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Wednesday, 26 May 2010
Page: 4259

Dr STONE (7:39 PM) —I rise to present a petition to the Australian parliament in support of the National School Chaplaincy Program. This is the second such petition I have presented as the parents, teachers and students of my schools continue to be distressed that the chaplaincy program may not be funded into the long term. It is a program of pastoral care and spiritual guidance offered in schools by caring individuals. While chaplains typically do have a faith or a religious belief, they do not just work with those who have a particular faith; they work across schools communities, with individuals, students and families who are in need of counselling and support.

I need to stress that, in the part of Australia where my electorate is, in northern Victoria, we are in our 10th year—some would say our eighth year—of drought. There is a great deal of distress amongst families, with the economic stress the drought has caused. With that stress can come family breakdown and severe strain. Counsellors can support families through actively talking with them about the issues or through helping them to find other support, such as professional financial counselling or medical support.

School chaplains in my local Murray schools have been working since 2007-08. In October 2009 there was great concern when the Rudd Labor government refused to confirm ongoing support and funding for the program, despite its special benefits, its very sound administration and the strong support from school communities participating in the program. There are more than 1,915 school chaplains right across Australia. The families who have signed this particular petition have come from Tongala, Kyabram, Undera, Girgarre, Echuca and, across the river, Moama. They are begging this Rudd Labor government to think seriously about giving them long-term security of support, which is much more than they have at the moment. They currently have a commitment until, they hope, the end of 2011.

When we saw the removal of the Medicare rebate for mental health social workers and occupational therapists—who are doing a sterling job in my electorate—this year, we were very concerned about this government’s care and commitment for the broader Australian community. Families in my electorate often cannot afford expensive mental health counselling and support from psychiatrists or psychologists. I am pleased that the minister for health has now seen the error of her ways and that that support for mental health social work counsellors and occupational therapists—when there is a referred through a general practitioner—is going to continue until at least the election. What we have to see, of course, is such support continue well beyond that time.

School counsellors come into the same category of care for families in rural and regional communities. Many of these families are facing their fifth or sixth year with a negative income. Many cannot afford to give their children the usual gifts—children often expect a branded product, something that is not a hand-me-down—or to go on holidays. There is a lot of stress in our communities, and I cannot say often enough that the National School Chaplaincy Program has been excellent. It was an initiative of the John Howard government—an initiative that should be embraced by this government and continued well into the future. Our chaplains do too important a task to be on a short-term tenure with the fear that their program will end at the end of 2011. I present this petition to be registered with the Australian parliament. I trust that notice will be taken of it, as it contains over 1,575 signatures, each one belonging to someone who cares profoundly about the future of their children.

The SPEAKER —The document will be forwarded to the Petitions Committee for its consideration. It will be accepted subject to confirmation by the committee that it conforms to the standing orders.