Religion has become a more prominent theme in Australian public life over recent years and has provoked a number of commentators to observe that we are imitating elements of the American political scene. In this article, Hugh Wilson argues that there is a long and continuing history of religious influence on public education in Queensland.
Here in Queensland, the "smart state" of Anna Bligh, Andrew Fraser and Geoff Wilson, where the ubiquitous six o'clock hardhat shows where government priorities really lie, the hoped for "Education Revolution" of Prime Minister Rudd and his Education Minister, Julia Gillard, died, stillborn, before it had a fair chance to suck on Rudd's sauce bottle of oxygen.
If Rudd and Gillard thought they were going to bring a warp-speed, technology-driven, post-modern (whatever that means) system of education to a nation fearful of "book learning", then Rudd, at least, must have known it would never be let over the border into the Bible-belted Deep North to interfere with our nineteenth Century non-secular system of "edumacation".
Why would Queenslanders need to move beyond the thinking of the 1870s, when our mines are open, our farms produce food, and we have tourism and foreign students to add to our export driven economy?
But, "don"t you worry about that", as Joh and his ilk would have told the Moral Majority supporters fearful of a changed approach to schooling in the late 1960s, there is only one "revolution"really going on in Queensland state schools, and it has nothing at all to do with Marx, Che, or the Enlightenment.
Or perhaps it does? Just as Cardinal George Pell insists that the "secular experiment" has failed, and the Roman Catholic Way, like some ancient airport moving-footpath crossing the Empire for Caesar's legions to march along will bring us all closer to the "real purpose"of life, if only we stepped on to it, so too are our evangelical Christian colleagues from Hillsong Church, the Assembly of God, the Australian Christian Lobby, Tim Costello's World Vision Baptists and the Scripture Union crew, all telling us that the end is nigh, and salvation lies in a school chaplain and a mob of Christian mentors roaming freely in state schools.
The newly formed Australian Secular Lobby (ASL) met with the newly installed Education Minister, Mr. Geoff Wilson, and his acting Director-General of Education, at the Highfields Community Cabinet Meeting recently. We went to discuss the failure of Education Queensland to cater to non-Christian parents and students who, foolishly, are trusting the public education system to "be secular".
Bligh selected Highfields quite deliberately. This is Toowoomba North, where her previous Attorney General sat. Once elected, Kerry Shine decided to snub his electorate, who thought they were getting a seat at the Cabinet table, by refusing to carry on as the AG in Bligh's new government. Highfields was also the seat where Beattie announced $10 million of tax monies would be directed to pay for school chaplains, the pre-cursor to Howard's scheme. Highfields is "aspirational" writ large, with fish symbols adorning more cars than John Grant Motors could ever dream of selling in a dozen lifetimes of living next door to Kevin.
At the meeting, the ASL spoke of the failure of Education Queensland (EQ) to observe the Education Act in relation to how students are placed into Religious Instruction (RI) classes. We raised the concerns of many parents who had emailed us with unbelievable tales of school principals imposing their own religious values in state schools, with prayers at assembly, cramming SU chaplains onto school communities with dodgy processes, forcing children into RI without parental permission, and we raised concerns over the official Bible lessons still available, at the principals"discretion, in Queensland state schools. We were there mainly to ask him to consider replacing the word "secular" in the Education Act in order to bring some order to state schools. In fact, we had a folder full of reasons for him to do just this in front of us, ready to hand to him before we left our all-too-short time slot.
Even as we were explaining about Bible lessons to the new Minister, he told us two amazing "facts". First, EQ taught "comparative religion" in all their schools and second, there are no Bible lessons any more.
The acting Director-General confirmed to the Minister that he was correct on both counts. Amazing then, that we had just downloaded the Bible lesson section from the EQ web page, and the Queensland Studies Authority (QSA) "comparative religion"course available for all Y11-12 students, but only taught in a handful of private faith schools, and had them in the folder in front of us.
We also discussed, or tried to, the legitimacy of Hillsong programs in state schools, the need for unqualified Christian mentors allowed to roam free and operate one-on-one with "at risk"students in state schools, as well as the role of Intelligent Design and Creationism in science classes in state schools, but all to no avail.