Ms PATTEN (Northern Metropolitan) (09:53): I move:
That the bill be now read a second time.
You may not realise it, but to get a job as a youth worker at Dorset Primary School or Craigieburn Secondary College—or many other public schools across Victoria—you have to be a Christian.
That is what the job advertisements say.
This is religious discrimination, it is happening in the Victorian public school system, and it is happening now.
The Victorian Department of Education and Training runs the school chaplaincy program in Victoria, which pays for youth workers in public schools. These people have the slightly misleading job title of chaplain. The work they perform is not meant to be religious, they are meant to be student welfare workers.
The department’s own guidelines state that ‘chaplains may be from any faith or of no faith’. This makes perfect sense. Victoria’s public schools are secular, inclusive, multifaith and multicultural. In fact our public schools must be secular according to section 2.2.10 of the Education and Training Reform Act 2006.
Public school staff should be hired on merit. Religious affiliation should be irrelevant. Yet all of the provider organisations that the department contracts to hire chaplains, bar possibly one, will only hire Christians. If you’re a Muslim, Hindu, Jew or atheist, you will not meet the key selection criteria to apply for these jobs in our public school system.
The Victorian Department of Education and Training knows its contractors engage in this kind of religious discrimination. In 2019 the department settled a VCAT religious discrimination case brought against it by Juliette Armstrong. Armstrong is not religious and when her contract as a chaplain was about to expire she started looking for a new contract. The problem was that all the jobs then available in Victorian public schools were open only to Christians. Even though she had post-graduate qualifications as a counsellor and even though she had years of experience as a school chaplain, she was unable to apply for a job because she did not have a Christian affiliation.
In January this year the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission arranged a meeting with the education department to ‘discuss [the commission’s] concern that certain chaplaincy providers may not be employing people not of faith to be a chaplain’.
The commissioner herself stated to me in writing ‘we agree that the program may be in breach of the Equal Opportunity Act 2010’.
Religious discrimination against job applicants is unlawful under Victoria’s Equal Opportunity Act. The Equal Opportunity Act also makes it unlawful to assist, encourage or authorise someone else to engage in religious discrimination against job applicants in Victoria. The act also creates a duty to eliminate religious discrimination. Yet right now there are multiple jobs in Victorian public schools being advertised as open only to Christians. No Muslims allowed. No Jews allowed. No atheists allowed.
This discrimination is rooted in the chaplaincy project agreement between the commonwealth and the state.
The project agreement sets out, that for the purposes of the agreement, that a chaplain is an individual, who amongst other things, ‘is recognised through formal ordination, commissioning, recognised religious qualifications or endorsement by a recognised or accepted religious institution’.
But on the project agreement, let me be very clear: it is a mere agreement that is non-binding on the state. The project agreement itself states that ‘The parties do not intend any of the provisions of this agreement to be legally enforceable’.
The project agreement is not a law. The Victorian government must obey the law—and clause 32(a)(ii) of the project agreement contravenes Victorian law.
The department seems to be turning a blind eye to this and to all the religious discrimination that follows. This bill provides a simple way to end that and to end this religious discrimination.
This bill will prevent Victorian public school councils from entering into an agreement with a third-party provider to employ a non-teaching staff member whose work involves close and non-incidental interaction with students. In other words, Victorian public schools must employ youth workers—and other similar non-teaching staff—directly rather than through external contractors.
This will ensure that the staff member can only be employed in compliance with the standards established by the Equal Opportunity Act 2010 and Public Administration Act 2004—and those standards are clear that they cannot discriminate.
The department might be willing to turn a blind eye to its contractors engaging in discrimination against job applicants. The department might be willing to look the other way when its contractors tell potential job applicants, ‘Sorry you don’t have a reference from a church minister’. But Victorian public schools would never themselves put out a job ad saying ‘Christians only’. Victoria’s public schools themselves would never tell potential job applicants: no Muslims, no atheists, no Jews. In fact they can’t, because it would be contrary to Victorian law and Department of Education and Training policy.
This bill will make public schools hire youth workers, or chaplains if we must call them that, directly.
Coming out of COVID-19, we know more than ever we need the very best and most qualified staff to support our young people.
Victoria, with the other states, backed Queensland father Ron Williams, who won two High Court challenges over the chaplaincy program. The second was in 2014.
At that time Victorian Labor said it would push for the chaplaincy program to include non-religious chaplains, with the now responsible minister and Deputy Leader of the Parliamentary Labor Party, Mr Merlino, saying:
If we have to have a fight with the Commonwealth over that, we will fight with the Commonwealth over that …
Well, that fight starts now. It is time to end religious discrimination in Victoria’s public schools.
Turning to the structure of the bill, its purpose is to amend the Education and Training Reform Act 2006 in relation to the power of school councils to employ certain non-teaching staff. The bill will come into operation on 1 January 2021 if not proclaimed earlier. The bill inserts new section 2.3.8(1A) into the Education and Training Reform Act 2006 that, for the purposes of the act, requires a school council to directly employ any non-teaching staff member whose work involves close and non-incidental interactions with students on a regular basis. New section 2.3.8(1A) applies only to Victorian public schools. New section 2.3.8(1A) is drafted so as not to capture other contractors who do not work directly with students, such as cleaners or electricians, or to capture casual relief teachers who might be provided by an agency.
In preventing a school council from entering into an agreement with a third-party provider to employ a non-teaching staff member whose work is with students, this new section ensures that the staff member can only be employed with the standards established by the Equal Opportunity Act and the Public Administration Act 2004. This is reasonable legislation that does what the Victorian law already says we must do and what the minister already said he would fight for. There is no place for religious discrimination in school staffing just like there is no place for religious discrimination in the schoolyard. The standard you walk past is the standard you accept, and none of us should be walking past this. I commend the bill to the house.