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Budget points to new sectarianism


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 becomes the National School Chaplaincy Programme. Oddly the new program's fact sheet does emphasise the students' emotional wellbeing ahead of their religious development, but the removal of 'student welfare' from the title and non-religious welfare officers from its workforce is significant. 

The Atheist Foundation wonders why education minister Christopher Pyne insists that student welfare is the responsibility of the state education departments while the Commonwealth considers the funding of 'religious' chaplains a priority. It's unlikely that the Government wants us to return to the sectarianism of the 1950s, but it does need to explain why it is protecting the religious — and not welfare — role of its chaplains from the cuts of the harshest Federal Budget in nearly two decades.

Michael MullinsMichael Mullins is editor of Eureka Street. 

School counsellor image by Shutterstock.

Topic tags: Michael Mullins, school chaplaincy, Christopher Pyne, Tony Abbott, education, schools



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Existing comments

I keep thinking of Napoleon - "Religion is excellent stuff for keeping common people quiet. Religion is what keeps the poor from murdering the rich." What are the Scripture Union Chappies in Qld going to say to the student who says they are being evicted or moving out of town to a cheaper rental because her 26 year old parent is unemployed and can't find paid work? God's Providence? Tell your parent to go and tell your local MP. Help write an email to the Treasurer to have some understanding of cause and effect?

Julie McNeill | 16 May 2014  

That a quarter of a billion dollars has been kept aside for religious chaplains in State public schools by the most discredited bunch of front bench Christians in Australian history is just another example of the lunacy we have elected. Hospitals and education are being slashed as State responsibilities but these chaplains are a national priority?

Bilal Cleland | 19 May 2014  

An interesting article for a Catholic priest and former schoolmaster to pen, Michael. I followed your link to the Atheist Foundation's website and found their point of view well argued but felt I needed to find something which balanced it out. That I found in an article called "The Effectiveness of Chaplaincy as Provided by the National School Chaplaincy Association to Government Schools in Australia" by the educationalists Dr Philip Hughes of Edith Cowan University and Professor Margaret Sims of UNE. The article is readily accessible on the web. It was published in 2009. It is interesting that, in Victoria, chaplains must have a degree in education, counselling or theology. Sadly this is not the case elsewhere. The chaplains seemed to be acting as counsellors rather than proselytizers. Their support of students, as people outside the Education department hierarchies, was seen as a good thing and their work seemed appreciated. I would have strong objections if chaplains attempted to introduce any sort of sectarian teaching and I am someone who withdrew his daughter from a Religious Education class at high school on her request. Chaplains are perhaps a band aid, token solution to a number of problems. I would not like to see their existence used as a stalking horse by those with other causes to push.

Edward Fido | 20 May 2014  

Thanks Edward for the pointer to the Hughes/Sims report, which I found interesting reading. It's good to see that NSCA-provided chaplains are generally well received. However, as the report acknowledges, it hasn't studied the response to other religious appointments or non-religious appointments.

Ginger Meggs | 20 May 2014  

You are quite correct, Ginger. I think there is a case to be made for chaplains from outside the Christian tradition or secular chaplains/counsellors. I was attempting to point out the fact that, just because someone was a Christian chaplain, it did not mean they were necessarily proselytizing.

Edward Fido | 21 May 2014  

We are a Christian nation and historically Chaplains have always been Christian. We should be proud of this cultural and religious tradition - well i think so. In any case, If you want to introduce something else then don't call it Chaplains - call it Atheist ethics or something. As to sectarianism in the budget, i think this may be a construct of your mind.

Johno | 27 May 2014  

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