Monday, 25 August 2014

The politics of Australian religion

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The controversial school chaplaincy program has received support from all sides of politics. Why? How does an unpopular, illegally funded program with no measurable outcome get such bipartisan support?

A few weeks ago I had lunch with Ron Williams, the successful litigant in two High Court cases against Federal funding for the National School Chaplaincy Program. I’d told Ron I’m writing an article about the motivation behind the bipartisan support for school chaplaincy. We’ve met to discuss it and Ron says he has something to tell me – something BIG.

At face value, school chaplaincy makes no sense. In what universe does a government, with full support from the Opposition, place minimally trained, evangelical Christian missionaries into secular state schools as the front-line responders to vulnerable, at-risk kids?

As we wait for our meals, I expound on my theory that chaplaincy is only tenuously connected with child welfare. I concede that, on occasion, well-meaning chaplains may well provide some helpful support and advice. But, I tell Ron, the point I want to make in my article is that, from the perspectives of both the government and its para-church chaplaincy providers, children’s welfare is tangential to the purpose of the National School Chaplaincy Program.

For the para-church chaplaincy providers, the motivation is plain. They are, for the most part, evangelical Christian organisations set up with a single goal in mind – to make converts.

“We need to go and make disciples,” said Evonne Paddison, former CEO of Victoria’s largest chaplaincy provider, ACCESS Ministries, as she reminded the 2008 Evangelical Fellowship in the Anglican Communion conference that schools are “our largest mission field”.

And then there’s the money. Connecting school communities with churches means more tithes for the fundamentalist, evangelical churches which supply the vast bulk of the country’s chaplains. But that’s small change compared to what chaplaincy providers like Scripture Union, ACCESS and Generate (previously GenR8) Ministries have raked in. The government has paid out hundreds of millions of dollars to supply chaplains to state schools, but made no stipulation about what percentage of the $50 per hour contribution goes directly to chaplains. Chaplaincy, as they might say on Underbelly, is a nice little earner.

“My theory,” I explain to Ron, “is that political support for the program serves a strategic rather than a benevolent purpose. That is, it’s all about meeting politicians’, not children’s, needs and wants.”

When I say I’m dismayed at the bipartisan support for the program, Ron reminds me that, although the national program began with the Howard Coalition government in 2007, an almost identical scheme was introduced around the same time by the Beattie Labor government in Queensland - for transparently political reasons.

In the lead up to Queensland’s 2006 election, Lyle Shelton (now Managing Director of the Australian Christian Lobby) announced his intention to challenge the incumbent Labor candidate, Kerry Shine, in the Toowoomba North electorate. In this buckle of Queensland’s Bible-belt, a promise of state-funded chaplaincy helped to deliver the seat to Shine over his heavily Christian-credentialed opponent.

Chaplaincy began and continues as a blatant pork-barrel pay-off to the Christian constituency.

It’s not clear whether Beattie inspired Howard or vice-versa, but in 2006, Prime Minister Howard responded to factional pressure within his party to implement a national school chaplaincy program. While the LNPs factional backers may well have been driven by religious motives, the proposal won prime ministerial support because it dove-tailed neatly with Howard’s wider political strategy.

Marion Maddox’s 2005 book, God Under Howard: the Rise of the Religious Right in Australiais a brilliant political exposé, in which Maddox convincingly explains that Howard courted the religious right and employed dog-whistling religious rhetoric, not out of any genuine religious commitment, but for base political purposes. Howard did not so much embrace Judeo-Christian values as exploit them.

Politics is a dirty game and even ideology takes a back seat to power. Factions on both sides of politics may push for certain initiatives, but their implementation largely depends on whether the ideology serves the political interests of the decision-makers. The stars have to align. In the case of school chaplaincy, they did.

Over lunch, I tell Ron I’ve been reading Mark Latham’s, recent book, The Political Bubble: Why Australians Don’t Trust Politics. I think National School Chaplaincy Program exemplifies the broader malaise in Australian politics identified in Latham’s book.

According to Latham our political system has been colonised by apparatchiks, factional warlords and fanatical ideologues. Both major parties are now heavily influenced by fanatical right-wing, Christian conservative factions. Australian political policies function to serve the power-politics of the parties and the ideological eccentricities of the factions which control them.

Religious zealots are not confined to fringe parties or to the Coalition. For example, the ALPs right-wing factional leader, Joe de Bruyn, is widely credited as being instrumental in staging the 2010 coup in which Julia Gillard replaced Kevin Rudd as Prime Minister. It’s highly unlikely Gillard gained that support without making a few hefty concessions to the religious right.

Shortly after assuming office, ‘the real Julia’ conceded, in a radio interview with John Faine, that she was a non-believer. This off-piste remark was quickly followed by the kind of toe-curling, cringe-making damage control that only makes sense in the context of pressure from de Bruyn and the Australian Christian Lobby.

In an interview with Jim Wallace of the Australian Christian Lobby just a few short weeks after coming out as an atheist, Gillard rushed to assure him that despite her personal religious views her values derived from her Baptist upbringing. Smilingly, she assured Wallace that, under her government, the National School Chaplaincy Program would maintain its “unique flavour through its link to the Christian faith” and promised the program would continue as a chaplaincy program, “with everything that implies”.

Gillard’s obsequious demeanour and whole-hearted support for school chaplaincy is particularly interesting given that a former ALP senior policy advisor from that period assures me that, as Rudd’s Education Minister, she wanted to abolish school chaplaincy, but was overruled.

Conceived in 2006, the National School Chaplaincy Program operated from 2007-2014. To date, it has cost almost half a billion dollars, with a further three-quarters of a billion controversially committed by Treasurer, Joe Hockey, in his recent ‘austerity’ budget. Yet, after 8 years and the expenditure of hundreds of millions of dollars, there has not been a single government inquiry into its effectiveness in addressing the mental health and welfare needs of students. Not one.

Significantly, there is no recognition of the scheme in related government documents. The 2011 House of Representatives standing committee report on early intervention programs aimed at preventing youth suicides does not feature the words ‘chaplain’, ‘chaplaincy’, ‘pastoral care’ or ‘spirituality’ at all. Similarly, the Gonski Report (perhaps the most thorough assessment ever undertaken of what schools and their students really need) refers to chaplaincy only once, naming it as a “policy priority”; which simply acknowledges it is important to the government. There is no recognition in Gonski that school chaplaincy is an activity which supports better welfare or learning outcomes for children.

Tellingly, the National School Chaplaincy Program lacks support from those most closely concerned with positive mental health and welfare outcomes for children. The mental health charity Sane Australia and the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists; have joined the Australian Psychological Society (APS) in opposing school chaplaincy.

The APS warns that chaplaincy is “dangerous” and referred to the LNPs recent commitment of a further $245.3 million for the program as “appalling”. The Australian Education Union insists chaplaincy is “not in the interests of our kids”, while ACSSO, the peak body representing the parents of state school children, says baldly that chaplaincy “is one of the most blatant cases of government funding furthering the aims of religious organisations under the guise of a 'support' for students’”.

So, why is it still in our schools?

As Prime Ministers from both parties have fallen by the wayside, the National School Chaplaincy Program survived because both sides of politics view it as a valuable political tool.

Chaplaincy functioned, for both the Coalition and the ALP, as a pork-barrel payment exchanged for the endorsement of religious lobbyists and fundamentalist mega-churches who promised (but may not have been able to deliver) bloc votes in marginal seats.

Frankly, it is not particularly important whether a Christian constituency exists and can deliver marginal seats in Federal elections. What is important is that politicians seem to believe it does – and act accordingly.

Kevin Rudd started courting the Christian vote well before his 2007 election. Rudd’s determination not to be out-Godded by Howard explains why Howard’s chaplaincy brain fart not only survived, but flourished and expanded under both Rudd and his successor, Julia Gillard.

Rudd was never going to abolish Howard’s school chaplaincy program. He co-opted it to serve him politically just as Howard had done. Also, I’m told that Gillard’s plan to abolish the program was rebuffed because politicians in marginal seats were nervous it would not play well in their electorates.

Certainly, the feedback the Labor party received after the 2007 election seemed to support their concerns. John Black, a former Labor senator, now CEO of political research group, Australian Development Strategies, says religious voting played the strongest role in the 2007 Federal election since the 1960s. Black is reported to have said, “The strongest correlate of the swing to Kevin Rudd's new Labor Party was Pentecostal churchgoers, alongside Baptists, Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons, Lutherans, Salvos, Seventh-Day Adventists and the Uniting Church.”

According to Black, the geographical hot spots for these activist religions correlated with areas where Labor needed the greatest support. It goes a long way towards explaining why, despite the Education Minister’s misgivings, Labor not only continued but expanded the National School Chaplaincy Program.

Support for school chaplaincy meshed perfectly with Kevin Rudd’s publicly-stated determination not to let the Coalition “commandeer God for their own political purposes”. As Rudd once promised:

“[The ALP] will not for one moment stand idly by while the Liberals, the National Party or Family First assert that God has become some kind of wholly owned subsidiary of political conservatism in this country.”

Rudd was out to reclaim God to serve his own political ambitions. His government’s support for school chaplaincy has to be viewed in that context.

Image-wise the God card played into Rudd’s strategic positioning as a new kind of Labor leader - one with a down-home, folksy, Christian conservative image. Ron reminds me that was never the real Kevin Rudd. It was a chimera, artificially constructed to capture a particular constituency within a particular political context against a particular political opponent. Smoke and mirrors.

Importantly, it was a persona designed to captivate an audience well beyond Australia’s tiny minority of fundamentalist Christians. Against all evidence to the contrary, the idea that there is something intrinsically ‘nice’ and ‘honest’ and ‘trustworthy’ about Christians persists - even amongst those of us who prefer to sleep in on Sundays.

I tell Ron about a function I attended recently. I was introduced to a friend’s wife – a woman, her husband told me, who was no more than a nominal Christian. When I mentioned my involvement in the effort to remove chaplains from schools she launched into a vehement defence of the scheme.

“The more chaplains in our schools, the better!” she insisted.

Puzzled, I asked her why. She seemed surprised by the question, but responded, “Well … they’re Christians so they’re nicer people, aren’t they? And I think the more our children are exposed to nice people, the better off we’ll be.”

“Sure. But it’s not just about nice,” says Ron, his fork poised over his beer-battered snapper. “It’s about values. Howard and Bishop were pushing the line that our schools lacked values – that without religion [specifically Christianity], there was a crisis of values in our schools, a moral vacuum.”

It’s a time-honoured political trick: create the illusion of a crisis then provide the means to fix it. At a time when the world was still reeling from the 9-11 terrorist attacks, a crisis of Judeo-Christian, Western values created a useful moral panic which justified a suite of unpalatable, regressive social and economic policies - including the Howard government’s draconian and decidedly un-Christian crack-down on asylum seekers. Kindly chappies in every school yard was the embodiment of Howard’s promise to make Australia comfortable and relaxed.

Faced with this, Rudd needed to be seen as someone who would defend the values that were, allegedly, under threat. Accordingly, Rudd styled himself as a new kind of Labor leader. The strategy was to make it easy for swinging voters to traverse the gap between the two contenders; closing the distance between Rudd and Howard from a gaping abyss to an easy step. It worked. Kevin-O-Seven romped home the 2007 Federal election. Whether the Christian constituency delivered him the election is arguable. What is important is that Labor acted then, and afterwards, as if it mattered.

Money, religious zealotry, power, factions, ideology, image-making and vote-buying: these are the interests which underpin the bipartisan political support for school chaplaincy. And, on the altar of these base concerns, the real welfare and mental health needs of ordinary Aussie kids are sacrificed.

Despite the political shenanigans which have seen chaplaincy funded until the end of December, Williams insists the National School Chaplaincy Program is as dead as Monty Python’s Norwegian Blue parrot – no matter how many taxpayers’ dollars keep it nailed to its perch.

He’s annoyed by questions about what the government will do to resurrect it:

“What the government does or doesn’t do about chaplaincy is out of my hands,” he says. “I can’t foretell what they’ll do. And this idea that I’ve been playing some kind of political whack-a-mole has become a meme! Everyone seems to expect that no matter what the High Court says, the government will find a way to keep this thing alive. They might – but it’s not inevitable; in fact, the only options available to them now are bureaucratic nightmares.”

“Sure, they might fund chaplaincy through the states, or they might come up with some shonky work-around we haven’t anticipated. But, it will have to be an entirely different program to the National School Chaplaincy Program – the program I fought against. That’s over. It’s dead.”

“OK. So what are you going to do next?” I ask, because it’s clear that whatever happens about school chaplaincy during the next sitting of Parliament, Ron Williams still has a fire burning in his belly to address what he describes as “possibly the most outrageous stunt ever foisted upon the taxpayers of Australia”.

Williams leans forward in his chair, his dark eyes resolute with determination.

“There has to be a Senate inquiry,” he says. “That’s what I wanted to tell you. I’m pushing for a Senate inquiry.”

“Really? Do you think you’ll get one?”

“I’ll get a Senate inquiry if I have to visit every single senator personally and tell them my story,” he replies.

Williams has meetings already organised, and he’s not going in without back-up. Already, whistle-blowers are coming out of the woodwork, prepared to testify about the questionable (and possibly illegal) actions of politicians, bureaucrats and the para-church agencies which provide chaplains to schools.

Even now, Ron is receiving calls from former chaplains who were appalled to be taught how to get around the prohibition against proselytising – an activity even former education minister, Peter Garrett, belatedly admitted was all too common.

Former senior public servants have also flagged their willingness to testify about the dubious ways in which the program was implemented and administered.

As Williams steps up his push for a Senate inquiry and publicises the reasons he believes it is necessary, he expects many more people will step forward. For example, a recent survey by the New York based gay rights lobby group, All Out, elicited thousands of complaints about the homophobic treatment some students experienced at the hands of school chaplains.

Among other things, a Senate inquiry would hear that, in the lead-up to the first High Court Challenge, the Gillard government quietly changed the penalty provision in Section 26 of the Financial Management and Accountability Act 1997 that might, otherwise, have seen Education Minister, Peter Garrett and Finance Minister, Penny Wong, facing jail time for disbursing money from Consolidated Revenue without proper authority.

A Senate inquiry might also reflect upon the ethics, if not the legality, of $37 million of taxpayers’ money, paid illegally to para-church organisations for the period July-December 2014, being waived by Finance Minister, Matthias Corman.

Williams may wish to tell the Senate about damning role descriptions that disappeared from the internet in the lead-up to his first High Court case, or ask the Senate to consider why documents submitted to the High Court refer to the incumbency of chaplains who, he can prove, never existed.

And then there’s the fancy footwork performed by the Gillard government in circumventing the first High Court decision on chaplaincy funding. A Senate inquiry may consider why, when many politicians (including current Attorney-General George Brandis) voiced their misgivings about the legality of the Financial Framework Legislation Amendment Act No. 3 (2012) , all parties (including the Greens) voted in favour of it.

Ron Williams’ efforts in the High Court have established that, from its inception, National School Chaplaincy was illegally funded and administered by the Federal government. Experts agree, overwhelmingly, that school chaplaincy does not serve the best interests of children. The government has not presented, nor even looked for, any evidence to the contrary.

On the other hand, there is ample evidence that chaplaincy served the factional, ideological and political interests of both the Coalition and the ALP. Williams can show that both the ALP and the LNP have been more than willing to flout the law and thumb their collective noses at the High Court, public accountability and democratic process in order to keep chaplains in schools.

After lunch, I drive Ron to the Transit Centre to catch a bus back to Toowoomba. It’s his wife, Andrea’s birthday and he’s planning a celebration with her and their six kids.

“Oh, Chrys!” he says as he steps out of the car, “There’s something else! I can’t tell you about it just now, but it’s BIG and it’s going to help the push for a Senate inquiry. When I can talk about it, you’ll be the first to know!”

Stay tuned.

The National School Chaplaincy Program - Australia's most outrageous political stunt from RonnieWilliams on Vimeo. 

Chrys Stevenson

Chrys Stevenson is a writer, blogger and social activist from Queensland’s Sunshine Coast. She was a contributor to the Australian Book of Atheism (2010) and her work is widely published online. Chrys blogs at Gladly, the Cross-Eyed Bear

Follow her on twitter @Chrys_Stevenson.

Chrys has a first class honours degree in cultural studies.