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Tuesday, 26 June 2012
Page: 8074

Mr ROBERT (Fadden) (19:58): I love going to schools—especially primary schools—where children are eager to talk of hopes, dreams and aspirations. I am always presented with a rich tapestry of ambition, divergence of views and the great Australian sense of humour, though I am also at times confronted with challenges: despair, kids dealing with a whole range of issues, children from unhappy homes, children with challenging behaviour. I have one school in my electorate that is amazing. The programs they are doing are magic stuff, but 25 per cent of their kids are at risk of harm at home and in the community.

My wife was a high school teacher before starting a family. She once said that, out of her 27 or so kids in the classroom, fewer than 10 actually still had a mum and dad at home. Whilst making no comment upon the societal impact of family breakdown, I think it is fair to say in this House that that has an effect on our kids. This was the environment where a number of inspired members of parliament, Mr Hunt, Mr Laming and others, worked with Prime Minister Howard and with Minister Bishop to put in place the chaplain school program. Communities were encouraged to establish local chaplaincy committees to fundraise for the extra days from the initial two days that were provided under Commonwealth funding. It was a fabulous program. It was a crucial service in our schools and I still believe it is a crucial service in our schools. Our schools for the most part loved it.

A few years ago a national survey of the effectiveness of chaplaincy in government schools—not independent schools but government schools—was undertaken by Dr Philip Hughes of Edith Cowan University and Professor Margaret Sims of the University of New England. The research those few years back found that 92 per cent of government school principals felt it was highly important to continue to have chaplains. Seventy-three per cent of students surveyed felt their chaplain was highly important in their school. The majority of staff and parents interviewed were concerned about whether there would be ongoing and continued funding for chaplains. Considering the glowing reports it is not surprising that, in the fortnight leading up to the survey done by Edith Cowan University and the University of New England, 95 per cent of chaplains reported dealing with behaviour management issues, 92.5 per cent reported dealing with bullying and harassment, 92 per cent reported dealing with peer relationships and loneliness, 91 per cent reported dealing with family relationships and 85 per cent reported dealing with students' sense of purpose and sense of self-esteem.

All in all, I think we can say with some certainty that the jury is in, it is a unanimous verdict, chaplains are fundamental to our school community. The vast majority of those involved in the chaplaincy program believe it is of great benefit to our schools. And keep in mind that the research I just read out was from government schools only, not independent schools. It is pleasing to see that the government recognises a fundamental need to maintain chaplains in our schools. I am pleased that they have sought to respond and to respond quickly.

The Financial Framework Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 3) 2012 as presented by the Attorney-General is an urgent response by the government to the High Court's decision in Williams that the Commonwealth handed down last Wednesday. The High Court decision found that funding for the National School Chaplaincy and Student Welfare Program, or the chaplaincy program—which we support—was beyond the executive power of the Commonwealth because it was not supported by an act of parliament, and therefore was not a valid exercise of the executive power of the Commonwealth under section 61 of the Constitution.

The Commonwealth program which the High Court decision invalidated was the chaplaincy program only. No other comment was made on other programs by the court. However, the language and reasoning of their justices, who comprised a majority in the Williams decision, has potentially far-reaching implications for other Commonwealth programs which rely upon the exercise of executive power without appropriate statutory authorisation. The solution provided by the government is to amend the Financial Management and Accountability Act 1997 to provide for the validation of an enormous number of government programs and grants. This is proposed to be done by regulation. In all, 11 types of Commonwealth financial assistance and 416 programs providing for the payment of Commonwealth moneys, as set out in the draft regulation, has been supplied to the opposition.

I join my opposition colleagues in saying that we have quite significant concerns about the legal validity of the approach which the government has adopted. I should also record that the request by the shadow Attorney-General Senator the honourable George Brandis SC to be provided with a copy of the Commonwealth's legal advice on a confidential basis was, unfortunately, refused by the Attorney-General. The opposition's concerns relate to the method adopted by the bill, the essence of which is to insert into the Financial Management and Accountability Act the new section 32B which purports to validate any grant or payment of Commonwealth moneys which may be identified by regulation. The opposition is far from satisfied that the umbrella form of the statutory validation is effective to satisfy the constitutional dilemma which the High Court identified in the Williams case.

The coalition are seeking to work with the government on this. In fact I was the shadow minister at the desk when the motion was put for the second reading and the urgency required to debate the bill today. We come with good faith. It would be nice to have the good faith replicated in providing the advice for Senator Brandis to have a look at.

In terms of where the government is going, I am pleased they are supporting the program. It is a big change from the Kevin 07 campaign when the chaplaincy program did not even rate a mention. It is a big change from the early days when the Australian Education Union Victorian President Mary Blewett was quoted in the Herald Sun on 14 January 2008 as saying:

The overwhelming majority of government schools didn't go near the program.

…   …   …

Given the multicultural mix in many government schools, to go down the path of the chaplaincy program would have been incredibly divisive.

We have come a long way since those comments by the education union. Probably no-one told her that in Queensland alone 81 per cent of government high schools a few years ago had a chaplain.

The numbers speak for themselves. The support in the parliament speaks for itself. I simply ask the government to work with the coalition to assist the shadow Attorney-General as he seeks to make a reasonable judgment on the issues surrounding the program, and I also urge the government to support the coalition's amendment that will be moved by the member for Stirling shortly.