Providing schools choice of wellbeing officer a ‘great improvement’, says Labor MP

Si Gladman / 08 August 2023

A federal Labor MP has labelled the decision to expand the school chaplaincy program to give schools a choice of a secular student wellbeing officer as “one of the great improvements” by the Albanese government.

In a speech to the Federation Chamber – the House of Representatives’ second chamber – yesterday, Graham Perrett said the flexibility for choice in the new National Student Wellbeing Program (NSWP) would allow schools to “cater for their specific needs and what suits their community.”

“…not all parents or communities are comfortable for their children to speak to someone who may not hold the same faith or non-faith beliefs. The ABS tells us that less than eight per cent of Australians regularly attend religious services nowadays,” he said.

“In their role working with school communities, the NSWP student wellbeing officers and chaplains do not provide religious instruction or religious counselling — an important reminder. 

“They may be of any faith or of no faith. They must not proselytise in a state school. They must respect, accept and be sensitive to other views, values and beliefs. And they must promote a safe and inclusive school community. We are talking about children here.”

Coalition MPs had introduced a motion into the House of Representatives praising the work of chaplains in providing “social, emotional and spiritual support” since the Howard government introduced the National School Chaplaincy Program in 2007.

Despite the Albanese government’s intention to give schools the choice of a secular wellbeing officer, some schools are pressuring their communities to accept the continuation of religious chaplains.

As the Rationalist Society of Australia reported late last month, several schools in Queensland have steered parents into accepting chaplains as part of a consultative process supposedly aimed at ascertaining the views of parents as to whether they would prefer a secular worker or chaplain.

A number of states are failing to implement the five-year federally funded NSWP according to the agreement reached with the Commonwealth.

While the Project Agreement includes a clear statement that the program is “not a religious program”, both Queensland’s and South Australia’s guidelines fail to mention that key requirement.

Also, while chaplains and student wellbeing officers may be of “any faith or of no faith” under the agreement, South Australia still requires chaplains to be “of any faith”. In Queensland, chaplains are still allowed to invite children to attend religious activities such as “lunchtime prayer group” or camps outside school hours.

During the parliamentary debate on Monday, Liberal National Party MP Andrew Wallace called on the Albanese government to restore the DGR status to chaplaincy provider Scripture Union and to other organisations providing chaplaincy services.

Scripture Union Queensland had been the subject of a complaint to the taxation office questioning whether it had breached its tax deductibility status to collect $33m in donations.

“If the government were fair dinkum about the welfare of young people and the importance of chaplaincy to young people, why on earth would they have removed the DGR status from [Scripture Union] Queensland? It beggars belief,” he said.

“We continued that funding over the nine years of the latest iteration of a coalition government. We are committed to looking after the welfare of young people.

“I am really concerned that the government would make this into a political statement by removing the DGR status of some of these organisations. What does the government have against these religious bodies? I do not know.” 

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Image: Graham Perrett MP (Facebook)

All the more reason.