The ALP may discontinue the school chaplaincy program that has effectively replaced Safe Schools if they win the next election.

Labor Senator Doug Cameron has called for a “secular Australia” and said his party believed the funding could be used to instead train qualified school counsellors, The Australian reported.

Previous Labor governments were generally supportive of the then smaller chaplaincy program, having added a provision for schools to hire a secular welfare worker instead – which the Abbott government later removed.

In the recent budget the program was extended for four years with an astonishingly high $247 million in extra funding.

“I support a secular Australia and…separation between school and state,” Cameron said at the Senate Education and Employment Committee hearing.

Over 3,000 schools receive $20,000 to $24,000 from the government to employ the chaplains.

Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young recently spoke of a young woman seeking advice about an eating disorder was allegedly told by a chaplain that she was “hungering for God”.

“You have no oversight,” Hanson-Young said. “You hand over a quarter of a billion dollars and that’s it.”

The school chaplaincy program has long been criticised by LGBTI groups, psychology professionals, youth advocates and teachers’ unions, with concerns raised over chaplains’ inability to provide appropriate counselling for queer youth.

Funding arrangements for the chaplaincy program have been successfully challenged in the High Court twice – once in 2012, and again in 2014 – but the federal government has simply circumvented rulings to continue the program.

Education Minister Simon Birmingham said that schools provided feedback on the efficacy of the program, and said the increased funding would allow for further training on issues such as cyberbullying.

“A secular state is about there not being a state religion. It is not to say that there isn’t a role for people of faith.”

The Victorian Labor government has vowed to continue funding a version of Safe Schools, where most states and territories have either withdrawn or replaced it with a broader anti-bullying program.

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