at our expense: the religious organisations who have their ‘outreach’ work to young impressionable minds publicly-subsidised; the religious fundamentalists in the Liberal-National Government (and, it must be said, some in the ALP Opposition) who believe it is the role of Government to ensure Australia is a ‘Christian nation’; and the major churches who want to break down, once and for all, the already fragile separation of church and state in this country.
The group laughing hardest, though, must be the Australian Christian Lobby, because this is your, and Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s, extravagant, quarter of a billion dollar gift to them. It must gladden your heart that, in his post-Budget media release (where it should be acknowledged he at least made the effort to criticise the overall impact of Budget cuts on the poor and disadvantaged) ACL Managing Director Lyle Shelton still found time to be thankful for the Chaplaincy Program. As an aside: Lyle, if you are genuinely concerned about cuts to foreign aid, maybe you should by lobbying for that $245 million to go overseas instead.
So, when you stood up on Tuesday night and said that ‘we are a nation of lifters, not leaners’, it was, like so much of what you said, just empty rhetoric. Because, as you have so amply demonstrated through this single, fundamentally wasteful decision, groups like the Australian Christian Lobby can always lean on you.
Of course, funding the National School Chaplaincy Program for another four years, and even changing its rules, probably wasn’t the worst decision contained in the Federal Budget. It definitely isn’t the decision that will cause the most harm to struggling individuals, both here and overseas (the list of other changes outlined above will likely all have far more deleterious consequences than simply putting 2,900 religious appointees in schools).
But the decision to award $245 million to this scheme reveals, probably more than any other choice made by you and the other members of the Expenditure Review Committee, just how twisted the Budget priorities of this Government really are. In amongst the carnage of savage cuts to health, to education, to the pension and to foreign aid, you and your colleagues nevertheless found room in your hearts, and our wallets, to fund the National School Chaplaincy Program.
The role of the nation’s Treasurer is a serious one, bringing with it solemn responsibilities. You are supposed to tax wisely, spend fairly, look after the most vulnerable and invest for our collective future. In your first Budget, you instead chose to hurt some of those who are the most disadvantaged, while still helping your – ideological and political – friends. I am sorry to say, Mr Hockey, but on May 13, you failed to live up to the serious responsibilities of Treasurer.