Funding doubts after High Court ruling on chaplains

Funding doubts after High Court ruling on chaplains

(Transcript from SBS World News Radio)

The federal government says it’s considering its options after a High Court ruling on the School Chaplaincy Program also threatens Commonwealth funding for around 400 other programs.


The court has ruled the law used to maintain Commonwealth funding for chaplains is unconstitutional.

Amanda Cavill reports.

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The Court’s decision casts doubt on billions of dollars in funding for other federal government programs covered by the legislation.

These include the National Disability Insurance Scheme, local infrastructure schemes and other projects in marginal electorates, drought assistance, counter-terrorism funding and some employment services.

The challenge to the program was the second brought by Queensland father Ron Williams, who believes there is no place in secular public schools for religious programs.

The High Court upheld his initial challenge against the program in a landmark decision in 2012 but the previous Labor government quickly passed fresh legislation to keep it going.

The court has again found the Commonwealth has no executive power to fund the program.

Families Minister Kevin Andrews says the coalition had warned Labor that its legislation responding to the court’s first ruling wouldn’t stand up and that view appears to have been vindicated.

“What the High Court said in the first Williams case was in order for Commonwealth funding of a program to be lawful it needed firstly to have the constitutional power in section 51 of the constitution and secondly that the Commonwealth had to legislate specifically for whatever that program is. That’s why we thought that the catch all approach was very dubious from a consitutional point of view. And what’s apparently the High Court has said again. This means therefore that the Commonwealth will have to look at all of those things the Labor party tried to cover by their catchall legislation and make an assessment.”

The High Court’s decision will affect almost 3000 chaplains across Australia.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott says the government will need to assess how to respond to the court’s latest decision but the government is eager to continue funding all its programs.

“Obviously we want our existing programs to continue. We particularly want the chaplaincy program to continue. It’s one we invented. It’s one we supported. It’s one we took to the election. But we have to look at the decision, see exactly what its ramifications are and then we will be in a better position to respond.”

Nationals MP George Christianson says the ruling is very concerning.

Mr Christianson says he supports the Chaplaincy program but it’s the ruling’s wider implications that have him really worried.

“The implications here for a range of programs…I am particularly worried about the direct funding for local government, roads to recovery funding is one of those areas that could come under questions. That’s something that was championed and fought for long and hard by the National Party because we know that most of our constituents want to see greater funding for local roads so that e can get more of them fixed. That’s going to come under threat and we are going to have to find a way that we can deal with that.”

But Peter James from the National Chaplaincy Association says he believes the Commonwealth will be able to continue funding the Chaplaincy and other programs by giving the states the money in grant form.

Mr James says it could be that although Mr Williams has won the case, he may not be able get his own way in the long run.

“Certainly the court has ruled in his favour. They found the current funding model inadequate and the challenge is to the Federal Government to put in place a new model. We have known all along, and Mr Williams has known all along that a possible alternative that’s permitted under the Constitution is a system of State grants. Why he would persist in his challenge knowing that and knowing that the Government is behind the program is a question you’d have to ask him.”

The federal opposition says it will work with the government to ensure the long standing capacity of the Commonwealth to provide payments.