Monthly Archives: August 2011

Time for that Performance Review, Jimbo

Not everyone is a cut out to be a media performer. Being in front of a television camera or radio mike is nerve-wracking. So, when your average ‘Joe (or Jo) Blow’ finds themselves in the media spotlight and ends up babbling incoherently, you have to have some sympathy. It’s not an easy gig.

That’s why companies pay good money for polished professionals to represent them. When the reputation of your business or organisation is at stake, you simply can’t risk hiring amateurs.

So, I was surprised by Jim Wallace’s performance on Seven’s Sunrise with Mel and Kochie this week.  Speaking about same-sex marriage – a topic with which he is very familiar – Jim explained the Australian Christian Lobby’s objections as follows:

Well, ah, Kochie the reality is that ah the Scriptures are very clear about the fact that ah Jesus and ah when people become a Christian it’s an individual and a personal experience but from that point on we try to live more like Jesus would want us to and certainly in the Scriptures it’s very clear ah he wouldn’t have ordained homosexual marriage. Now, the reason, though, is couched in the ah natural and that is ah whether you believe that God created ah nature, or whether you believe that there was nothing at all exploded and then there was everything, the reality is that, ah in this issue that it still takes the involvement of a man and a woman to create a child …

And I find it absolutely amazing that at a time in our history when we’re jumping through hoops to try to make sure  that every tree on the planet ah has its natural environment so that it can flourish that we would be challenging the definition of marriage which creates exactly that environment for a child requiring that it’s between a man and a woman  … the reality is here we’re about holding up an aspirational mode ah in society which government has the right to do to make sure that – to make sure that children can flourish in the same way we are demanding for trees.

Frankly, regardless of your views on same-sex marriage, it was a woeful performance from someone who is paid to do better. Someone has to ask – and it may as well be me – has Jimbo jumped the shark?

If I was one of the shadowy figures pouring money into the Australian Christian Lobby, I’d be having a long hard think about the way the organisation’s been travelling over the last 12 months and asking myself if it’s time for new leadership: “Has Jimbo done what we hired him to do or has he made the organisation a national laughing-stock and damaged the ACL’s reputation beyond repair?”

Inexplicably, I’m not privy to Jim’s job description or performance goals, but I reckon I can make a pretty good guess about why he was hired. But first, I need to tell you a bit about the ACL’s history.

The Australian Christian Lobby (ACL) was founded way back in 1995, only it wasn’t called the ACL then, it was known as the Australian Christian Coalition (ACC).  The name was derived from its American cousin, the scandal-ridden Christian Coalition of America, established by the rabid, right-wing televangelist, Pat Robertson.

At first, it seems, there was little attempt to hide the ACC’s dominionist agenda. In fact, one of the organisation’s early journals was called Mandate – an allusion to the belief “that Christians alone are Biblically mandated to occupy all secular institutions until Christ returns”. That’s right, folks, the long-term goal for these people looks a lot like TOTAL WORLD DOMINATION.

The aims of the ACC could not have been clearer: “to reclaim our society and our government for God and to have the Christian voice heard”.  Did you hear that, non-religious and secular Australians? You’ve got their country and they want it back.

Not surprisingly, the ACC soon found its dominionist theology and fundamentalist lunacy simply wasn’t going to fly in the Australian political landscape. If it wanted to appeal to ‘middle Australia’ it needed a little cosmetic surgery.

Of course, this didn’t mean the ACC planned to abandon its Christian nationalist agenda and ditsy dogma. God forbid! No! It simply meant that a shiny new veneer was added to make it seem … well … somewhat less batshit crazy.

In fairly short order, the name was changed to the Australian Christian Lobby (ACL), former SAS chief Brigadier Jim Wallace was brought in to provide the group with some mainstream credibility and a Christian marketing group, Capacity Builders, was engaged to help the ACL build a shiny new non-threatening image.  The aim was to position the group as “a balanced and compassionate ‘voice for values’: a lobbying force influencing all levels of Government”.  You have to admit, that sounds so much less alarming than reclaiming the government for Jesus.

But, as Barack Obama said, (allegedly in allusion to that poster girl for fatuous fundamentalism, Sarah Palin), “You can put lipstick on a pig – but it’s still a pig.”

And so it was with the ACL.  Behind the glossy website, the highly staged ‘In Focus’ in-house ‘news’ interviews with CEO Wallace and artless attempts to tone down the fundamentalist rhetoric, the ACL remains what it originally set out to be – an organisation intent on gaining ideological control of Australia’s key public institutions.

Of course, despite putting the former head of the SAS in charge, the ACL isn’t plotting a military coup.  Its strategy is far more covert. Following the tried and true approach of American dominionists, the ACL plans to achieve its aims through the quiet infiltration and colonisation of our secular public institutions – and the apathy of the Australian public is crucial in facilitating its advance.

It sounds like a conspiracy theory, doesn’t it? But why else would the ACL set up Compass Australia, an offshoot which identifies and mentors up and coming young evangelicals and facilitates their career paths into positions of influence? We don’t have to develop hypotheses. In a 2007 interview with “Christian Today”, David Yates, the coordinator of Compass naively blurted out the whole sordid plan:

“One of the key things that ACL likes to focus on is areas where it can have a disproportionate impact for the Gospel. So, the area of politics and government, where ACL works in, is one particular field.  If you can get through government and policy makers then it can influence laws and it can have a disproportionate effect within the culture. 

That is why we were thinking about the Compass program, or, alternatively, thinking about 15 to 20 years down the track, who will be in the media, education, politics, law, and history?

These fields, to us, are the strategic areas … (Emphasis added.)

Further evidence of the ACL’s dominionist agenda is found in the backgrounds of its personnel, the organisations which support the group, the literature they quote and recommend and the conferences they attend – in short, the company they keep.  It takes a bit of detective work, but scratch the surface of the ACL and you find links (direct and indirect, current and historical) to numerous bastions of dominionist theology.

Indeed, if you search hard enough (and I have), you’ll find the ACL is publicly listed as a supporter of the Reclaim 7 Mountains movement.   (Oh, and Jim, don’t bother getting that 7 Mountains link deleted – I’ve got a screen shot.)

(click to enlarge)

It sounds innocuous enough until you read that this movement claims a divine ‘mandate for taking nations’,  advocates breaking down the wall of separation between church and state and provides ‘a template for warfare’.  Indeed, the perky blonde who introduces this video about 7 Mountains breezily confirms its dominionist message. The Lord, she says, is coming back for “an overcoming church … a church that knows how to possess and occupy.”

This kind of talk is all very good for rallying the troops. But, for the ACL to maintain some vestige of public credibility, it must maintain the charade of being non-threatening and moderate. It wouldn’t do for any theocratic aspirations to become common knowledge. (Oh, oops!  Sorry Jim!) That, I imagine, is why old Jimbo Wallace was appointed as front man and CEO – he appeared to be ‘mainstream’, his military record demanded respect and who would suspect someone with his background to be involved in a group whose aim was to impose a ‘disproportionate influence’ on a democratically elected government?

But, given this week’s bumbling media performance, we have to ask, “How well is Jim doing his job?”

In my view, if Jim was brought in to give the ACL a veneer of mainstream respectability, he’s failing badly.  In fact, observing Jim over the last couple of years, I’ve come to the conclusion that Christian dominionism and bald-faced bigotry must be hand-crafted from polystyrene.  No matter how hard he tries, Jim just can’t stop them floating to the surface.

It’s been a hard year for Jim. It began with him endorsing a law (labeled ‘appalling’ by a senior Anglican bishop) which allows religious schools to expel gay students – for no reason other than for being ‘openly gay’.

Next, sexism reared its ugly head as Jim expressed the antediluvian view that women should not be allowed to serve on the front lines of Australia’s defence force.  Why? Because just that morning Mrs Wallace needed Jim to help open the Vegemite jar.  Yes, really.  You can’t make this stuff up!

Then there was the shameful ANZAC Day tweet in which Jim suggested our diggers didn’t fight for Muslims and gay marriage. In less than 140 characters Jim showed he was out of touch with the values and sensibilities of ordinary, decent Australians and destructively inept at using social media.

In Queensland, the ACL was humiliated when their campaign against a safe sex billboard featuring two gay men, backfired.  When 30,000 people took to Facebook demanding a decision to pull the ad be reversed, the advertising company quickly caved. Even the Queensland Premier and state treasurer branded the ACL’s actions homophobic.

Recently, the ACL cynically decided to exploit the Norwegian massacre to advance its agenda to censor violent video games.  As one Christian blogger wrote:

“… you’re trying to capitalise on [this tragedy] for political gain. That’s disgusting. It’s cheap point scoring. It’s tacky. People see right through it. You’re not convincing anybody of anything except the idea that Christians are out-of-touch and only interested in protecting ourselves.”

I don’t know how much the ACL paid Capacity Builders to develop its new image, but I’d venture to say it’s money down the drain for the organisation’s financial backers. The ACL is increasingly isolated and frequently exposed as a propagandist machine for the rabidly religious right. Under Wallace, the organisation lurches from crisis to crisis – outraging the non-religious and embarrassing the crap out of all but the holiest of happy clappers.

And so, returning to Tuesday when Jim fronted up to Seven’s Sunrise program for a little argie-bargie about gay marriage with the intelligent, articulate (and gracefully gay) Dr Kerryn Phelps.  It was a pathetic performance which revealed Jim no longer has what it takes to represent the ACL.

Jim’s arguments against same-sex marriage were weak and easily refuted. Worse, his claim that Jesus would not have approved of same-sex marriage shows either a cavalier disregard for the truth or a pitifully poor grasp of the New Testament. As ex-Christian author, Jake Farr-Wharton explains, “Here’s what Jesus says about homosexuals in the New Testament:  “ _”.”

Once again, the ACL cemented its reputation as a national laughing-stock.

Now, if the powers that be decide Jim’s still their boy and elect to keep him on, well, that’s just dandy. I’m happy to sit back and watch the continuing decline of the ACL under his increasingly inexpert leadership.  But I reckon when Jim comes up for his annual performance review the ACL puppeteers might just think about this week’s Sunrise performance and the events of the past few months and start wondering, “What is it we pay this guy for?”

It might be time to think about an early retirement, Jim.

Chrys Stevenson

Cat and Mouse Games in the High Court of Australia

Following my series of blogs and Drum article on the High Court Challenge against the National School Chaplaincy Program, I’ve undertaken to write two follow-up articles on the implications of the case.

The first looks at the impact the States’ intervention may have on the way the Commonwealth government operates.

The second (still in progress) looks at the possible implications of the Williams case on the NSCP itself – whether or not Williams wins.

I’m very honoured that both ABC’s The Drum and Religion and Ethics website have agreed to publish the first article, with an option for the second when it’s completed.

“States play ‘cat and mouse’ in High Court Chaplaincy Challenge” went up on the Religion and Ethics website today (and should appear on The Drum later in the week).

The issues tackled in the article are very complex, but I’ve tried hard (oh, you don’t know how hard I tried!) to present them in an accessible and entertaining way. If I’ve achieved my aim, you’ll find it both enjoyable and informative.

Chrys Stevenson

Impius – A New Journal of Atheist Thought

Way back in April my friend, Peter Cartledge from the Sydney Atheists, contacted me about an idea he had for a new (as yet unnamed) atheist journal.  I happily agreed to write an article for it and, at last, Peter’s brilliant idea has become a reality.

Please support the new atheist magazine, Impius (impius is Latin for atheist).  I’m sure you’ll find lots of thought provoking ideas within it – and, surprise surprise, you may find that atheists sometimes disagree.  That’s a good thing.  We don’t need dogma!

My article is called “Accent-chu-ate the Positive”.  Here’s how it starts.  To read the rest, you’ll have to read Impius.  

Accent-chu-ate Positive

When Peter Cartledge asked if I would write something for this first edition of “Impius”, I had three questions: Deadline? Word length? Suggested topic? Peter’s reply to the third question set me back on my heels a little. He said, “Anything positive about atheism.”

Peter’s suggestion made me realise that we tend to get so tied up arguing against religion that we sometimes forget to argue in favour of atheism. I think there’s a good reason for that: none of us wants to fall into the trap of being an ‘evangelical’ atheist. As Nietzsche warned, “He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster.”

With this in mind, our concern ‘at the coalface’ of public debate is, generally, to keep religion from intruding upon our secular freedoms rather than imposing our lack of belief upon theists. We certainly don’t want to become ‘soldiers for atheism’ as our opponents purport to be ‘soldiers for Christ’ – even though we are, too often, vexatiously branded as ‘militant’. I am often moved to explain that our battle is political, not religious; we’re not trying to de-convert believers, we’re just trying to stop their beliefs from colonising our lives and coopting the secular institutions which preserve both freedom of and from religion.

Is it possible to talk about atheism in a positive way without being evangelical? I think so. As Peter reminded me, I began just such a project in “Felons, Ratbags, Commies and Left-Wing Loonies”, the first chapter in Warren Bonett’s The Australian Book of Atheism (Scribe, 2010). In “Felons …” my aim was to make a start at reclaiming atheists’ role in Australian history – “to stake a claim in the nation’s future through reference to the contributions of the past.” It’s a project I’ve continued to work on intermittently, but the diversions of day-to-day tussles with aggressive Christian nationalists too often means I’m involved in fighting against religion rather than fighting for a nation in which the role of the non-religious is fully recognized and respected … [more]

Chrys Stevenson

Atheists Get a Guernsey in Sunshine Coast Daily

Well, it’s 6.30am on a Sunday morning and under normal circumstances I’d still be buried deep beneath my doona. But, as the light crept through my window this morning I sensed something of a ‘divine’ calling. I rose from my bed, dressed and ventured out into the cold morning air on a mission. A short pilgrimage to the local garage and I’d found my ‘unholy grail’ – a copy of the Sunshine Coast Daily and, within it, not one, but two stories about local non-believers – former Noosa Shire Councillor, Peter Bycroft and … me.  Many thanks to Peter for writing the media release which resulted in this most excellent publicity.

While I’m most grateful to journalist Owen Jacques and Sunshine Coast Sunday for publishing the articles, sadly they haven’t been made available online.  Also – probably in retribution for my sins – my printer has been ‘smote’ (smitten?) and will not scan. So, hoping I’m not breaking any copyright laws here – or if I am, hoping the Sunshine Coast Daily will grant me an indulgence –  I’m reproducing the text of the articles (and the photo which accompanied them).

Of course, if you’re a Sunshine Coast local, don’t be mean, do the right thing and pop out and buy a copy – and get yourself a cappuccino while you’re at it.

Philosophy | Atheist Convention

One unholy gathering

by  Owen Jacques

Coast atheists set to hit the road for a convention of reason

SUNSHINE Coast’s non-believers are hitting the road.

Early next year, the 2012 Global Atheist Convention will again be held in Melbourne with some of the world’s best-know speakers on the list.

Referred to in jest as the “four horsemen of the anti-apocalypse”, God Delusion author Richard Dawkins, best-selling Sam Harris who wrote The End of Faith, Daniel Dennett and provocateur extraordinaire Christopher Hitchens will headline the event.

Atheists of various persuasions on the Coast are already preparing for their non-holy pilgrimage.

Peter Bycroft of Sunshine Beach refers to himself not as an atheist but a secular humanist.

That is, a non-religious person who has faith in human nature.

He will head south for what he believes is a chance to listen to some of the best speakers in the world.

“It’s an opportunity to hear leading experts talking about rationalism and atheism,” he said.

“There is quite a good mix of ages – you get a grip on the breadth of demography in this new enlightenment.”

“It’s usually well attended from the Sunshine Coast.

“Every postcode but one [on the Coast] is above the state average for non-believers.

“At the northern end [of the Coast] is the highest proportion.

“And non-believers often feel they are in the minority but they are growing into a majority.”

Mr Bycroft said with any large group, you will have the “drum bangers” – those pushing their views on to others, but it was not something he was interested in.

“The idea of these angry atheists, I’m not one of them,” he said.

More than 2000 attended the Rise of Atheism convention in 2010, the first of its kind in the country.


NON-BELIEVER: Chrys Stevenson is a vocal activist for non-religious rights and co-founder of Reason Australia.

Atheism not about religion but politics

Mapleton woman Chrys Stevenson does not believe in God.

She is part of the Sunshine Coast Atheists group, vocal activist for non-religious rights and co-founder of the national atheist organisation, Reason Australia.

But why do non-believers need a group?

“An atheist is just someone who doesn’t believe in a supernatural deity.” Ms Stevenson said.

“There are many connotations to atheism but I like to embrace and reclaim it.

“We’re good, ethical, moral people.

“Atheism is a belief in human rights, [social] welfare and avoiding religious interference in these areas.”

She said the point of atheist organisations was not about religion, it was about politics.

“It’s not about going against those who believe in God,” she said.

“They take comfort in those beliefs and I would never want to take that away.

“But where it encroaches on the lives [of those] who don’t believe, that’s when I think it’s a problem.”

One of the reasons such a group is needed, she said, is thanks to conservative and powerful lobby groups like the Australian Christian Lobby.

“We are not a Christian nation, never have been,” she said.

“We have always been a multi-cultural, multi-faith nation and these people are trying to rewrite history.

“How they affect policy is beyond me but the only way to fight back is to organise.”

As a group, Ms Stevenson said atheists stood for marriage equality, “Allowing homosexuals to marry affects the sanctity of no-one else’s marriage” and reconsidering tax exemptions against religious organisations.

In the Sunshine Coast Atheists she said it was not simply a meeting of people sitting around chatting about what they do not believe in.

“You find that people who are atheists often have interests in education, science, reading, scepticism and politics,” she said.

“It’s a social group of like-minded people.”

Reproduced from: Sunshine Coast Sunday – Sunday, August 21, 2011, Page 11

Want to add your name to the Sunshine Coast Atheists mailing list?  Email us at

Freedom of Religion and Belief – An Atheist’s View

Way back in 2008, the Australian Human Rights Commission called for submissions on the topic of “Freedom of Religion and Belief in the 21st Century”.  Knowing they would be beseiged by submissions from theists, a group of Australians from Atheist Nexus decided to pool resources and write a submission from the atheist perspective.  With a lot of help from others*, I was the chief researcher and writer for the submission.  The result was the:

Atheist Nexus submission on Freedom of Religion and Belief in the 21st Century

It seems to me that now is a good time to ‘resurrect’ it.  The Australian Christian Lobby is still working hard to demean and limit the freedoms of its fellow Australians.  Hillsong Church has been caught up in another alleged charity scam.  The Australian government continues its unholy alliance with religion through projects like the National School Chaplaincy Program, and, of course, our welfare sector has been largely farmed out to religious organisations which are permitted to discriminate based on religion – on the basis of ‘freedom of religion and belief’.

So, I’m posting the link to the Atheist Nexus submission on Freedom of Religion and Belief in the 21st Century here.  A warning – it’s long, and a tad outdated, but it’s easy to read and, I think, still very relevant.

Readers may be interested to note the approach adopted in the submission.  Instead of quoting from Dawkins, Harris et al, we tried, wherever possible, to support our arguments with quotations from theists and academics.  Our aim was to show that the views expressed in the document are not just those of a rabble of militant atheists.  Instead, they are views held widely throughout the community.

My one regret with the submission is that, at the time, I did not recognize the importance of the new National School Chaplaincy Program, and so it is not mentioned.  That was a major oversight which I am happy to acknowledge.

The submission took three months, full time work, to research and write.  For me, it was worth the effort, because it gave me a solid foundation for the activism I involve myself in today.  But, as a project, was it worthwhile?  Probably not.  I wrote about this on Online Opinion some time ago:  If Freedom of Religion is the Question, Secularism is the Answer.

I’d be interested to hear your thoughts.

Chrys Stevenson

The Atheist Nexus submission was written in consultation with:

Rod Mulholland
E Black (aka The Irreverent Mr Black)
Emeritus Professor Robert Gregson BSc (Eng), BSc, PhD (London), DSc(ANU),
Sean Broughton-Wright BA, Grad. Dip. Ed. (Mercy Ministries Data)
Dr Kenneth M Cooke MBBS, MBiomedEng, FRANZCR (Statistical Data)

Embiggen Books, Melbourne – A Centre of Reason

Warren Bonett and Kirsty Bruce are the proprietors of Embiggen Books, a science, philosophy and art book store at 197-203  Little Lonsdale Street, Melbourne – not far from the Wheeler Centre.

Here is their story …

Just before Kirsty and Warren opened their first store at Noosaville on the Sunshine Coast in 2007,  two major things happened in quick succession – the global financial markets went into meltdown and the not quite young couple found out they were pregnant. So, right from the start things were going to be interesting – especially considering that Embiggen Books targets a particular niche market – science, art and philosophy.

Our heroes, Warren and Kirsty,  met dancing on tables in London’s West End 20 years ago. From there they went their separate ways, following pursuits as diverse as ultra-distance cycling and editing Hollywood blockbuster movies.   It’s true that as the ‘front man’ for the book store, Warren gets most of the limelight in this partnership, but look up Kirsty Bruce on IMDB and you’ll see she’s a ‘star’ in her own right.

During their time apart, Kirsty and Warren both acquired a passion for science and literacy in general.  Then, after more than a decade, they found each other again and their new shared interests blossomed into an unexpected love affair – and a beautiful baby daughter.

“Have you ever had those conversations at a dinner party where everybody solves the problems of the world but you never actually do anything afterwards?” says Kirsty.

“Well, I guess we’d had just one too many of those conversations. We wanted to stop talking about the world’s problems and start being a part of the solution.”

“Crucially, we felt many of the issues that concerned us would benefit from a wider public appreciation of science.  We also agreed that both science and art are enriched by the cross-pollination of creative thoughts across disciplines –  hence our motto: Where science meets art.”

Embiggen Books was conceived as more than just a bookstore.  Kirsty and Warren saw their venture as a centre of knowledge and learning.  For example,  at Noosaville, Embiggen Books played host to a staggering array of excellent speakers, including: Eureka Prize winners Professor Ian Frazer and Professor Ian Lowe; top neuroscientists Dr Dana Bradford and Dr Adam Hamlin; the former Ambassador to Israel, Peter Rodgers; the Queensland Premier’s Book Prize Winner, Stephen Dando-Collins; Chief Conservation Scientist for Bush Heritage Australia, Dr Nicola Markus, and;  award winning author, Peter Macinnis.

Eager to spread their passion for science, knowledge and art beyond their local area, Embiggen Books invested heavily in an online website, blog and bookstore.  Most of the in-store presentations from the Noosaville store were videoed and uploaded to their website, enabling thousands more to partake in this knowledge outreach.

“Our research shows that the general public wants to know more about science and cutting-edge research, and we want to be part of making that information accessible,”  says Warren.

Kirsty adds, “Unfortunately, the public’s appetite for information is being fed by new-age pseudo-science – and it’s often difficult for the layman to separate out the ‘quantum magic’ from actual quantum physics.”

“We’d probably make a lot more money if we stocked the self-help and new-age books,” says Warren, “But we’re very particular about the books we stock.  We want our business to educate, not mislead, the public.  We want to promote real science, philosophy from the world’s greatest thinkers,  and good art.”

As if running a book store seven days a week wasn’t hard enough, Warren also produced,  edited and designed The Australian Book of Atheism, provided much of the graphic art work for the 2010 Global Atheist Convention and set up a  bookstore at James Randi’s 2010 The Amazing Meeting (TAM) in Sydney.  The couple’s commitment to the atheist, skeptical and scientific communities is truly admirable.

The book-trade is a hard business – even harder when you’re catering for a niche market.  But Kirsty and Warren are motivated by more than commercial goals.  Even when the economic climate and the downturn in the book market made it impossible to make ends meet in a small regional centre, they refused to give in gracefully.  Instead, they decided to take their ‘mission’ to the big smoke.  The books were crated up, the Noosaville store dismantled, and Kirsty, Warren and now three year old Monty moved to Melbourne.

“We have a brand new bookshop and a three year- old daughter, and we want to be part of creating a better world for her and her generation,” says Kirsty.  “We’re convinced that making science, philosophy and art more accessible to the general public contributes to that aim.  We know there are people out there who agree, and we just hope they’ll throw their support behind us.”

And what a bookshop!  Kirsty and Warren have outdone themselves and the new Melbourne store looks even more spectacular than the last one!  Embiggen is more than just a bookstore – it’s an intellectual and artistic experience.

OK – perhaps it’s even more than an intellectual and artistic experience.  It may also be an entertainment (or sporting?)  experience given that many have confessed that ultra shiny floor brings on an almost irresistable urge to remove their shoes and slide around in their socks!

The Sunshine Coast will miss Embiggen Books, but our loss is Melbourne’s gain.  Embiggen Books, Melbourne opened its doors to business this week and the online store, closed for the move, should be back up soon.  Already, novelist,  bio-ethicist and social commentator, Leslie Cannold has given an instore presentation and Victorians can look forward to many more exciting events to come.

But, like any such enterprise, Embiggen Books can only continue to add value to the intellectual life of the city if the intellectuals support it.  If you’re in Melbourne, or planning to visit, please make it a point to drop in to Embiggen Books – and tell Warren I sent you.

Chrys Stevenson

Disclaimer:  Chrys Stevenson has no financial interest in Embiggen Books whatsoever, other than having spent most of her net worth on books from them.  No money has been paid for this promotion.  A commission on sales arising from this article will, she hopes, be paid in hugs next time she’s in Melbourne.

Belief and Science Inspire Brave New Bookstore, Carolyn Webb,  Sydney Morning Herald

Embiggen Books

197 Little Lonsdale Street, Melbourne, VIC 3004

Phone: (03) 9662 2062


Opening Hours:

Monday-Wed 10.30-6.30
Thursday 10.30-7.00
Friday 10.30-9.00
Saturday 10.30-5.00

High Court Challenge – Day 3: The ‘Master’ Speaks

Sitting in the High Court of Australia, one could not help but be impressed by the constellation of intellectual power both on and before the bench.  The analogy that came to mind is that the Justices, the barristers and the solicitors-general are the intellectual equivalent of Olympic athletes.  So, it with no thought of disparaging the stellar intellects and talents of the representatives for the defence, that I observe the star performer was undoubtedly,  Ron Williams’ barrister, Bret Walker SC.

Walker’s presentation was authoritative, self-assured, eloquent and accessible. There seemed to be an easy rapport between Walker and the High Court Justices. This is not to suggest any form of favouritism on their part.  I would simply remark that the  tension sometimes evident between the  bench and representatives for the defence, was entirely absent when Walker spoke.  Of course he was questioned and challenged by the Justices, but his calm manner and an underlying gentle humour seemed to put them at ease.

Having witnessed Walker in action on the first day of the hearing, we awaited his reply to the defendants’ arguments with great anticipation. In the course of the three day hearing, it had become evident that the matter before the court had wide and (if the defence was to be believed) potentially devastating consequences for the exercise of power by the incumbent government.

Everyone, including the legal representatives and Justices, seemed astonished at how the case turned, on the second day, to become a matter of such far-reaching historical importance that the chaplaincy issue almost seemed to fade into the background.   No longer did it seem to be the raison d’etre of the case.  Now, it seemed (to me at least), to be simply a tool which might be used to bring a power hungry government to heel.

Walker began his address by speaking briefly to the subject of ‘benefits to students’.  The contention by the defence is that the NSCP fits the description of conferring a ‘benefit’ to students and, therefore, the expenditure is authorised by the Constitution and does not require legislation through an act of parliament.  Walker disposed of Scripture Union’s argument that the word ‘benefits’ should be defined broadly by pointing out their legal reasoning had ‘many steps missing’.  The sense was of a Professor of Law marking a red line through an undergraduate’s assignment.

Walker moved on quickly to attack SUQ’s conention that it is a ‘trading corporation’.  This was important because the Commonwealth and SUQ claimed no legislation was necessary to support expenditure for the National School Chaplaincy program, because the Commonwealth is permitted (without legislation) to enter into contracts with ‘trading corporations’.

Walker conceded that the Constitution does not supply ‘tight definitional parameters’ in this regard,  but, he insisted, “That does not mean that there does not have to be some attempt at definition …”.   To define a ‘trading company’ as one which (like SUQ) happens to trade from time to time – as an activity incidental to its main purpose – was, he insisted, to misinterpret its meaning. It cannot, surely, suffice, said Walker for a corporation to say that from time to time something is done, for example, selling of surplus assets or getting rid of second-hand bibles and say, “Well, that is trade”.

“… That would be, in our submission, fatuous …”.

Next, Walker addressed,”… the critical matter in terms of whether we [i.e. Williams’ case] can succeed or not.”

Walker argued on ‘Day One’ that no valid appropriation had been made for expenditure on the NSCP.  Since then the focus of the court had shifted significantly.  What was now central to the arguments was whether the government had acted properly in failing to pass legislation for the expenditure.

Walker considered (even, perhaps conceded) the possibility that the court may well find that the appropriation was valid and that the NSCP does not constitute a religious test for ‘officers under the Commonwealth’.  (This second contention was given no support by any of the states and, I’m sorry to say, appears – to me at least –  to be ‘dead in the water’.)

Given that the defence may succeed on both these counts, said Walker, “… the question still remains whether the funding agreement under which the Commonwealth provides funds for the chaplaincy at my client’s children’s school is lawful in the sense of being made pursuant to legal authority.”

In other words, by Day Three, the issue of primary concern was that, even if the the NSCP appropriation was valid,  appropriation is not legislation.  Just because something is buried included in a Parliamentary Budget Statement and attached to an appropriation which  passes  successfully through the lower house, this does not mean the expenditure has been ‘approved’.

As I understand it, what was argued at the hearing, and what seemed to be widely accepted by the bench, is that an appropriation  only confirms that money is available from Consolidated Revenue to meet a particular purpose . It should not be construed as providing approval for the expenditure of those funds.

Importantly, where an expenditure falls outside of the category of the ‘nationhood’ powers of the Commonwealth (i.e. matters of national emergency, or matters peculiar to the administration of the Commonwealth) or where it cannot be construed as a routine and ongoing item of expenditure necessary for the administration of the Commonwealth (e.g. the purchase of stationery), it requires legislation (i.e. the passing of a legislative act).  The NSCP does not appear to fit either of the categories which would exclude the necessity for parliamentary approval through legislation.

Any claim that chaplaincy is, of necessity, a national program, said Walker, is  insupportable.  There is no ‘observable incapacity of the States’ to run such a program themselves.

“… how could it be said there is any national aspect to this when the scheme itself bespeaks that it will only be available to such local communities as volunteer to take advantage of it? So there is nothing of the universality that might indicate nationality and there is nothing of the uniformity of approach that might indicate nationality.”

In Walker’s opinion, the failure to pass legislation for expenditure for the NSCP simply cannot be circumvented by claiming it is a matter of ‘national importance’ which the States do not have the capacity to administer.

Throughout the case, the Commonwealth and SUQ, like oracles of doom,  attempted to warn the judges of the ‘terrible consequences’ that would ensue if there was a finding in favour of Mr Williams. Portentious rabbits prophesying all kinds of apocalyptic consequences were frantically pulled out of the defendants’ collective hats.  The suggestion that a win for Williams would deprive thousands of poor autistic children from participating in Commonwealth funded programs, was one of the more cynical arguments.

During the case, there was some amusement caused by the suggestion that a win for Williams would require legislation to enable the purchase of ‘HB pencils’.  The implication was that a precedent would be set, requiring legislation for everything and anything on which the Commonwealth spends money.  This, the defence warned ominously, would ‘hobble the nation’.

But, Walker explained patiently that the ‘nationhood’ powers conferred on the executive by Section 61 of the Constitution ensured the nation would not be ‘hobbled’ by a finding for Williams. In short, the NSCP is not a matter of national importance, nor is it a program that could only be administered by the Commonwealth – the existence of school chaplaincy in Queensland well before Commonwealth funding proves the point.  So, a ruling that programs like the NSCP require legislation would not confer any negative impact upon matters which are legitimately the business of the Commonwealth.

In fact, one of the High Court Justices, himself, pointed out:

 “.. the Crown has a power independent of statute to make such contracts for the public service as are incidental to the ordinary and well-recognized functions of Government”.

Just so, the argument that a finding for Williams would require legislation for stationery supplies, was neatly exposed as specious.

Quietly settling any concerns about the wider ramifications of a finding for Williams, Walker reminded the Justices there were already useful precedents in case law which might provide the bench with guidance in respect to those areas in which executive power exists under section 61, without the need for enabling legislation.  Better definition was clearly needed, but the means to make such definition existed.

The executive, said Walker, was certainly authorised to make contracts on behalf of the Commonwealth as might from time to time be necessary in the course of its administration; but one should not pretend that the National School Chaplaincy Program falls within that category.  Nevertheless, the executive might, legitimately, have investigated whether such a program was worthwhile before spending $450 million of taxpayers’ money on it. This would not have required enabling legislation.

Providing a ‘road map’ of how similar programs might be managed, Walker said that, having tested the need for and potential efficacy of such a program and determined that it was desirable, it might then have entered into agreement with the States to provide funding to a third party as part of the terms.  But this is not what was done in the case of the NSCP.  The suggestion seemed to be that what is at issue is not that such programs might be prohibited (leaving autistic children throughout the nation, bereft!), but only that a somewhat different, and co-operative approach may be required for their implementation.

One of the Justices asked if policy ‘experiments’ could be treated in the same way as ‘inquiries’ into new policies.

“If it was a sufficiently humdrum or mundane experiment that did not really attract the description “policy”,” said Walker, then it might fall into this category. “ … but if it were truly a policy departure, a novel program, then it would not evade the requirement for enabling legislation to call it a pilot, to call it a trial or to call it an experiment.  Insofar as it involves activities by the Commonwealth, including contracting or spending, it would need the enabling legislation.”

By way of explanation, Walker proposed an analogy, “… the replacement lifeboat on the battleship is one thing, the new battleship is another thing altogether” – the one legitimately finding approval in an appropriation, the other requiring an act of Parliament.

“When it comes to the exercise of making a contract along the lines of the NSCP”,  said Walker, it is necessary for the Executive to be authorised by law. This “can no longer be done in this country simply by pointing to a large lump of money in the Appropriation Act and saying it is within an outcome or activity.”

The defence’s attempt to claim legitimacy for the NSCP under the Commonwealth’s power to make grants was also called out as a semantic ruse. “If you call it a grant, you do not make it any better, it is still spending,” said Walker.

“In our submission, it would be the height of cynicism and the evasion of Parliamentary control of the Executive simply to say, “Oh, well, executives give money away, spend money, therefore, all spending of money is something an executive may do without legislation.” That, in our submission, is chop logic of the worst kind.”

The argument, it seemed, kept coming back to the same point.  Expenditure for the NSCP should have been put to the parliament for approval.  No matter which way the defence tried to twist and turn, make semantic arguments, or churn out dire predictions of apocalyptic consequences, Walker masterfully called them out.  It came down to this:  The appropriation of the funds – whether valid or not – was not sufficient to make the NSCP ‘legal’ in a Constitutional sense.

So, said Justice Crennan, seeking clarification, “Is the end point this:  spending on, or making contracts in respect of the activity or enterprise of chaplaincy in schools in Queensland does not fall within the ordinary and well-recognised functions of the Commonwealth Government?”

It does in this case, yes,” said Walker, “That is where it comes to ground so as to produce a win for us in this case, yes, your Honour.”

With that, Walker concluded his address to the bench.

It may now be three to six months before the High Court hands down its decision.

Chrys Stevenson

Posts in this High Court Challenge Series (in order):

High Court Challenge: We Arrive in Canberra

High Court Challenge: Last Man Standing?

High Court Challenge – Day 1: The Hearing Begins

High Court Challenge  – Day 2: Scintillating Boredom

High Court Challenge – Day3 (a):  Terrible Consequences

High Court Challenge – Day 3 (b): The ‘Master’ Speaks

If you support Ron Williams’ High Court Challenge, please consider making a donation at the High Court Challenge website. Support for Williams has been overwhelming, but legal fees are still outstanding.  Ron, his wife and their six children should not have to bear the full brunt of the outstanding amount.