ACT P&C welcomes High Court striking down the chaplains

dog collar

The ACT Council of Parents & Citizens Associations has welcomed the judgement handed down by the High Court of Australia in relation to Ronald Williams v Commonwealth Of Australia & ORS (2014).

“Our schools need more counsellors and properly trained welfare workers,” said Viv Pearce, Council President. “The money earmarked for the school chaplaincy program should be redirected towards the provision of professional staff members trained in counselling and mental health.”

In light of the second successful challenge to this program, the Council believes the Federal Government’s allocation of $245 million towards the School Chaplaincy Program should be reconsidered.

“ACT schools should be free and secular. They need more counsellors, not chaplains.

“If there is a religious figure such as a chaplain who is identified with a particular denomination or religion in a school, that school is effectively saying to students that other religious faiths do not measure up.

[Photo by James Ogley, attribution licence]

UPDATE: Michelle Grattan in the Conversation explains the ruling in more detail.

Further Update: Canberra’s own Liberal Senator Zed Seselja has been pitching the softballs to Attorney-General George Brandis in the Senate this afternoon, as demonstrated in this transcript circulated by Senator Brandis’ office:

SENATOR SESELJA: Can the Attorney-General advise the Senate on the decision of the High Court in the Williams (No 2) matter.

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: This morning the High Court gave judgement in the Williams and The Commonwealth (No 2). The effect of the Court’s decision is that the Commonwealth’s National School Chaplaincy and Welfare Program is invalid. The basis of the decision is that the School Chaplaincy is invalid because the Court found it is not supported by any legislative head of power in the Constitution. In particular, the Court decided that the program was not a benefit to students within the meaning of section 51 (xxiiiA) of the Constitution and was therefore not supported either by that or by any other constitutional head of power. It is important to note that in arriving at that conclusion, the Court did not deal with the merits of the program, merely that the question of whether it fell within a particularly constitutional definition.

SENATOR SESELJA: Can the Attorney-General advise the Senate what implications the decision may have for any other Commonwealth Government programs?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: The Court did not deal with any other Commonwealth programs. It did not consider the broader question of whether Division 3B of the Financial Management and Accountability Act was a valid law. It merely decided that insofar as that Act purported to validate the School Chaplaincy Program, it was ineffective because the School Chaplaincy Program was not supported by any constitutional head of power. The Court did not decide that any other Commonwealth program was invalid. I noticed a statement by the Shadow Minister for Finance, Mr Bourke, issued a short while ago in which he suggests a range of Commonwealth programs are put at risk as a result of the Court’s decision this morning. That statement by Mr Bourke is erroneous and ignorant.

SENATOR SESELJA: Can the Attorney-General advise the Senate what assurances the Government can provide to recipients who have already received funds under the School Chaplaincy Program?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Yes, Senator Seselja, I can. It follows from the Court’s judgement that Commonwealth payments to persons under the School Chaplaincy Program were invalidly made. The effect of the decision is that these program payments, totalling over $150 million, are now debts owed to the Commonwealth under the Financial Management and Accountability Act. However, under that Act, the Minister for Finance has the power to approve a waiver of debt of an amount owing to the Commonwealth which totally extinguishes that debt. I’m advised by my Friend, Senator Cormann, that he has today agreed to waive the program payments made to date. That decision will provide certainty to funding recipients that these debts will not be recovered in consequence of that decision.

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