A common response to any suggestion that the Constitution needs reform is “if it aint broke, don’t fix it”. But the fact is that the document is broke, and increasingly so.
The latest example concerns the School Chaplain program, started by the Howard government, and retained and extended by the Rudd and Gillard governments. This clearly offended one Queensland parent, who managed to find sufficient support for a High Court appeal against the whole program.
He put two arguments against the Chaplain program funded by the federal government. He claimed it interfered with a principle of separation of church and state. The High Court unanimously rejected this.
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Six years ago this week, Greg Hunt enlisted Louise Markus, David Fawcett and me to formulate the National School Chaplaincy Program for the then federal Education Minister Julie Bishop. Today, the High Court has ruled the program invalid.
Back in 2006, it was clear that overstretched state education budgets would never have addressed the vital social issue of pastoral support in our nation’s schools. We had little doubt that in an increasingly complex, pressured and dysfunctional school environment of national importance requiring national action.
At the time, my home state government in Queensland offered a miserly $1 million chaplaincy allocation; barely enough for a monthly drop-in session.
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When 14 year old Philip attempted to commit suicide with a drug overdose, it was not a surprise to some teachers and students, but it was still a shock to most.
He’d been rather quiet and serious of late, but was a bit like that anyway. One teacher said later that he had thought, after one particularly sullen period, of suggesting a talk with someone but never found a chance.
Suzie’s distress was more obvious. She had been seen crying with her friends on several occasions, but still seemed to be keeping up with work and participating. No one was aware that at home her mother was seriously ill with cancer.
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What is the National School Chaplaincy Program?
The National School Chaplaincy Program was introduced by the Howard Government and expanded by $222 million under Julia Gillard in yesterday’s 2011 federal budget. The program allows for schools to apply for a grant of up to $20,000 per year to employ a religiously affiliated “chaplain” to provide students with emotional and spiritual guidance.
What is “spiritual guidance”?
“Spiritual guidance” is a vague and largely invented “discipline” that only exists to ensure the employment of its teachers.
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I love going to schools, especially primary schools where children are eager to talk of their hopes and dreams for the future. I’m always presented with a rich tapestry of ambition, a divergence of views and that laconical smirk or quick wit that so defines the Australian sense of humour.
However I’m also confronted with hopelessness and despair, with children from unhappy homes, children with challenging behavior and in some cases children having been subject to abuse and harm. One school in my electorate with 800 children has approximately 25% of these children assessed as at risk.
My wife, who was a high school teacher before we started our family, made the comment recently that her last class of 30 students only had six students who still lived with their Mum and Dad. Without commenting on the societal impacts of family breakdown, I think it is fair to say that children are adversely affected by such events.
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