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Tuesday, 26 June 2012
Page: 8063


Mr RAMSEY (Grey) (19:10): I rise to speak on the Financial Framework Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 3) 2012, which has of course been brought to this House because of the decision of the High Court last week in Williams v Commonwealth, which found that the School Chaplaincy and Student Welfare Program was being funded incorrectly, let us say. I am very disappointed with the High Court decision, even though I would not criticise the legal framework on which it was made. But I am more disappointed that the case was ever brought in the first place. I do not know Mr Williams—or it may be Mrs Williams, for all I know—but I am disappointed because I think that Australians generally approve of the program, approve of the Commonwealth being able to fund many programs around Australia directly and believe it is the role of government to do so.

One of the reasons that the community generally supports the school chaplaincy program so strongly—and I note that those who criticise the school chaplaincy program may not be happy that the chaplains come from a religious background—is that, although in the census just delivered to us, 22.3 per cent of Australians profess to have no religion at all and many more class themselves as non-practising Christians, enrolments in our independent and our religious school systems continue to climb. While people may not be actively religious, or may have no religious belief at all, they are looking for that stability that perhaps they look back on their childhood to and realise that that was an Australia we used to have. They are very keen to hang onto some of those tenets underlying the Australian way of life, and they have a very strong belief that they want those tenets to continue in the future. That is why I think the chaplaincy program in particular has been so successful and so well supported.

The program was introduced by the Howard coalition government in 2007, and those of us on this side are very proud of the whole school chaplaincy program and are strong supporters of it. It enables schools to employ part-time school chaplains for the purpose of providing pastoral care and non-denominational spiritual guidance to schools. There are 2,700 schools currently participating in this program and there is a new round that has just been proclaimed in the last few weeks. While there were times on this side of the House we doubted the government's commitment to keep this program going, I congratulate them for doing so—for seeing the value of it and for keeping it going within our schools. I have about 130 schools within my electorate, so I cannot visit them all regularly, but I try to visit as many as I can, and a number run school chaplaincy programs—and, boy, they are keen on them! The parents are keen on them and the kids the chaplains interface with are keen on them as well. I have never had a complaint about a school chaplain plugging a religious philosophy into our children. They are just providing good, caring support, and I congratulate them on the work they do. However, there has just been a round of approvals and it gives me the opportunity while we are speaking on this bill to raise one application I am particularly disappointed with. In 2009 Navigator College, a Lutheran school, opened its doors in Port Lincoln, with 118 students. By 2011 it had increased to 300. This year it has 360 and it is expected that that enrolment will continue to rise. It has been a spectacular success. Navigator College provides another choice, contributing to the diversity in education for students and families of Port Lincoln and surrounding districts and Eyre Peninsula as a whole. The curriculum offers extensive programs to students, giving them the opportunity for spiritual and moral growth, service and social involvement, and individual excellence in a range of learning areas. I was particularly pleased to visit the school because it has a great feel when you walk in and it is obvious they are doing a good job. The parents are voting with their money and making choices by sending their children to the school.

But it has a number of problems like many schools and it would dearly like to access the school chaplaincy program. In the early part of this year the school council made the decision that they would apply and they applied online, as they must. They were extremely disappointed when they found that they were unsuccessful. They made some inquiries with DEEWR as to why their application was unsuccessful. It is here it gets interesting, because it appears that sometimes the bureaucracy fails us. Sometimes public servants do not exactly do what they need to do. I think in this case we have a clear failure.

I am reluctant to name the people involved and I won't—from the Public Service level at least—but I am reminded of an old friend of mine, the Hon. Graham Gunn, who served for 39¾ years in the South Australian parliament, when he told a tale to me of speaking to a public servant down the phone, saying, 'You must remember you are a public servant. That is, a servant of the public; you are not meant to be a public hindrance.' I wonder whether in this case this is what we have met with, because when Navigator College inquired as to why their application was unsuccessful they were told it was because they did not meet the compliance requirement that the school council move the appropriate motion to authorise the principal to apply for the funding.

They made the inquiry and when they got the person involved on the phone, the principal said, 'We sent all that information in. He said, 'Excuse me, I'll have a look,' and he opened up the application electronically and said, 'Well, look, you're right: you did have school council approval.' So obviously that excuse had been manufactured out of thin air. The next excuse was that the appropriate attachments were not on the email. The school must apply online and were told the attachments were not on their application. Yet the school has records to say that the attachments were attached to the application. It appears at this stage Navigator College have missed out, even though they supplied all information on time and do not have a sufficient explanation from the department at this stage.

On Thursday, 31 May I asked Senator Brett Mason to bring this up at Senate estimates. He asked a number of questions and the department took them on notice. We are a month further down the track. I know a month is not always enough time to get a clear answer out of a government department, but I think in this case it should be more than sufficient. It should be quite simple to find out what has failed with this application. If we can find out what has gone wrong with the application I would ask that the minister take an interest in the issue and make sure the application was dealt with as it should have been on the first day. I am looking forward to speaking to the people at Navigator College and hoping they will get better service in the future. I hope this is just a glitch and that it can be overcome, because they, too, want to make use of this excellent program that in fact both sides of parliament support and that has been threatened by this High Court decision.

We do support the government in this case—with this fairly rushed legislation it must be said. A number of my colleagues have raised some of the issues and we have had very little time to look at the legislation. While I am not a lawyer—even though I am sure my mother may well have wished that I were—others far more learned than I have looked at this legislation and have at least raised some issues about where they believe it may have been drafted very hastily. In that mind, the department and the minister should have known well that this case was in the High Court—the rest of Australia did—and made some preparation for the possible outcome.

We hope that the government has got the legislation right. Their track record would suggest that not everything they have done has been 100 per cent right. For instance, the NBN was apparently designed on the back of a coaster in an aeroplane and we have had a few other issues like the East Timor solution that was hastily put together.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Hon. DGH Adams ): Order! I ask the member to come back to the bill.

Mr RAMSEY: Certainly, Mr Deputy Speaker. So I hope that in this case this legislation has been put together in a thorough manner and that we will not have to revisit it in the near future. I understand that my colleague the member for Sturt has moved an amendment to say that it should contain a sunset clause so we can reconsider it at a later stage. Should that amendment be unsuccessful, though, we would be supporting the government because it is very important that this program continue.