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Budget points to new sectarianism

  • 19 May 2014

When Tony Abbott reintroduced knights and dames back in March, commentators said it was a sign he was 'stuck in the 1950s'. Another characteristic of 1950s Australian society was its sectarianism. The nation was bitterly divided along religious lines, with 'mixed' marriages frowned upon and Protestants often denied employment in Catholic dominated workplaces, and vice-versa.

There are echoes of 1950s sectarianism in last Tuesday's Federal Budget announcement that schools will lose the option of appointing non-religious welfare workers under the national school chaplaincy program, which has had its funding increased by $245 million when there were cuts to most other areas of education.

What is currently known as the National School Chaplaincy and Student Welfare Program was introduced in 2007 as a Howard Government initiative that provided for religious formation in a way that could have inflamed sectarian tensions had its original formulation remained intact. 

Chaplaincy services were specifically religious and mostly Christian, though they were not permitted to engage in direct proselytisation. But critics were asking questions such as how a successful and charismatic Protestant chaplain could not draw Catholic students towards the faith or his or her own denomination.

Significantly Labor education minister Peter Garrett cleared the air in 2011 when he revamped the program to give schools the option of employing a 'secular student wellbeing officer' in place of a religious worker, and to require qualifications such as a youth work certificate. 

This was seen to reflect the growing proportion of the population identifying as non-religious, and the increased regard for professional standards in the wider community. 96.5 per cent of the program's chaplains were Christian, even though only 64 per cent of Australians identified as Christian. By contrast, 0.01 of the chaplains were secular, whereas 19 per cent said they were not religious.

Australian Primary Principals Association president Norm Hart described the delicately balanced role of the chaplains in the program's current incarnation:

School chaplains work with primary schools students, not as religious workers but really as support officers, helping children with questions of, well, moral dilemmas that they might face in the playground and you know, questions about right and wrong that kids have and also where they're emotionally challenged or they have feelings of being hurt, a chaplain might well suggest ways that a child could help themselves in that situation.

The balance is bound to shift from the beginning of next year, when the National School Chaplaincy and Student Welfare Program