Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Australian Attorney-General Brandis gets a Dorothy-Dixer on the subject of the recent High Court ruling concerning national school chaplaincy program

Blissfully ignoring the fact that the High Court of Australia found that the Commonwealth funding the National School Chaplaincy and Welfare Program was of no material benefit to public school students, the Abbott Government looks for the best angle going forward in the coming public debate:

Attorney-General George Brandis Media Release 19 June 2014


Subjects: High Court Decision – Williams v The Commonwealth (No 2)


SENATOR SESELJA: Can the Attorney-General advise the Senate on the decision of the High Court in the Williams (No 2) matter.

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: This morning the High Court gave judgement in the Williams and The Commonwealth (No 2).  The effect of the Court’s decision is that the Commonwealth’s National School Chaplaincy and Welfare Program is invalid.  The basis of the decision is that the School Chaplaincy is invalid because the Court found it is not supported by any legislative head of power in the Constitution.  In particular, the Court decided that the program was not a benefit to students within the meaning of section 51 (xxiiiA) of the Constitution and was therefore not supported either by that or by any other constitutional head of power.  It is important to note that in arriving at that conclusion, the Court did not deal with the merits of the program, merely that the question of whether it fell within a particularly constitutional definition.

SENATOR SESELJA: Can the Attorney-General advise the Senate what implications the decision may have for any other Commonwealth Government programs?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL:  The Court did not deal with any other Commonwealth programs. It did not consider the broader question of whether Division 3B of the Financial Management and Accountability Act was a valid law.  It merely decided that insofar as that Act purported to validate the School Chaplaincy Program, it was ineffective because the School Chaplaincy Program was not supported by any constitutional head of power.  The Court did not decide that any other Commonwealth program was invalid.  I noticed a statement by the Shadow Minister for Finance, Mr Bourke, issued a short while ago in which he suggests a range of Commonwealth programs are put at risk as a result of the Court’s decision this morning.  That statement by Mr Bourke is erroneous and ignorant.

SENATOR SESELJA: Can the Attorney-General advise the Senate what assurances the Government can provide to recipients who have already received funds under the School Chaplaincy Program?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Yes, Senator Seselja, I can.  It follows from the Court’s judgement that Commonwealth payments to persons under the School Chaplaincy Program were invalidly made. The effect of the decision is that these program payments, totalling over $150 million, are now debts owed to the Commonwealth under the Financial Management and Accountability Act.  However, under that Act, the Minister for Finance has the power to approve a waiver of debt of an amount owing to the Commonwealth which totally extinguishes that debt.  I’m advised by my Friend, Senator Cormann, that he has today agreed to waive the program payments made to date.  That decision will provide certainty to funding recipients that these debts will not be recovered in consequence of that decision.


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