The final day of Ron Williams’ High Court Challenge began with the Solicitor-General for the Commonwealth waxing lyrical on the contentious subject of ‘benefits to students’. Here is a subject which deserves an article of its own – and I plan to write that sometime in the next couple of weeks.
Solicitor-General for the Commonwealth
Almost immediately the staccato-voiced Solicitor-General seemed to get the bench off-side. In contrast to Williams and the States, the Commonwealth argued the term ‘benefits to students’ should be interpreted with ‘all the generality that that admits.’ In other words, broadly.
One limb of the Commonwealth’s arguments is that the Commonwealth has authority to fund the National School Chaplaincy Program because the Constitution allows them to supply ‘benefits to students’. In contrast, Williams argues that the phrase ‘benefits to students’ should be narrowly defined as something providing a direct material or financial benefit to a student. Further, that any such ‘benefit’ should be directly linked to the act of being a student. Just so, as one of the Justices suggested, a program which dealt with bullying at school might be categorised as a ‘benefit to students’ but a program which offers ‘pastoral care’ may [arguably] offer a benefit to children but not necessarily students, specifically.
“The only question,” said the Solicitor-General, “is whether services supplied by Scripture Union Queensland are designed to meet the needs and wants of the students at [Ron’s children’s school] Darling Heights State School.”
There was a muted chortling in the court-room when, following a short discussion on the Solicitor-General’s definition of ‘benefits to students’ one of the Justices grumbled, “This is somewhat garbled.”
Maria may have sneezed at that point, but then again it could have been a muffled guffaw.
What followed was a ‘try hard’ argument as the Solicitor-General attempted to convince the bench that providing chaplaincy to parents, students and staff was effective in improving students’ academic performance. No evidence was offered for this contention, yet the Solicitor General insisted that chaplaincy, ‘impacts on how students are achieving academically’ and that chaplaincy involves ‘complex social welfare issues effecting academic achievement’.
The Solicitor-General said there was no doubt about chaplaincy providing a benefit to students – but again provided no evidence. Indeed, he explained that the application for chaplaincy specifically required that schools complete a form matching chaplaincy activities with the particular needs of their school community. I haven’t had a chance to look at an application form for chaplaincy as yet, but I’m informed this statement is ‘factually incorrect’.
Chaplaincy, said the Solicitor-General, provides for ‘ongoing mentoring or evaluation by those with the capacity to make appropriate judgments about student well-being.’
I have to admit that I was itching to ask how he would define and measure ‘spiritual well-being’ and what evidence he could offer for the contention that spiritual well-being had some connection with academic achievement. Sadly, the High Court does not allow for interjections from bolshie members of the public.
This argument about ‘benefits to students’ was, perhaps, the closest the hearing came to debating whether chaplains actually offered any ‘tangible’ benefits to students.
One of the Justices made the point that the ‘benefits’ discussed by the Solicitor-General could equally be provided by a secular pastoral care worker. He added that, in terms of Constitutional Law it didn’t really matter that the ‘benefits’ offered might be indistinguishable from those offered by a secular person.
The Solicitor-General agreed, in part, saying, “It does not matter Constitutionally, but part of the need is such as a secular service may not be enough to meet the students’ needs.”
The Justice nodded but insisted that, for the purpose of this Constitutional discussion, it didn’t matter whether the program had a religious dimension or not. The Solicitor-General conceded that it did not.
There was another titter of amusement in the court when it was suggested there may not be a distinction between a chaplain and a part-time member of staff offering assistance to students struggling with math.
“Are you talking about special needs students?” asked the Solicitor-General.
“I’m not sure that those who need help with maths qualify as having ‘special needs’,” retorted the Justice, wryly.
Next, the Solicitor-General moved on to discuss what had become something of a meme in the courtroom – ‘the common assumption’. This referred to the assumption that, generally speaking, the Commonwealth can validly make payments in any area provided they fall within an area on which the government is permitted to legislate. In other words, while they don’t have to pass an act through parliament in order to pay for every item, it has to be something on which they could, theoretically, legislate.
Yesterday’s arguments by the states seem to have thrown that ‘common assumption’ into serious contention. In short, the contention now seems to be that the government can’t short-cut the process as they did with the NSCP by passing a new initiative through the parliament as an appropriation [agreement by the parliament for expenditure on a budgeted item] rather than an as an act.
The Justices seemed to recognise that this was an area which needs further exploration.
“You keep saying ‘assumed before yesterday’” grumbled one Justice tetchily. “It was assumed, but not necessarily explored.”
Suitably upbraided, the Solicitor-General moved on to the Commonwealth’s ‘scope of power’. This, it appears, was substantially expanded as a result of recent cases brought before the High Court. I may be wrong, but I picked up on an underlying sentiment that the Justices wouldn’t mind reeling the government’s power back a bit.
The argument continued that the Commonwealth was perfectly within its rights to enter into a contract with Scripture Union Queensland because SUQ is a ‘trading corporation’. The Commonwealth rejects the contention of Williams and the states that SUQ does not fit the definition of a trading corporation and that, as a consequence, the contract signed between the two parties is constitutionally invalid.
“The point,” said the Solicitor-General, “is that Scripture Union Queensland engages in trading activities. Its primary purpose does not have to be trade.”
This, he said was a ‘settled doctrine’ and there was no need to ‘tinker with it’. Judging by arguments made previously, Williams and the states beg to differ.
At some points the arguments wandered far afield. What are the rights of government? In what fields does it have the power to act? To declare war? To enter into treaties? To use force? Where are the checks and balances? All of this seemed very far from school chaplaincy but suggests that the Justices see this issue as being far, far wider than the chaplaincy issue alone – despite the Solicitor-General’s desperate efforts to contain it.
Repeatedly, over two days, the Justices quizzed the Solicitor-General on his view of the limits and restraints upon the Commonwealth’s power. Was he arguing that the Commonwealth could pretty well spend anything they liked?
The Solicitor-General was at pains to put their fears to rest. He made great effort to enumerate the many ways in which Commonwealth spending is constrained. In fact, somewhat contritely, he even admitted that yesterday he may have made a ‘provocative’ statement about the government having no limits. Today, he conceded that those areas in which the government was constrained may have been ‘insufficiently highlighted’ in his argument. To me, it seemed he had come in yesterday saying, “We’re the government, we can do anything we like,” and then, realizing he’d got the bench off-side, returned today effectively saying, “Maybe I came on a bit strong.”
One of the more interesting ‘sideline’ discussions focused on whether the executive could only do what it is expressly permitted to do by the Constitution (or other statutes), or whether it can do anything it likes, providing it isn’t expressly prohibited.
Towards the end of his presentation, the Solicitor-General expressed some surprise that a ‘benign’ program like the National School Chaplaincy Program could caused such consternation among the states. He argued that, in no way, did the program interfere with states’ rights.
I imagine that someone who holds that esteemed position would not stoop to wonder “WTF?” but that was ‘the vibe’ I got from the Solicitor-General who certainly, at times, must have felt under attack.
Scripture Union Queensland
The barrister for Scripture Union was the next to speak. He went straight for Ron’s jugular in attacking his standing [right] to bring most of the matters in his submission before the court. Like the Solicitor-General for the Commonwealth, Scripture Union attempted to minimise the potential damage of Ron’s argument by stating (as I understand it) that the only relief that Ron could reasonably seek was the discontinuation of chaplaincy services (in their present form) to his particular school. Any claims about the NSCP generally or agreements already fulfilled should, in the opinion of Scripture Union, be dismissed.
The barrister for SUQ proceeded to try to ‘put the wind up’ the Justices by warning about the collateral damage that might be caused by a wider ruling in favour of Williams.
“Grants of this nature [NSCP] are made for a huge range of enterprises that would likewise fail in Williams’ and the States’ arguments,” he cautioned.
SUQ tried to downplay the relationship between chaplains and the Commonwealth, noting that, in Queensland, Commonwealth funding essentially only expands the program already been put in place by the State government. The NSCP presented no competition to the State government or infringement of States’ rights. In fact, he argued that the NSCP ‘dovetails’ entirely into the state program. A perfectly cromulent match.
Neatly trying to dodge the argument that chaplains paid with federal funds are ‘officers under the Commonwealth’ (and therefore must not be submitted to a religious test), SUQ argued that, “The Commonwealth does not employ chaplains. It pays money to another entity to achieve that outcome.’
SUQ’s barrister rejected the view that an appropriation could not be viewed as ‘legislation’. In his view, the NSCP was approved by the Parliament and the Senate by virtue of being included in a Parliamentary Budget Statement attached to an appropriation bill. It was true, he said, that the Senate does not have the power to amend appropriations, but, he insisted, “The Senate is not powerless. It cannot amend, but it can return or pass … to say there is no parliamentary approval does not describe the process at all.”
There followed some discussion about the cozy relationship between the Queensland government and SUQ. (Possibly a relationship that has cooled somewhat since Queensland, yesterday, backflipped on its support for SUQ and joined the other states to substantially support Williams.)
Remarking on the closeness of this relationship, one of the Justices said, “I understand the Queensland Minister has to be invited to any launch or promotional activity regarding chaplaincy.”
“Possibly … before Queensland changed its stance, your honour,” the disgruntled barrister replied tersely.
Curiously, SUQ argued that no religious test is required for employment as a chaplain under Queensland procedures. This is strange because I know for a fact that anyone employed by Scripture Union is required to state their acceptance of the Nicene Creed or some similar statement of Christian belief. This appeared simply as a statement of bald fact, with no evidence given to support it.
SUQ’s barrister continued by praising the organisation’s commitment to meeting the ‘special needs’ of children. Chaplaincy, he said, was an important way of deaing with children’s problems. Again, no evidence was offered for the efficacy of this approach.
It was ‘inescapable’ he said, that the primary purpose of chaplains was to assist children to help them learn. And yet, I simply cannot recall anywhere in the multitude of literature I have read, any connection being made between chaplains and academic achievement. Further, SUQ produced nothing by way of evidence.
As to ‘benefits to students’, SUQ complained that Williams’ legal team placed too narrow a meaning upon the phrase.
The barrister for SUQ ended with an emotional appeal. If Williams was successful, he said, it might also mean the end of an important program which benefited autistic children.
At least one of the Justices was unimpressed.
“It’s not to the point to tell us about the terrible consequences that might occur,” he grumbled.
That concluded SUQ’s presentation. Following was a short presentation from the Churches Commission and then a reply to the defendants’ arguments from Ron’s barrister, Bret Walker. But, dear readers, I’m afraid that will have to wait until tomorrow.
Posts in this High Court Challenge Series (in order):
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.