Marion Maddox

School chaplaincy program: from small fund raising dinner to multi-million dollar national folly

The key to it all is Rosebud.

I don’t refer to Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane, whose enigmatic protagonist dies with that mysterious word on his lips. I’m talking about that other bewildering shapeshifter, the National School Chaplaincy Program.

Rosebud Secondary College, on the Mornington Peninsula, is one of 60 or so Victorian public schools with local committees that, for years, sizzled sausages and solicited donors to provide staff and students with the services of Christian chaplains.

The seaside town of Rosebud belongs to the Flinders electorate of Greg Hunt, now Minister for the Environment, but who, in the fading days of the Howard government, was working his way up through Parliamentary Secretaryships. Invited to a fundraising dinner for the local school chaplaincy, Hunt was impressed, especially by Rosebud’s tireless chaplain, Pastor Ziggy.

So impressed, that he formed a small committee with fellow Liberal MPs to pull together a proposal for a federal government-sponsored school chaplaincy program.

Immediate support from Prime Minister John Howard and Education Minister Julie Bishop for a pilot scheme, with $90m over four years, came, Hunt told me, as a pleasant surprise.

Also surprised were teachers, parents and principals, especially those in states without previous, community-funded chaplaincy schemes. The program did not arise because of demand, or as a result of any research identifying particular problems or chaplaincy as any solution.

Nor has any such justification or cost-benefit analysis appeared since its implementation. A study from Edith Cowan University in 2009, much-cited by chaplaincy advocates, found that principals whose schools had appointed chaplains were happy to have extra hands on deck, but did not provide any explanation of why those hands needed to be attached to the arms of a religious person, as stipulated in the program’s guidelines at the time—nor why a minimally-qualified near-volunteer was the best solution to schools’ underfunding in the first place.

Reports by the Northern Territory Ombudsman into the program’s operation in five public primary schools in 2010, and by the Commonwealth Ombudsman into the scheme’s administration in 2011, suggested that, like Charles Foster (“Citizen”) Kane, the program’s many faces included the less benign. The Australian Psychological Society warned about chaplains performing activities, such as counselling, for which they were not qualified. The most recent such finding, from LGBTI advocacy group Allout, alleged instances of chaplains advising same-sex attracted students to “pray the gay away” or to have sex with a member of the opposite sex, and urging a student with homosexual parents not to return to their “sinful” home. Meanwhile, the Australian Education Union had consistently objected to funds being spent on chaplaincy while the needs of students with disabilities remained unmet.

In response to the Commonwealth Ombudsman’s report, Labor, under Prime Minister Julia Gillard, introduced a number of changes, including minimum training requirements (a Certificate IV in Youth Work or equivalent—approximating one year’s university study) and expanded the program to allow schools the option to appoint a “secular welfare worker”.

The Abbott government’s National Commission of Audit preferred the savings from the program’s removal, but, in the 2014 budget, Tony Abbott’s government announced its intention to expand the money and to return it to religious-only chaplains.  Labor announced it would not pass that effectively Christian-only scheme.

Then, the High Court, for the second time in two years, ruled the whole program unconstitutional because the Commonwealth lacked the authority to spend the money. Abbott declared the program would continue, with constitutional experts tipping that could only happen if the Commonwealth channelled the money through the States and Territories—prompting the likelihood of a showdown with States and Territories opposed to aspects of the scheme, such as any condition requiring the chaplains to be religious.

In the ensuing debate about whether money should be spent directly by the Commonwealth, or channelled via the States, and whether it should be spent on religious chaplains only, or on the choice of a religious or secular welfare worker, the program’s deepest mystery faded somewhat from view.

That, of course, is the one that has swirled since its inception, and only become more profound in the era of “budget emergency” and across-the-board cuts, including, just in education, to previously-promised Gonski commitments, university teaching and research support through the Australian Research Council and the CSIRO. It is the mystery of why successive federal budgets since 2006 have lavished an amount that the 2014 announcement will bring to over half a billion dollars on a program initiated in response to no demand and justified by no research comparing it to alternative uses of the money.

That fundraising dinner for Rosebud Secondary College must have been a powerful experience. But those who prefer spending with an evidence base watch Australian education’s equity gap continuing to worsen.

As another character in Citizen Kane could remind the government come the next election: “A fellow will remember a lot of things you wouldn’t think he’d remember.”


Marion Maddox

MARION MADDOX is a Professor of Politics and ARC Future Fellow at Macquarie University. Her latest book is Taking God to School: The End of Australia’s Egalitarian Education?