Bendigo fights racism

Aisha Dow

An anti-racism campaign led by Christian leaders is gathering force in Bendigo [Victoria], in response to anti-Islamic protesters vocally opposing a mosque project.

The protesters claim the $3 million mosque approved for East Bendigo could result in a terrorist attack, and have targeted supporters by tying black balloons outside their homes and offices.

But embarrassed local residents say these views do not represent them and on Friday [20 June] began an online petition supporting multiculturalism and diversity in Bendigo.

On Saturday morning [today] they will hold a rally, where hundreds of colourful balloons will be passed out with the tag “racism has no place in Bendigo”.


Showdown over chaplains in schools

Jewel Topsfield - Education Editor

The federal government faces a show-down with some states over whether to allow schools to appoint secular welfare workers instead of chaplains in the wake of the High Court decision invalidating the existing funding agreement.

Schools across the nation, including Greensborough Primary School in [metropolitan] Melbourne, fear they will be forced to sack non-religious welfare workers after the Abbott government announced in the budget that only chaplains would be funded under the program from next year.

But the federal government will now have to grant the $245 million directly to the states and territories, and the Australian Capital Territory and South Australian governments have already flagged schools should be able to choose if they wish to appoint secular welfare workers or chaplains.

The Victorian and New South Wales governments said it was too early to comment. But the Victorian opposition said it would push for the chaplaincy program to include non-religious welfare workers if Labor won the November state election.

“If we have to have a fight with the Commonwealth over that, we will fight with the Commonwealth over that,” said opposition education spokesman James Merlino.

University of Sydney constitutional law professor Anne Twomey said the Commonwealth could impose conditions on state grants, such as that it be used only for religious chaplains.

“A state could refuse to accept a grant that was subject to such a condition,” Professor Twomey said. “It would then be a matter for negotiation between the Commonwealth and the state as to whether the Commonwealth would alter its condition or whether the state would accept or refuse the grant.”

Greensborough Primary School is distressed it will lose its student welfare worker, Emma Bevan, at the end of the year after the Abbott government axed an option put in place by Labor to allow schools to employ a secular wellbeing officer instead of a chaplain.

“Many families didn’t want chaplains to work with children because they were fundamentally opposed to the religious issues,” said principal Angela Morritt.

She said Ms Bevan, who is also a child psychologist, assisted students and parents with the transition from kinder to prep and primary to secondary school, ran a meditation group, helped with parenting strategies, referred students to other services and provided grief counselling.

Ms Bevan had also established the “friendship tree”, staffed by year six student wellbeing leaders, who read books and played with other children.

“The benefits have been overwhelming: Emma has a multi-disciplinary approach and has provided support to students, staff and parents,” Ms Merritt said.

“Our community was enormously distressed when they found out in the budget because they want to keep the student welfare worker.”

Maureen Hartung, the executive director of Blue Gum School in Canberra, tweeted politicians after the High Court decision asking: “If $s go via state/territory govts, can/will you reintroduce non-religious option?”

Ms Hartung said she found it insulting that secular schools like Blue Gum were forced to employ chaplains under the program. “We’ve got Jewish families; why should they be forced to have chaplains?”

ACT Education Minister Joy Burch said the territory’s position was clear that it wanted the program opened to secular workers. “To me, it goes to school choice. It’s the school principal and the school board that know their community best.”

South Australian Education Minister Jennifer Rankine said: “I would strongly support a return to the previous model where schools were able to access secular social workers.”


Courts $243.5m in state grants needed to continue program

Jane Lee, Benjamin Preiss [and] Matthew Knott

The Abbott government will have to grant $243.5 million to state and territory governments to continue its national schools chaplaincy program after a Queensland father successfully challenged its funding in the High Court.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott reaffirmed his commitment to the program within hours of the High Court’s unanimous decision that federal funding for school chaplains via the Scripture Union of Queensland was unlawful.

Without detailing how the Coalition would fund the program, Mr Abbott said “[we] very much support it and we want it to continue”.

Queensland father Ron Williams - who won his initial challenge against the program two years ago, then again on Thursday - says there is no place
in public schools for non-secular programs.

In the May budget, the Abbott government allocated $243.5 million to continue running the chaplaincy program for another five years. That funding was intended specifically for schools to hire faith-based chaplains rather than social workers.

Four of Mr Williams’s children attend a Queensland school that receives federal funding for chaplains. He said the decision was a huge win for the “silent majority of parents” against the program.

University of Sydney constitutional law professor Anne Twomey said the federal government would be able to continue the pro-gram only by providing grants to state governments rather than directly to chaplains. “This is the only real option. They can do that, and they probably will,” she said.

While the judgment will have a limited effect beyond the program, Professor Twomey said it was still a “slap down” for the federal government.

“This is a reminder from the High Court that the Commonwealth . . . cannot spend money on whatever it likes.” National School Chaplaincy Association secretary Peter James said the group expected the Commonwealth to put in place “an alternative funding solution”, which could be a system of grants.

“With . . . bipartisan support for the program, I’m confident that some form of funding will be put in place,” he said.

Mr James said funding was guaranteed until December, but the government would probably need to make changes to the program so money could flow next

Australian Education Union Victorian branch president, Meredith Peace, said she was opposed to the chaplaincy program in schools.

“I think the decision provides a real opportunity for government to redirect the funding to where it is most needed,” she said, referring to “qualified professionals” such as speech therapists and psychologists, as well as to support children with disabilities.

Parents Victoria executive officer Gail McHardy said some schools would be anxious about the future of the program, but, “Parents Victoria wants our schools to have the flexibility to choose and allocate government funding for trained secular counsellors.”

Philip Simpson, a chaplain at Blackburn Primary School, said he provided support to students, their families and teachers.

“I love the fact that every day I’m there, I can make a difference,” he said.


Throwing book at religious study

Alexandra Smith

Ron Williams, a jazz singer and father of six, took on God and won.

The Queensland man can quote, almost verbatim, the press conference from 2006 when the former prime minister John Howard announced a national
school chaplaincy program. It riled him then, and it does now.

With four children at a public school in Toowoomba, Mr Williams was outraged that religious teaching in state schools could be funded by the
federal government.

But after years of letter writing and complaints to two federal education ministers, Mr Williams had had enough and he took the government
to the High Court.

It marked the beginning of a David and Goliath battle that Mr Williams would win, not once but twice.

Almost exactly two years ago, Mr Williams won his first High Court challenge against the chaplaincy program when six of its seven judges
ruled that it exceeded the Commonwealth’s executive spending powers under the constitution.

Just days later, the Gillard government rushed through new laws to include 427 grants and programs it could fund without legislation,
including drought assistance and counter-terrorism measures, amounting to between 5 and 10 per cent of Commonwealth expenditure. It did not end
there. The next day, it paid the Scripture Union of Queensland more than $6.2 million, $11,000 of which went to Mr Williams’s children’s school to
run its chaplaincy program.

Mr Williams’s latest case challenged the constitutional validity of this law. The musician’s legal bills have mounted - he estimates they are close to $300,000 - but much of the funding for his legal challenges has been donated by like-minded parents and individuals who support his push to stop the government funding an “overtly religious” program.

Costs have been awarded to him after both challenges, but he says he will still be out of pocket.

“My support base has helped me so much, financially and with moral support,” he said. “My cases weren’t about having chaplains taken out of
schools, but questioning the right of a federal government or even a state government to fund programs such as this in public schools.”

Court curtails executive powers

What does the national school chaplaincy program do?

The role of chaplains is to support the emotional wellbeing of school students. The National School Chaplaincy Association says chaplains are in
the “prevention and rescue business” and help young people deal with issues ranging from family breakdown to drug abuse.

The association says school chaplains encourage reflection on the “spiritual dimensions of life” and have an “educative role” in morals,
values, ethics and religion. But it stresses that chaplains are available to students of all faiths and must respect the range of views and affiliations
in schools.

What did Ron Williams argue?

In Mr Williams’s first High Court challenge, he successfully argued that the Commonwealth’s direct funding for school chaplains went beyond the
Commonwealth's executive powers. The then Labor government changed an existing law, giving itself power to fund an open list of about 427 things,
including school chaplains.

In his latest challenge, Mr Williams argued that this law was invalid, and that the payment to chaplains was beyond the Commonwealth’s powers and
had not “validly been authorised by legislation”.

What did the High Court decide?

It decided the law was invalid for the Commonwealth’s funding agreement with the Scripture Union of Queensland for school chaplains, because
chaplaincy services did not fall under the Commonwealth’s power to make laws that provide “benefits to students”.


Feelings run high on mosque

Richard Willingham, Steve Lillebuen [and] Aisha Dow

Mysterious black balloons have been tied to a sign outside the house of a local councillor, as well as to railings outside the local newspaper office, as Bendigo [Victoria] confronts a surge of anti-Islamic sentiment following the green light for the city’s first mosque.

And the Muslim community, estimated to be about 200 in a population of 110,000, have privately expressed safety concerns since a heated council meeting on Wednesday night [18 June] approved the planning for a mosque.

Many community leaders suspect much of the crowd were not from Bendigo, have links to other anti-Islamic groups in Australia, and came to town to cause trouble.

They said they were disgusted and embarrassed by some of the anti-Muslim rhetoric being expressed, especially in a town that had a proud history of multiculturalism.

On Thursday, Cr Mark Weragoda found black balloons tied to the front of his home and business. The balloons first appeared in Bendigo a month ago. An anonymous group say the black balloons are a symbol linking the prevalence of domestic violence to the growing Islamic community in the region, with the balloons tied to items associated with those who accept Islam into the city.

Cr Weragoda, who migrated from Sri Lanka to Bendigo in 1975 when he was 14, said the council meeting was the first time he had really felt hatred against multiculturalism.

Whenever he spoke to the council on Wednesday, protesters played Middle Eastern music.

He said the balloons did not worry him and he felt sorry for the uninformed “minority” group who opposed the mosque on social grounds. There were “bad eggs” in every society, he said.

The mosque is planned for undeveloped industrial land in East Bendigo, but is next to houses.

Two councillors, Helen Leach and Elise Chapman, voted against the mosque.

Cr Chapman said she shared community concerns about terrorism.

“I’d be concerned,” she told Fairfax Media. “I wouldn’t want to live next door to a mosque, would you?”

Cr Leach said she was not anti-Muslim, but many local residents had raised concerns.

“Maybe they [the protesters] are looking at the sectarian problems in other capital cities in Australia and are concerned perhaps that may come to Bendigo,” she told [Radio] 3AW.

The fate of the mosque is likely to face a legal battle with some angry residents demanding to know what “safety measures” had been taken to prevent crime and terrorism in the regional centre.

A Facebook page “Stop the Mosque in Bendigo” has attracted almost 7500 “likes”. On Thursday, posted on the page was a mocked-up image of the council’s logo, modified to read “the City of Grovelling Bendigo welcomes terrorists, paedophiles [and] rapists”.

The mosque, funded by the Australian Islamic Mission, attracted more than 350 objections, most on religious grounds, including fears about Sharia law.


Department won’t support religious instruction

Benjamin Preiss

The [Victorian] Education Department does not endorse the content of the controversial religious instruction program in state Schools, the latest parental consent form says.

The new form, issued to schools on Tuesday [17 June], will now list the name of the volunteer instructor and their religious affiliation.

The form stresses that special religious instruction (SRI) does not provide an overview of all faiths. It said the instruction may include scriptural studies and how to live and behave “according to the tenets of the particular faith”.

“Given the religious nature of the program, the De0partment of Education and Early Childhood Development does not endorse program content used to deliver SRI by accredited volunteer instructors,” the form said.

“Schools are obliged to provide parents with this form if approached by an accredited and approved SRI volunteer.”

Principals can decide whether they are able to offer religious instruction at their school once parents have returned the forms.

The form said the religions available to schools would vary.

State school principals must offer religious instruction when accredited instructors indicate they are available.

An Education Department spokesman said the form made clear that special religious instruction should not be confused with general religious education.

Fairness in Religions in Schools campaign co-ordinator Lara Wood said the new form was a “huge improvement”.

The main provider of Christian instruction in Victoria, Access Ministries, did not respond to Fairfax Media’s questions by deadline.


Fear and loathing at Bendigo mosque plan

Aisha Dow [and] Emma Schenk

Plans for a $3 million mosque in East Bendigo [Victoria] have been met with fury from local residents, who wanted to know what “safety measures” had been taken to prevent a terrorist attack in the regional centre.

Bendigo councillors voted 6 to 2 on Wednesday night [18 June] to approve the building for daily prayers, com-munity lectures and weddings.

Vocal protesters, some carrying placards, packed the council chamber for two hours of fierce argument over the Rowena Street proposal. One woman asked the councillors if they would be able to sleep at night if Islam “descended” on Bendigo. Lockwood councillor Elise Chapman spoke about Muslim families having more children than Australians.

Jacinta Allan, however, member for Bendigo East, said “mob” views did not represent the majority of the local community. “I think the councillors who stared down intolerance should be applauded,” she said.

“The general view [on the mosque] is that it’s just a planning matter that should be treated like any other planning matter.”

The project, funded by the Australian Islamic Mission, attracted more than 400 objections. Many opponents said they had religious objections, citing fears the mosque would create a Muslim “enclave”.

Others were worried about a drop in house prices.

Council officers concluded there was no reason to refuse a permit for the two-storey mosque and minaret. A report found the mosque would provide a “net benefit” by providing cultural facilities for the community.

Mosque developer Munshi Nawaz said he had always felt welcome in the community.


Terrorism Brandis warns of new threat Australians joining extremists in Iraq

David Wroe - Defence Correspondent

Australians are fighting in Iraq with the ultra-violent al-Qaeda splinter group whose lightning offensive over the past week threatens to tear the fragile country apart, Fairfax Media has learnt.

Security sources say individuals who left Australia to fight in Syria against the régime of Bashar al-Assad are definitely among extremist fighters sweeping into neighbouring Iraq.

Authorities are concerned that such fighters may pose a significant terrorism threat when they return to Australia. The revelations raise the prospect that Australians might have been involved in mass executions of surrendered Iraqi soldiers, pictures of which were posted online by the jihadists as propaganda tools.

Fairfax Media understands several Australians at least have crossed into Iraq and been involved in the fighting around the north of the country.

The group, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, has sent shock-waves around Western capitals in the past week by chasing away much larger forces of Iraqi soldiers and seizing swaths of territory including Mosul, the country’s second-largest city.

The Australian Security Intelligence Organisation has previously said it is investigating between 120 and 150 people who have either travelled to Syria to fight or support the extremist rebels from Australia, including some who have been to Syria and returned.

About half of those are believed to be in Syria or the surrounding region and a considerable proportion of those are believed to be with the more extreme rebel groups including ISIL and al-Qaeda affiliate, the al-Nusra Front. At least some of’ those involved with ISIL hold more senior positions, possibly as commanders, security sources say.

Both ASIO and Attorney-General George Brandis have expressed worry that they will pose a terrorism threat when they return home more radicalised. At
least 10 Australians are believed to have been killed fighting in Syria with rebel groups.

Security officials are also understood to be concerned that ISIL’s recent successes against Iraqi forces could drive further recruitment, including in Australia.

Senator Brandis told Fairfax Media: “Australians travelling to Iraq or Syria to engage in, or support, terrorist activities are not only committing criminal offences, but may face personal risks such as being kidnapped, seriously injured or killed.”

He said it was illegal for any Australian, including dual citizens, to “fight, provide funding, provide training, or supply weapons to the conflict in Syria or Iraq”. Most of the fighters are believed to be Lebanese or Turkish dual nationals.

Australia is considering what military assistance it might provide to the Iraqi government as part of a broader, US-led effort to help beat back the insurgency.

Andrew Zammit, a researcher at Monash University’s Global Terrorism Research Centre, said he had expected Australians would end up in Iraq, given their considerable numbers in Syria. He pointed to the recent murders at a Jewish Museum in Brussels, allegedly by a man who had fought with ISIL, as an example “that Australian authorities would be concerned could happen here”.


Devil in the detail for Anglican Church hierarchy

The outgoing primate's fight against institutionalised child sex abuse must continue.


The announcement of the departure of Dr Phillip Aspinall as primate of the Anglican Church of Australia might not seem a signi­ficant event. After all, the church is hardly in good shape, with falling congregations and the rise and rise of the new god of Richard Dawkins's atheism.

Yet Aspinall's departure is any­thing but insignificant. He leaves the role later this year and before his tenure expires. After he ends his time, he will remain as Anglican Archbishop of Brisbane.

His loss will be felt keenly because he bravely took on the Anglican Church hierarchy and was seriously exercised by the presence of institutionalised child sexual abuse.

His predecessor, the disgraced, shamed and justifiably maligned former archbishop of Brisbane, Dr Peter Hollingworth, was exposed as grossly negligent on Aspinall's watch.

As Brisbane's archbishop, Aspinall took on allegations that amounted to paedophilic priests and school teachers working in Anglican schools in the Brisbane diocese being protected.

Tis was no small event. The Anglican Church can bring consid­erable pressure to bear on trouble­some priests, and Aspinall was certainly one of these, particularly when he dug deep into the Bris­bane diocese.

I write from experience. I was teaching at an Anglican school when I wrote a series of articles highly critical of Hollingworth in The Age and elsewhere. I was sum­moned to a mediation meeting by my then headmaster to meet Hollingworth. In that meeting, I felt pressured, albeit politely, and gave an undertaking that I would not write any more articles on Hollingworth.

The fact is that if Aspinall had not had the courage and the sense of moral justice to investigate the Brisbane diocese, then Hollingworth's alleged lack of action against paedophilic priests, or what some would describe as his turning a blind eye to the abuse, would not have occurred. The cover-up would have continued.

Let's be frank here. Aspinall, I imagine, is not on Hollingworth's Christmas card list. The reason is palpably obvious. The Aspinall-led inquiry made sensational and accurate findings against Hollingworth that led to his dramatic and necessary fall from the role of governor-general in 2003.

Aspinall clearly indicated his wish to cull the church of all paedophilic priests. And while he has not been able to complete his task, this is not to say he has failed.

His ability to act was limited. The Anglican primate cannot direct his bishops. Therefore, if a bishop knows of a priest who is acting inappropriately, Aspinall cannot directly intervene. To say the church is a law unto itself is not far from the truth. This is why the only way to expose priests who sodomise children is to mount civil actions or hold a royal commission, as is currently the case.

It will take a leader of similar strength, one without vanity or ego but with a sharp moral compass, to take the legacy of Aspinall further. The current Archbishop of Melbourne, Dr Philip Freier, is on the shortlist. His tenure as Melbourne's archbishop has been largely uncontroversial and low-key.

He has been an advocate for the Anglican Church in confronting social issues of the day. His participation in public forums as well as writing in The Age have expressed his sense of social justice.

Still, Freier has not demonstrated an active, public preoccupation of significant inquiry into the behaviour of priests within parishes or schools. I am not proposing a Salem-like witch-hunt into priestly behaviour. And I am not fingering anyone.

What I am saying though, is that it is disingenuous in the extreme for anyone to think that the Anglican Church in Melbourne does not have in its ranks priests who have behaved inappropriately. And let's keep in mind, Freier can act only after an allegation has been made and if the bishops comply with an investigation. His hands are tied.

There is no greater issue facing the Anglican Church of Australia than building public confidence so that the institution of the church can be trusted; trusted enough with children.

The reform of the governance of the Anglican Church is essential so predatory priests have nowhere to hide.

Christopher Bantick is a writer and senior literature teacher at an independent school.


Holy day not good for football, say church leaders

Nick Toscano

Religious leaders have condemned the AFL’s decision to go ahead with Good Friday football as a greedy cash grab taking precedence over important cultural traditions.

Bishop Philip Muggins, of the Anglican Diocese of Melbourne, said Monday’s announcement that Good Friday games will begin as early as next year had caught him by surprise. The AFL Commission has given approval for the games; it is now up to executives to decide whether to schedule them or not.

Bishop Huggins said a run of meetings between the church and the AFL had left it believing it would stay committed to keeping the religious holiday footy-free.

“It is particularly disappointing in light of discussions I had with the AFL’s chief executive [Gillon] McLachlan, in which I thought he understood these sensitivities,” he said.

He said the decision was regrettable and would trash a significant day that was the “turning point of all human history”.*

“The AFL has chosen to preference another money-making opportunity over respect for cultural traditions and sensitivities, continuing the grinding banality of product marketing,” Bishop Huggins said.

“No doubt if the marketers believed they could sell it, there would be AFL at 3 a.m. on Christmas Day in Madagascar.”

Mr McLachlan said the AFL’s general manager of scheduling, Simon Lethlean, had consulted religious leaders and other stakeholders about turning Good Friday into a game day.

“He’s met with a lot of stakeholders, and I think that’s important to recognise, including Good Friday Appeal people, broadcasters and representatives of church groups,” Mr McLachlan said.

The Victorian Council of Churches also objected, and asked that a percentage of any gate takings be given to charity organisations.

AFL Commission chairman Mike Fitzpatrick said there had been a “growing appetite” to hold a game on Good Friday, and “on balance, we believe the time is right”.

Atheist Foundation of Australia’s Tracy Burgess said it was surprising it had taken the AFL so long. “I thought the AFL was the religion in Victoria,” she said.

“We have a multicultural society, so to shut things down just for one small group is somewhat antagonistic to everybody else.”

* [It seems that Anglicans still imagine they are the centre of the universe. ? N.S.]


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