We know the federal government cares deeply about welfare and values in Australian schools, and who could argue with that? But if the strategy makes sense, what about the tactics?

Yesterday the Prime Minister pledged $90 million to be spent on funding school chaplains to provide students with “pastoral care and spiritual guidance” – with the proviso that the government reserved the right “to say no to somebody who is plainly unacceptable”.

And there’s the rub – “somebody who is plainly unacceptable”. To whom? For what? On what grounds? By whose standards? Based on which theology?

As for a commitment of $90 million to pay for religious counselling in schools, this can be compared with other recent education initiatives like a Reading Assistance Voucher programme to improve children’s reading skills for the future ($21 million), a program to improving the learning outcomes of students with disabilities ($5.8 million), and an Indigenous Tutorial Assistance Scheme ($22 million).

The separation of church and state in Australia has never looked shakier.

Peter Fray

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