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Tuesday, 26 June 2012
Page: 8055

Mr STEPHEN JONES (Throsby) (18:31): I am pleased to make a few brief comments in relation to the remedial legislation that has been introduced to the House by the Attorney-General with the assistance of the minister for school education. As other speakers have observed in the debate, the legislation arises from circumstances surrounding the decision of the High Court of Australia handed down last week in Williams and the Commonwealth. That is the immediate trigger for the legislation. Obviously, the subject matter before the court was the School Chaplaincy Program.

The School Chaplaincy Program was introduced by the then Howard government to provide Commonwealth funding for the assistance of chaplains in public and private schools throughout the country. It is a program which was continued, and I would argue improved, under the Gillard Labor government whereby the guidelines for that program were extended to enable funds to be distributed to assist in the employment of social welfare workers within schools. There has been some debate and consternation about the continuation of the program, but the Gillard Labor government has decided to continue the program and, indeed, bringing this legislation before the House today is evidence of that commitment.

The conclusion of the High Court in Williams and the Commonwealth is that the executive requires some specific constitutional or legislative power for the expenditure of moneys from the consolidated revenue fund. Taken on its own that would seem to be rather an uncontroversial finding and many might argue: why was this government caught off guard and finding itself in a situation to introduce such legislation? The simple answer to that is that successive governments over many, many decades have taken it as read—which turns out to be erroneous—that either the specific constitutional heads of power provided to the executive and/or the power and/or the decisions of this House and the Senate, the decisions of parliament, through the appropriation bills was founded in the executive to expend moneys.

The High Court has turned that on its head in the decision of Williams and the Commonwealth, which puts us in a position where not only are we required to introduce this legislation to protect and continue the School Chaplaincy Program but literally many other hundreds of programs are at risk of falling over if this legislation does not pass through the House and through the other place in great haste. There are consequences of that not occurring. Those consequences are that some doubt will be thrown over the continuation of programs that provide assistance to schools as well as many other areas where the Commonwealth has acquired an interest and a responsibility such as programs which provide funds for environmental and assistance programs, programs which provide funds for roads, and other programs.

It beggars belief that a bill such as this could be opposed by anyone. We certainly hope that we are able to move it from this place and have it in the Senate as soon as possible so that no uncertainty rests over the heads of those particular programs. Of course that does not mean that, without the passage of this legislation, every expenditure of funds which is not supported by a specific act of parliament is in doubt. The tied grants, for example, which are supported by a constitutional head of power expenditure of moneys to particular individuals through contracts or ordinary services in the running of government, still stand on all fours. There are a lot of other programs that are in doubt. A cursory read through the schedule to the amending bill shows that there are well over 60 pages and a number of programs, many hundreds of programs, which require this legislation to guarantee their certainty now and into the future.

We on this side want to see the prompt passage of this bill through the House with voting on the legislation before the end of this session of parliament. With those brief observations, I commend the bill to the House and call on all members to ensure its safe and swift passage.