Thursday, May 29, 2014

OPINION: At least God has the Commonwealth on His side

There was a time when the Liberal Party stood for the "forgotten people", the people who didn't have a union or truckloads of cash and capital to back them up. Vulnerable individuals.
The 2014 budget hasn't given young and future voters much to cheer about. A swag of youth-related programs have been slashed, especially in regional areas. Often these are places where businesses are shutting doors, where workers are being laid off and where the only jobs available often involve flipping burgers in return for a few dollars.

And if you are unlucky or too depressed to do this kind of work, you may find yourself with no income source for six months. Apart from your parents, that is. Conservatives are all about family values, you know.

You might choose to study. No upfront fees! What a bargain! And enough debt to make getting married, having babies and putting a roof over their head almost impossible.

There was a time when the Liberal Party stood for the "forgotten people", the people who didn't have a union or truckloads of cash and capital to back them up. Vulnerable individuals.

But that seems like ancient history today. There are plenty of vulnerable individuals today, especially with union membership falling. But instead of providing opportunity, modern Australian liberalism is all about kicking vulnerable individuals in the guts.

So to whom can young vulnerable individuals turn? What should they do? Jostle a few past and present female MPs? Hold placards upside down on national TV?

Hiding in the detail of Joe Hockey's 2014 budget is a clue. Young people could do with a dose of good old-fashioned religion. An injection of taxpayer funds to empower God is what's called for.

John Howard injected $90 million into a pastoral care scheme. Howard knew public school teachers were spending too much time sorting out the great unwashed kids whose parents were too selfish to invest in decent grammar school education. Too much money for beer and cigarettes, and not enough for chapel, Latin classes and rugby.

Money for wealthy public schools also got shared among the poor struggling private schools. The result was that all schools could claim funding under the National School Chaplaincy Programme.

The scheme was a huge success. By July 2011, a 28 per cent of state schools had taken the dosh. Writing in Inside Story on July 21, 2011, Monica Thielking and David Mackenzie noted:

The initiative had its critics, but generally the education sector welcomed the additional resources.

Also happy were the chaplaincy providers, most of whom were faith-based. Here was a chance to spread the word.

One spokeswoman from ACCESS Ministries was quoted saying:

[I]n Australia we have a God-given open door to children and young people with the Gospel. Our federal and state governments allow us to take the Christian faith into our schools and share it. We need to go and make disciples.

This missionary zeal was nothing new. Back in the 1980s my school was making us year 10 boys spend one hour each week for an entire term being indoctrinated by Francis Schaeffer's How Should We Then Live?.

This series of videos presented the European Enlightenment as an atheistic tragedy, the French Revolution as a series of guillotines (OK, he got that one right) and modern "secular humanism" as responsible for everything from the Holocaust to the Chinese Cultural Revolution.

Schaeffer's solution? Bring God back into public life, into the public square, into government. Spoon-fed theocracy. That's where my parents' school fees went.

Seriously, though, the chaplaincy scheme is a good idea so long as governments recognised that not everyone believes that the Son of God was sent to die for our sins. And that some youth problems are too tough even for prayer.

The very hint of the Commonwealth funding direct preaching in schools (even if this isn't generally the reality) doesn't sit well with voters. Even if Chris Pyne and Tony Abbott scream until the Christ comes home that states and territories are funding less godly counsellors and psychologists.

Which is exactly what is happening. An extra $245 million has been found in the budget for the chaplaincy program. But schools don't have the option of having a not-so-religious social worker to fill the role.

When it comes to our kids' pastoral needs, at least God has the Commonwealth on His side. But not in other areas of school life.

Chris Pyne has already indicated he wants a reviewed curriculum for schools which puts emphasis on Anzac Day and our Western civilisation. God's children mustn't be pacifist and certainly mustn't have a black-armband view of the past, even if His son was a Palestinian Jew.

The culture wars are alive and well in our schools. God help our kids.

Irfan Yusuf is an author and PhD candidate at the Centre for Citizenship and Globalisation at Deakin University. First published in the Canberra Times on Saturday 24 May 2014.