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Tuesday, 26 June 2012
Page: 8060


Mr HUNT (Flinders) (18:52): It gives me great pleasure to support the Financial Framework Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 3) 2012 or what is more widely known as the chaplaincy support and protection bill. I want to deal with this in three phases: firstly, the origins of the National Schools Chaplaincy Program; secondly, the purpose, the meaning and the worth of that program; and, thirdly, some concerns we have about the process of this bill which we will nevertheless not allow to stand in the way of the urgent and immediate solution required following the decision of the High Court, which we respect.

Let me begin with the origins of the National Schools Chaplaincy Program. It was 2006 and I was amazed and surprised when I attended the chaplaincy dinner at the Mornington racecourse, to raise funds on the Mornington Peninsula for chaplaincy in schools, because I had gone expecting maybe 80 or 100 people and there were 300 there. Peter Rawlings was critical to that process, as was Dale Stephenson and many, many others. During the course of the evening we discussed the potential for chaplaincy to reach through the different schools on the Mornington Peninsula and elsewhere. In a somewhat rash commitment, the decision was made to take this idea to Canberra, to the Prime Minister, to build a coalition. It was not difficult to find Andrew Laming, Louise Markus and David Fawcett as willing allies in prosecuting the case for a national schools chaplaincy program. Andrew, Louise and David did a tremendous job in pulling together the material which was at the heart of the proposal we prepared for the Prime Minister. The issue was raised in the party room and the then Prime Minister, John Howard, embraced the idea and invited a discussion with the then minister for education, Julie Bishop. From there, in a short period of time, guidelines were drawn up, funding was arranged and the National Schools Chaplaincy Program was announced. That was a tribute and testimony to the work of every chaplain in every school around the country which had chaplains, and a tribute to all the organising and supporting committees around the country.

Against that background, this chaplaincy program was extended right around the country. It was done in a way which saw that young students who had real difficulties were given a chance to talk with those who were sympathetic, given a chance to focus on people who cared about their concerns. There are many chaplains with whom I have spoken who have been able to relate individual cases of meeting young people, working through difficulties and, in their best judgment, being able—God willing—to forestall and keep away a loss of human life. There is no doubt in my mind that this program has saved many, many lives. It is, by definition, unquantifiable; it is a counterfactual which we will never know. But so many chaplains under so many circumstances have contributed so significantly, ensuring that this program is about giving young people a sympathetic ear on issues which can be beyond the ken of many others. As a consequence, it is a vital part of the architecture of our school system.

Chaplains of course provide general guidance on issues of morality and spirituality, but in their most important role they act as guiders and counsellors where there is a crisis. I know because I have met young people who have spoken to me about their moment of crisis when they did not feel they could turn to family or other teachers—not out of any criticism, but simply because that was the way of things. As a consequence, they turned to their chaplains and they won support. The chaplains are people such as Pastor 'Ziggy', at Rosebud Secondary College, who is legendary on the Mornington Peninsula for his care, his concern, his chaplaincy, his moral leadership and his simple, plain ability to communicate with young people. So those are the reasons this program is outstanding and it should continue and be further extended.

I want to thank the government for their swift action. We support that action, and I think that that is a good thing and a good example of bipartisanship. I am, however, a little surprised that although they did not cause this problem—and I do not think we should ever make that point—they do not appear to have been adequately prepared for what was clearly a foreseeable outcome of the action in the High Court. During the course of its hearings the court left it open as to what the result would be, and it was incumbent upon the government of the day to have prepared a contingency plan. Clearly that had not happened, so not just the chaplaincy program but also numerous other government programs were affected and there was no contingency plan.

On that basis, we have concerns about the mechanism that the government have adopted and we have inadequate information. That is why we have proposed a cooling-off period, as it were, to allow for consideration of the legislation whilst continuing the funding as a matter of urgency. Nevertheless, we give fair and due warning that the government may not have adopted an appropriate or proper mechanism. We hope we are wrong, but we give due warning to the government that they may well have, by failure of preparation, adopted a mechanism which is not optimal.

Having said that, we will not stand in the way of this bill because we support its objectives, we support the chaplaincy program and we support the underlying principle. We believe that this program is outstanding and we will ourselves remain committed to the program for, in my judgment, the next 30 years, 50 years and beyond. I think we have a permanent element in the architecture and landscape of our school system, and for that the parliament should be a little bit proud.