High Court rules federal funding of school chaplains invalid again

As The World Today story makes clear, it is the funding methodology rather than the school chaplains program itself that has been, for the second time, ruled unconstitutional by the High Court.

High court_250When Toowoomba father of six Ron Williams won the original High Court challenge to the chaplaincy program in 2012 the Gillard Government passed ‘catch-all’ legislation which sought to enable to make such grants directly to schools. This ‘bandaid’ solution has now failed. While the court case has only been about the school chaplaincy program specifically a precedent was set that placed a question mark over some 400 other Commonwealth direct funding programs, past and present. I gather these programs had been implemented by the executive without legislation.

It appears that the Commonwealth will now have to use legislation specific to the program, by which means it can make special purpose payments to the states with as many conditions as it likes. This legislation would then have to run the gamut of the senate, which may be difficult, if Labor comes to its senses and opposes the legislation.

I agree with Angelo Gavrielatos, head of the Education Union:

We’ve always opposed this program, considering it a badly designed and quite frankly not in the interests of our kids and what they actually need.

It also compromises the secular traditions of public schools. This money is better directed to specialist, expert support for our students. What our students need are expert trained school counsellors, psychologists and welfare workers.

It’s also important to note that this program has been costed at $250 million. This is at the same time when there’s been a real cut in funding for students with disabilities.

The Abbott Government is so far reserving its position until they examine the ruling, as one would expect.

There is a summary article by Michelle Grattan at The Conversation.

Retiring Senator Louise Pratt has condemned the program, saying that it has driven gay and lesbian children to self harm:

Senator Pratt said an online survey by gay rights group All Out, which attracted 2200 responses, had uncovered dozens of firsthand student accounts that describe chaplains as being “explicitly anti-gay”.

One respondent said their school chaplain had described gays and lesbians as “unnatural, indecent and perverse”. Another said a gay friend had overdosed on medical pills after their school chaplain said being gay was a “degrading sin” that sends people to hell.

“As well as the two stories I have just quoted, students described chaplains helping them to ‘pray the gay away’ and advising them to sleep with a member of the opposite sex to ‘correct’ their same-sex attraction,” Senator Pratt said.

“One very serious story involved a student being told by a chaplain that they should leave home because they had homosexual parents . . . Regardless of the outcome [of the High Court challenge], it is important to see this program stopped.”

Proponents of the program say such incidents would be rare and in breach of the code of conduct under which chaplains operate.

According to Peter Sherlock schools have been able to use the money to employ secular counsellors. In the 2104-15 budget, however, this was narrowed to chaplains from religious organisations alone.

Sherlock, who is Vice-Chancellor at University of Divinity, says that the program recognises that schools have a socialising role in the formation of a child that goes beyond the door of the classroom and the skills and content imparted there. He thinks, however, the chaplains from religious organisations will almost inevitably be motivated to proselytise, and the secular counsellors would be more appropriate.

I couldn’t agree more. Problem is, part of the purpose of the program is to win votes from particular sectors of the church-going community.

Another way to cook the planet

Around 80 to 85% of coal in the ground cannot be mined by conventional methods. That’s 18 trillion tonnes according to the International Energy Agency’s Clean Coal Centre – enough to supply the world for 1000 years, at current requirements. Fred Pearce in the New Scientist (paywalled) takes a look at efforts to liberate this potential by a process called underground coal gasification (UCG). Apparently that’s enough to add about 10°C to global warming, if the carbon is not sequestered.

The process involves burning the coal in situ underground, bringing the gases thus created to the surface and then burning them in a conventional power station. This image from the British Geological Survey illustrates the process:


The “Zero emissions power generation” is totally misleading (see below).

Stalin’s engineers and their successors have been doing it to a brown coal seam for 50 years near Angren, a town east of Tashkent in Uzbekistan. Air is piped 300 metres down one well, the gas comes up another. It is cooled, scrubbed of coal dust and compressed on site, then piped across the plain to Angren. Australians bought the operation seven years ago, with a view to scaling up the technology to transform the world’s energy markets.

A cocktail of gases is created when the coal is burned – methane (natural gas), CO2, which can be disposed of safely, carbon monoxide (CO), and hydrogen. There are four ways the gases can be used:

  • Gas to electricity. Methane is burned in a power station.
  • Gas to chemicals. Hydrogen, methane and CO have value as feedstock in the chemicals industry.
  • Gas to liquid. Methane can be liquified to LNG, or CO and hydrogen can be turned into synthetic diesel.
  • Gas to tech. Hydrogen can be used as a transport fuel.

As methane burns it oxidises to CO2 and water. Potentially, it is said, the same infrastructure of pipes can be used to pipe the CO2 from the power station back to the mine and insert it in the place vacated by the burnt coal. Obviously you’d have to double the pipeline for continuous operation. And obviously the process would add to the expense.

A second concern is that chemicals can leak to contaminate groundwater. If the rocks above the seam are impermeable before the process, they may not be after. Fracturing is estimated to occur up to 60 times the width of the seam. In fact fracturing the nearby rocks could release even more gas for use.


Australian engineers trialled an adapted process at Chinchilla in Queensland in the 1990s. Within two years UCG was shown to be feasible. But in 2011 benzene and toluene leaked into a nearby borehole in an operation near Kingaroy. Similar problems had emerged in the US, so Qld authorities shut the operation down for investigation. Last July ‘Can do’ Campbell’s mob came up with the idea that you could only operate if you successfully decommissioned a commercial scale operation to show that you could do it. So you had to start an operation, stop it, get your operating ticket, then start up again. Brilliant!

There were three companies involved in Qld – Linc Energy, Carbon Energy and Cougar Energy. They responded by shutting Chinchilla down after more than a decade of successful production, and relocating to China, the US, Argentina, Chile and Indonesia.

There are trials elsewhere, including Canada and South Africa. At Cook Inlet in Alaska and Swan Hills in Alberta, Canada, there are plans to go commercial as early as 2015. In Britain, they reckon 70% of coal has never been mined. Furthermore there is 10 billion tonnes of the stuff under 400 square kilometres in the North Sea. An Office for Unconventional Gas and Oil has been set up with £1 billion seed money to stimulate the industry. Half a dozen start-ups have been spawned. There is interest also in supplying feedstock to energise the flagging chemicals industry in Scotland.

All this momentum is a worry unless in practice ‘clean’ coal turns out to be completely clean. For example in Britain it is said that only 30% of CO2 could be sequestered. There they are throwing £1 billion at the problem.

Remember, for a safe climate we need to reduce the concentration of emissions initially to 350 ppm. Or you can go back and depress yourself by re-reading The game is up.

Our best chance lies in the possibility of renewables becoming cheaper than the fossil alternatives. If we rely on the human race acting rationally in its own longer term self interest our prospects are not good.