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Australian Financial Review: ‘Chaplains War’ back in court

Exclusive: Joanna Mather 23 February 2013

The Queensland father of six who came close to toppling the school chaplains funding program will return to court with an even higher-stakes claim against the federal government.

Ron Williams is seeking to quash legislation devised by the government so it could continue funding school chaplains after the High Court ruled that the funding of the program was constitutionally invalid because it had nto been authorised by legislation.

He will challenge a section of legislation amended after the High Court decision last June to include more than 400 arrangements, grants and programs the federal government could fund without passing additional legislation.

Mr Williams, a Toowoomba musician, told the Weekend Financial Review he had unfinished business and was confident his solicitors could win again.

“It has to be followed through,” he said. “Many, many, many hundreds of parents contributed funding to my case and they are still dissatisfied.”

Labor has provided $222 million in support to 3555 schools nationwide under what is now called the national school chaplaincy and student welfare program. Up to $72,000 is allocated per school over three years for chaplains or non-faith welfare workers.

It is anticipated that Mr Williams will argue that the federal government’s response to the High Court’s initial decision is itself constitutionally invalid because it again oversteps the Commonwealth’s powers.

University of NSW professor George Williams said the case would be watched closely because it went to the heart of the federal system.

“There is nothing more important in power and politics in Australia than who controls the purse-strings,” he said. “And most people would think [Mr Williams] in on better than even money to win.”

Anne Twomey, a constitutional law academic at the University of Sydney, said the High Court’s decision in the chaplaincy case suggested judicial concern over the federal government “running amok” with its executive powers.