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George Brandis says Government considering schools chaplaincy 'within constitution' -

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SARAH FERGUSON, PRESENTER: The High Court today has upheld a legal challenge against the Government's funding of the chaplains-in-schools program. It's the second time the court has found in favour of Ron Williams, the Queensland father who objected to taxpayers funding the chaplaincy program. As the Attorney-General George Brandis considered the decision, 22 ambassadors were meeting Julie Bishop, the Foreign Minister, to complain about the Attorney-General's description of East Jerusalem and the West Bank as being "disputed" rather than "occupied territories". The Attorney-General Senator George Brandis joined me a short time ago from Canberra.

George Brandis, welcome to 7.30.


SARAH FERGUSON: Now the High Court today struck down the mechanism for funding chaplains in schools program. The Prime Minister said he's determined to keep it going. Fred Nile said the same thing. Why is this program so important to you?

GEORGE BRANDIS: Well the program was first developed by the Coalition during the Howard Government, and as you know, it was maintained by the Labor Party, so we're disappointed to see it struck down by the High Court today and we're exploring mechanisms whereby it might be able to be continued. Certainly the basis upon which the High Court struck it down does leave other options for it to be continued and we'll be looking - I'll be looking closely at those and no doubt the matter will be the subject of discussion next week.

SARAH FERGUSON: But why is the program itself something you want to spend this effort and time, and importantly, money on keeping going?

GEORGE BRANDIS: Well, the provision to schools of chaplaincy services I think is an intrinsically worthwhile thing to do. People - children and adolescents do need emotional support and sustenance at schools on occasions and the provision of chaplaincy services enables that to be done. So we think it is an intrinsically good thing to do. And, as I say, we're disappointed by the High Court's decision, but we - I am looking at - I've read the decision. We are considering at the moment ways in which consistently with the Constitution, as the court has interpreted it, the program could be continued.

SARAH FERGUSON: But is it appropriate for the Federal Government to be funding effectively religious counsellors in schools?

GEORGE BRANDIS: Well they don't proselytize and I should say that this is an area within the responsibility of my colleague Christopher Pyne and I know that he's had some observations to make about the matter, as has the Prime Minister earlier in the day. So, I think your questions are perhaps best directed to Mr Pyne. But I do want to make this point: these are not people who proselytize for a particular religious faith. They're people who provide support and spiritual and emotional succour for children and adolescence in the school environment.

SARAH FERGUSON: Alright. Let me just take you to the description of the role that's actually on the website of the Scripture Union of Queensland, the organisation involved in today's judgement. It says, and I quote, "An understanding ..." - this is what's required for the chaplains - "An understanding of the core teachings of the Bible and an ability to articulate its message." Now, that sounds something like proselytizing.

GEORGE BRANDIS: Well, I'm not familiar with what might be on the website of the Scripture Union of Queensland and you shouldn't assume, as you apparently do in your question, that their general mission to spread the word of the Scriptures is the same as the service that they were delivering to schools through the school chaplaincy program.

SARAH FERGUSON: But that's - that's actually - sorry to interrupt you, Mr Brandis, but that's a very specific description of what the school chaplaincy role is, as they see it, for people applying.

GEORGE BRANDIS: Well, as I said, Sarah, I'm not familiar with the contractual arrangements between the Scripture Union of Queensland and the schools to which they provide those ...

SARAH FERGUSON: But does that concern you, that that should be the - what they're looking for, people who want to communicate messages of Jesus Christ and Christianity?

GEORGE BRANDIS: It doesn't concern me in the slightest, but questions about the detail of what the Scripture Union actually provides under its arrangements with Queensland schools are best directed either to it or to the Education Minister.

SARAH FERGUSON: Alright. Let's move on to the meeting today. 22 ambassadors met with the Foreign Minister to express their strong displeasure over your comments referring to East Jerusalem as "disputed" rather than "occupied". Did you go too far in those comments?

GEORGE BRANDIS: Ah, no. The comments that I made to the Senate Estimates committee the week before last were comments authorised by the Foreign Minister. They did not represent a policy change. The Foreign Minister attended the meeting today, I did not, and has written to the ambassadors and issued a statement which affirms what was never really in doubt, and that is that the Australian Government's policy on this matter has not changed.

SARAH FERGUSON: Well you say that, but at the same time, the Foreign Minister today told those ambassadors that from now on, all the comments would be coming from her or the Prime Minister. Sounds like you're being censored.

GEORGE BRANDIS: Well, that's not correct. I represent the Foreign Minister in the Senate. I was asked some questions in Senate Estimates. To avoid confusion the morning after I answered those questions and in consultation with the Foreign Minister, I read into the record a statement authorised by her. It is perfectly obvious from that statement that there has been - there was never any policy change. Australia has always and continues to support the two-state solution and I've got nothing to add to what has been said - what I said in the Senate Estimates committee and what the Foreign Minister has said.

SARAH FERGUSON: Alright. Well just for the sake of our viewers because they're not familiar with all of those interchanges, just for clarity, is the eastern part of Jerusalem occupied?

GEORGE BRANDIS: I'm sorry, I'm sorry, Sarah, I'm not going to be a commentator on this area.

SARAH FERGUSON: You're far from a commentator because you're the person who made the original remarks. It's a very straightforward question: ...


SARAH FERGUSON: ... do you regard East Jerusalem as occupied or disputed?

GEORGE BRANDIS: Sarah, I'm not going to indulge your desire for me to play word games. I have nothing to add to what I said in the Senate Estimates committee and I have nothing to add to what the Foreign Minister said today, both of which are entirely consistent with each other.

SARAH FERGUSON: You call them word games, but the ambassadors of those countries and also, I think, 57 countries of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation meeting in Saudi Arabia tonight see this as being very far from a series of word games. You'd be well aware of that. So let's just go back to that original question in relation to disputed versus occupied. If you won't comment on East Jerusalem, answer the question then about the territories of the West Bank - are they on occupied or disputed territory?

GEORGE BRANDIS: Well, Sarah, I'm not the Foreign Minister and I'm not going to respond to questions which ought to be directed to the Foreign Minister.

SARAH FERGUSON: You're the person that started this by referring to those territories, both East Jerusalem and the West Bank as being disputed and not occupied and you'd be well aware that any discussion around the language of occupation in Israel is a matter for significant international attention. There has been significant international attention. I'm just trying to clear up your position.

GEORGE BRANDIS: Well the position has never been in doubt, and the position is as I expressed it, by reading into the record of the Senate Estimates committee the Thursday before last a statement that had been authorised by the Foreign Minister. That statement leaves no doubt at all about Australian policy.

SARAH FERGUSON: Except that it didn't actually deal with the question of occupied versus disputed, which is what this whole discussion, the whole flare-up and argument is about.

GEORGE BRANDIS: Sarah, I don't know how many times I have to say that I've got nothing to add to what I said to the Senate Estimates committee and what Ms Bishop has said in her statement this afternoon, both of which are completely consistent with one another, which is not surprising because there has never been a policy change.

SARAH FERGUSON: I'm sorry we couldn't draw you out further, but thank you very much indeed for giving us the time this evening.

GEORGE BRANDIS: Thank you, Sarah.