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.

No 4 Draft Health & Physical Education Curriculum Fails LGBTI Students

For people who read my blog regularly, you will know that this is something I have written a fair bit about over the past 12 months. For others, you could be forgiven for asking what exactly I am talking about. Which is a fair enough question, given this subject has almost completely evaded media attention, even within the LGBTI community.

In December 2012, the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) released a draft national Health & Physical Education (HPE) curriculum for public consultation. Submissions closed in April this year, before a second draft was released for limited public consultation in July 2013.

ACARA then finalised the draft curriculum from August to November, before submitting it for approval at the COAG Standing Council on School Education and Early Childhood (SCSEEC) meeting in in Sydney on 29 November.

Through this process, it became clear that the draft HPE curriculum that had been developed would almost completely fail to serve the needs of young LGBTI people right around Australia. Neither the first nor the second draft curriculum even included the words gay, lesbian or bisexual, and, while the second included transgender and intersex, it only did so in the glossary and even then erroneously included them within the same definition.

Nor did the draft HPE curriculum guarantee that all students, LGBTI and non-LGBTI alike, would learn the necessary sexual health education to allow them to make informed choices. Almost unbelievably, COAG Education Ministers were asked to approve a Health & Physical Education curriculum that did not even include the term HIV (or other BBVs like viral hepatitis for that matter), just two days before World AIDS Day.

For more information on just how bad the draft HPE curriculums were, here is my submission to the first draft: https://alastairlawrie.net/2013/04/11/submission-on-national-health-physical-education-curriculum/ and second draft: https://alastairlawrie.net/2013/07/30/submission-on-redrafted-national-health-physical-education-curriculum/

Given the fact the draft HPE curriculums so comprehensively failed to include LGBTI students, let alone content that was relevant to their needs, why didn’t this issue receive more attention, both from the media, and more specifically from LGBTI activists and advocates?

Well, there are lots of reasons – including but not limited to the inability of something as complicated as a school curriculum to compete with the much more emotive, yes/no, good/evil, photogenic juggernaut that is marriage equality.

But simply writing it off in that way is too simple – and lets us off the hook, free from our own responsibility for this failure. Because, if the exclusion of LGBTI students and content from the HPE curriculum was not a public issue, it is because we, as LGBTI activists and advocates, did not make it one.

In which case, I would like to sincerely apologise to future generations of young LGBTI people, who we failed over the past 12 months. If the HPE curriculum that is ultimately adopted resembles anything like its draft form, then we simply did not do enough to ensure that you received the education that you deserve.

Of course, I should not be alone in making such an apology – there are many other people, and organisations, who could and should have done more in this area throughout the course of 2013. Nor should we let off the hook the Education Ministers, both Labor and Liberal, who oversaw the development of the HPE curriculum, including Peter Garrett and Bill Shorten who were Education Minister when the two drafts were released, respectively.

There is however, a small glimmer of hope, and an opportunity to make things better, in the HPE curriculum and therefore for LGBTI students over the next 10 to 15 years. That is because new Commonwealth Education Minister Christopher Pyne has commenced a review of both ACARA, and of the curriculum development process more generally.

While overall that is probably not a positive development, it did mean that the HPE curriculum was not actually agreed at the 29 November meeting, but was instead simply ‘noted’. In short, there is still time to try to convince Minister Pyne, and any or all of this state and territory counterparts (Labor, Liberal and Green), that the draft HPE curriculum is not good enough when it comes to providing essential health education to LGBTI students.

Unfortunately, doing so would require the concerted effort of LGBTI people and organisations from around the country. Based on all the evidence of the past 12 months, I am not especially hopeful. Still, I can hope to be proven wrong.

UPDATE January 11 2014: As of yesterday, the small glimmer of hope that might have existed is no more. The Commonwealth Education Minister, Christopher Pyne, has appointed Kevin Donnelly as one of two men to review the curriculum. Unfortunately, Mr Donnelly is on record as making numerous homophobic comments in the past, including advocating for the rights of religious schools to discriminate against LGBTI students and staff. If anything, there is now a grave danger that the final Health & Physical Education curriculum will be significantly worse than the already poor versions released publicly in December 2012 and July 2013. How depressing for us – and how dangerous for the health and safety of the next generation of LGBTI students and young people.

Letter to Christopher Pyne re LGBTI Exclusion from National Health & Physical Education Curriculum

With the election of the Abbott Liberal/National Government on September 7 2013, Christopher Pyne has been appointed the new Commonwealth Minister for Education.

I have written the below letter to Minister Pyne about the exclusion of LGBTI students and issues (as well as sexual health and HIV) from the draft national Health & Physical Education curriculum. It is my third letter on this subject to the third Commonwealth Education Minister over the past 6 months (with previous letters to Minister Peter Garrett and Minister Bill Shorten).

Given there is little evidence these problems have been addressed by ACARA so far, here’s hoping for third time lucky.

The Hon Christopher Pyne MP

Minister for Education

PO Box 6022

House of Representatives

Parliament House

CANBERRA ACT 2600

Sunday 29 September 2013

Dear Minister

LGBTI INCLUSION IN NATIONAL HEALTH AND PHYSICAL EDUCATION CURRICULUM

Congratulations on your recent appointment as the Commonwealth Minister for Education. As you are aware, in this role you are now the Minister responsible for overseeing the development of the national Health and Physical Education (HPE) curriculum.

A draft national HPE curriculum was released by the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) in December 2012. Public consultation on this document closed in April 2013. A redrafted HPE curriculum was released for limited public consultation in July, although submissions on that document have now also closed. This means that final drafting is currently taking place by ACARA, leading to potential agreement between the Commonwealth and the States and Territories in the final three months of 2013.

Unfortunately, the draft HPE curriculum as released by ACARA (and even the redraft released in July) does not guarantee an inclusive and relevant education for all Australian students, because it neglects to address the needs of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) students.

For example, throughout the entire 80-plus page original document the words lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex did not appear even once. The redraft still did not include the words lesbian, gay or bisexual, and, while it did include the terms transgender and intersex (once each), it erroneously included both under the definition gender diverse (intersex is a biological characteristic and not a gender identity). It is impossible for a HPE curriculum to deal with the health needs of these students without being able to name them.

Unfortunately, an introductory paragraph from the original document which at least acknowledged that ‘same-sex attracted and gender diverse students’ (which in any event does not include intersex) exist in all schools across Australia has been amended such that this statement has been omitted. That same paragraph states that the curriculum is designed to allow schools ‘flexibility’ to meet the needs of same-sex attracted and gender diverse students, rather than mandating that all schools must provide an inclusive education. This falls short of the basic requirement that every student, in every classroom, has the right to a comprehensive health education, irrespective of their sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status.

There are two other significant problems with the draft HPE curriculum as released. While it now at least refers to both reproductive and sexual health, it fails to provide any detail of how this topic is intended to be taught, and omits any mention of safer sex and/or detailed instruction on condom usage and other vital sexual health messages. In short, it does not include sufficient detail for the health needs of the next generation.

The second additional problem is that the entire document (both original and redraft) does not use the term HIV, or AIDS, once. While new treatments have significantly improved the health outcomes of people living with HIV, an HIV diagnosis remains a serious thing. I think it is irresponsible not to specifically mention this virus, together with the ways that it can be prevented, in a HPE curriculum. The 2012 NSW notifications data released in July 2013, which showed a 24% increase in HIV diagnoses, reinforces the need for HIV education to be included in the curriculum. Please find attached a copy of my submission to the original ACARA public consultation process, which outlines my concerns in these, and other, areas in greater detail.

Most importantly, please find attached a copy of a Change.org petition which I initiated on this topic addressed to one of your predecessors as Commonwealth Minister for Education, the Hon Peter Garrett MP, and his state and territory counterparts. Given these issues were not addressed in the redraft, the burden of rectifying these glaring omissions from the HPE curriculum now falls upon you as the new Commonwealth Minister for Education, as well as your state and territory colleagues.

This petition – calling for the HPE curriculum to be LGBTI inclusive, include sexual health and include HIV – was incredibly well-received, and secured more the 6,000 signatures in just over 3 weeks. This shows the depth of the community’s concerns that LGBTI students are included in the school curriculum, and ensuring that the content is relevant to them.

I would strongly encourage you to also read the reasons which people provided explaining why they signed this petition. They include descriptions of harm that people experienced because they had not received an inclusive education themselves when they were at school. Future students should not experience the same silence and stigma that these people suffered.

The reasons which people provided for signing the petition also demonstrate that this is an issue which matters to people from right across the community – young and old, LGBTI and their family and friends, and general members of the community who understand that all students have a right to be included.

Thank you for taking the time to read this letter, my submission to ACARA and the Change.org petition and comments which are attached. Thank you for considering this issue.

Yours sincerely,

Alastair Lawrie

Letter to Ministers re National Health & Physical Education Curriculum

So, you may recall that I lodged a submission with the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) regarding the draft national Health and Physical Education (HPE) Curriculum which they released for public comment in December 2012 (see my post in April 2013 for a copy of my submission).

Well, the draft HPE curriculum is now being considered in detail between different state and territory Governments, and the Commonwealth Government, before its expected agreement in the second half of this year.

It is unclear what, if any, changes have been made to the curriculum as a result of the consultation process. Given the importance of the issue, today I wrote to the Commonwealth Minister for School Education, the Hon Peter Garrett MP, and his NSW counterpart, the Hon Adrian Piccoli, expressing my concerns about the draft. And, because of the potential impact on LGBTI health, I copied in the Commonwealth Health Minister, the Hon Tanya Plibersek MP, and the NSW Health Minister, the Hon Jillian Skinner, to these letters.

It is still my hope that someone, somewhere, will finally realise that it is completely inappropriate and detrimental to adopt a Health and Physical Education Curriculum that does not specifically mention lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex (LGBTI) people, and does not even explicitly include HIV.

Anyway, here is a copy of my letter to Minister Garrett:

Dear Minister Garrett

NATIONAL HEALTH AND PHYSICAL EDUCATION CURRICULUM

I am writing to you to express my significant concerns about the draft national Health & Physical Education (HPE) curriculum.

The draft curriculum that was released for public consultation by the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) in December 2012 fails to appropriately include lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) students, and does not guarantee that content relevant to their needs is provided in every classroom.

I have already lodged a submission to ACARA through their public consultation process. However, I would like to bring these issues directly to your attention because the consequences of excluding these students, and ignoring their educational requirements, are so severe.

I have also copied the Health Minister, the Hon Tanya Plibersek MP, into this correspondence, because many of these consequences will impact on the health of the LGBTI community. These impacts could include increased transmission of HIV and other STIs, as well as the continuing high, and disproportionate, rate of youth suicide among LGBTI people.

As you can see from my submission to ACARA, I have a range of criticisms of the draft curriculum. However, the three major issues which I would like to see addressed are:

1.       The national HPE curriculum must explicitly include LGBTI students and their concerns.

The draft HPE curriculum released by ACARA does not include any references to sexual orientation, homosexuality, gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or intersex. This is a gross oversight, and has the potential effect of making these students, and their needs, invisible.

There is a token effort to address this issue on page 18 of the draft, where it acknowledges that same sex attracted and gender diverse students exist in all schools. However, it does not back this acknowledgement up with any concrete action – instead, the draft curriculum notes that “it is expected that opportunities will be taken when implementing the [curriculum] to ensure teaching is inclusive and relevant to their lived experiences.”

This “expectation” does not actually guarantee anything. There are no explicit references to LGBT or I students in any of the band descriptions for years which follow from page 26. It is also difficult to see how any teaching can be “inclusive and relevant” when the curriculum does not even use the terms which most people from the LGBTI community use to describe themselves.

Unfortunately, adopting a national HPE curriculum which does not explicitly refer to LGBTI students or address their particular needs will only compound the feelings of isolation, and the discrimination, which many of these students experience, rather than cater to the health and physical education needs of all students, not just cisgender heterosexual ones.

2.       The national HPE curriculum must provide inclusive sexual health education.

Another key failing of the draft national HPE curriculum is that the ‘sex ed’ which it includes is both narrow in scope and limited in detail.

The primary reference to this essential area of health and physical education is on page 59 where it states students will be taught “investigating practices that support reproductive health and wellbeing”. And that is the extent of the content.

There are two major problems with this approach. First, “reproductive health and wellbeing” is an exclusionary terms, that primarily focuses on sexual health practices and issues for cisgender heterosexual students. It implicitly excludes same-sex sexual activity and other practices which do not relate to reproduction (and in fact omits many opposite-sex sexual activities). It would be far preferable to use the term “sexual health” which would include a much wider range of sexual activities and issues.

The second major problem is that one sentence is insufficient to cover the range of issues which need to be taught as part of sexual health. There should be significantly more detail in this area, including a guarantee that all students learn ‘safe sex’ messages, learn about condoms, basically that all students learn about ways to reduce STI transmission.

3.       The national HPE curriculum must include explicit reference to HIV.

On the subject of STIs, I find it astonishing that the draft national HPE curriculum does not include even a single reference to HIV.

As a gay man who came of age in the 1990s, I think that this is irresponsible, and fails to undertake the most basic requirement of a ‘health and physical education’ curriculum – namely, to provide education on how students can stay safe and protect their own personal health.

Yes, the consequences of a diagnosis have (thankfully) reduced because of improvements of treatment over the past 20 years. Yes, for many people HIV is now a chronic manageable condition rather than a ‘death sentence’.

However, many people, including young people, are still contracting HIV. And some people are still dying with HIV/AIDS at least a contributing factor.

Surely, in a document of more than 80 pages, there is room to incorporate basic information regarding HIV, and the main ways to prevent its transmission?

The NSW PDHPE curriculum finds room to reference HIV in both the K-6 syllabus, and the 7-10 syllabus. I expect that other states and territories would have similar components. At the very least, any national HPE curriculum must do the same.

As I indicated before, I think that the draft of the HPE curriculum released by ACARA in December 2012 fails in its important duty to provide education for the benefit of all students, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex students.

I hope that you and the Federal Government share these concerns and can help address the issues raised in this letter during the inter-governmental consultation on the final version of the HPE curriculum.

Should you have any questions about this letter, or my attached submission, please do not hesitate to contact me.

Thank you in advance for considering this correspondence.