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Tuesday, 26 June 2012
Page: 8067

Mrs PRENTICE (Ryan) (19:27): I rise to speak on the Financial Framework Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 3) 2012, which responds to the decision handed down by the High Court on 20 June 2012 in the Williams case. Of great concern is that the High Court decision invalidated the national school chaplaincy program on the basis that it was not supported by the executive power of the Commonwealth. Successive governments have proceeded on the basis that no specific legislative authorisation was required for programs over and above the appropriation acts. However, in Williams a majority of the High Court held that legislative authority is necessary for some spending. Hopefully this bill provides the necessary legislative authority. I do not pretend that in the short time we have had I have examined the legislation in detail. However, I will accept the Attorney-General's commitment at face value. Spending programs may be at risk despite the fact that money has already been appropriated by the parliament. This bill should ensure that the parliament's intentions on appropriate funding for programs are given effect.

The programs supported by the bill include the National School Chaplaincy and Student Welfare Program. This program, introduced by the Howard government in 2007, is widely supported for its assistance for students. The national school chaplaincy program is such an important part of our school education system, providing vital support in an environment that places ever-increasing pressure on both students and teachers. In the lead-up to the 2010 federal election, Prime Minister Gillard promised that the program would not be secularised, yet recent government announcements regarding the program do exactly that. The truth of the matter is that the chaplaincy program is not a religious program. I have spoken previously in this place about chaplaincy, particularly of the journey of a teacher who transitioned into chaplaincy as she saw the importance of helping students with deeper issues.

The High Court did not find that the chaplaincy program was unconstitutional because of section 116—that is, the separation of church and state. The decision was based on section 61 of the Constitution, which confers executive power on the Commonwealth. The court in its decision declared that the government did not have the power to enter into funding arrangements for chaplaincy. As Chief Justice French said:

The character of the Commonwealth government as a national government does not entitle it, as a general proposition, to enter into any such field of activity by executive action alone.

Thus this legislation is required, and I am very pleased that it will pass with bipartisan support.

Tim Mander, the member for Everton in Queensland, was the former CEO of Scripture Union Queensland, and he has estimated that should funding of the school chaplaincy program be cut up to half of the school chaplains would be lost overnight. There are more than 500 chappies operating in 600 state schools across my home state of Queensland and the initiative is strongly supported by parents, teachers, the community and students alike. As of August this year Mr Mander had already received 30,000 statements in support of the chaplaincy programs. Hearing the stories of students who are currently benefiting and who have benefited from chaplaincy programs in our schools makes it easy to see why chaplaincy contributes so much to society.

Chaplaincy and pastoral care have long been adopted and accepted by schools and the wider community as services that transcend religion. They provide support and lend a listening ear to students in need. We all went through high school and we all know the troubles we faced then, but there are myriad further pressures placed on students today. Furthermore, more and more is being expected of teachers who are already overworked. Chaplains provide an extra service in our schools to help deal with these pressures and have the opportunity to support students with deeper issues.

I take this opportunity to commend one of the chaplains at my local state school who has decided that part of his role will be to make sure the audiovisual equipment always works effectively. I know many members in this chamber will know that is always the first thing that fails whenever anyone is trying to put on a program at a school or local function. This particular chappie has encouraged those students who are perhaps a little marginalised to work with him and help him. Students who were perhaps not as popular as others are now supporting the most popular students—the ones who play in the band and perform in front of their peers—and have become part of the group, therefore embracing everyone into the success of the school project. Once again, there is no religion involved; it is all about inclusiveness and supporting students who may otherwise be marginalised.

Chaplains have a distinct and defined role, and it is so important. They are there to provide comfort and support at a critical time in a child's life. It is far better and more effective to have resources in our schools to try to address youth issues when they are prevalent and to have programs in place to prevent larger and more serious problems from developing. Let us not be short-sighted: remember, the right help at a crucial moment in a child or a teenager's life can prevent a lifetime of problems which can be much more costly to our society.

Furthermore, chaplaincy is not limited to schools; chaplains have long held roles with emergency service organisations, defence forces, hospitals and professional sporting teams. The notion of pastoral care for the development of a young person is highly valued by our community, with schools and university residential colleges in particular proudly promoting this service as a benefit of their institution. It is also highly important to note that the national chaplaincy program is optional for schools, and that federal funding is only $20,000 per school. That is not enough to fund a chaplain. This means that a great deal of support for a chaplain in a school must come from the community, as only approximately two-thirds is covered by the government. This has led to a type of government-community partnership for local chaplains and has provided a great deal of community cohesion around the chaplaincy program. From this, it is easy to see why in 2009 a national survey indicated 98 per cent of responding school principals who had a chaplain on campus said that they wanted their program to continue.

Chaplains provide a vital support service in a time when mental health issues are causing huge concerns around Australia. While suicide contributes to just 1.5 per cent of deaths in Australia it is disproportionately high in our youth. Twenty-four per cent of deaths for males aged 15 to 24 in 2009 were suicide. This statistic is heartbreaking, and it is a worrying sign that we are failing our youth—the future of our nation. School chaplaincy testimonials from students around the country have attributed chappies to helping them beat their demons and grow into the successful, contributing and, most importantly, happy young people that they are today. I have heard their stories and I take this opportunity to put on record my support for chaplaincy services.

It is far better and more effective to have resources in our schools to try to address youth issues when they are prevalent and to have programs in place to prevent larger and more serious problems from developing. Let us not be short-sighted: remember, the right help at a crucial moment in a child or a teenager's life can prevent a lifetime of problems which can be much more costly to our society in the longer term. I support the bill before us today as a way to continue funding not just the chaplaincy program but also the hundreds of other well-deserving different programs that could also be affected by the High Court's decision. I know the member for Forde will shortly speak in support of this as well. However, just as the opposition is giving bipartisan support—basically sight unseen—of this hasty legislation, I do believe the government should return our trust and support the opposition's call for a sunset clause of 31 December this year. By supporting the member for Stirling's amendment, together we can achieve the right outcome.