The ‘Free Cooperation’ Between Church and State in New Zealand and Australia

Max Wallace

Max Wallace is Secretary of the Secular Association of New South Wales and a member of the New Zealand Association of Rationalists and Humanists.



In a letter to The Age, 2 September 1988, George Pell, then Catholic Auxiliary Bishop of Melbourne, said:

All Australian Christians believe in the separation of church and state [and] believe in the free cooperation of church and state in certain activities … we do not want to endanger this by going down the North American path, where such cooperation is rare and regularly challenged in the courts.

But I say that if citizens cannot easily challenge in the courts that a compulsory Protestant prayer in the Australian Senate, as discussed below, is unconstitutional, if that is not simply a statement of fact, that is tantamount to saying the foundations of Australian law are theocratic. The legal cases discussed below provide evidence for this argument.

New Zealand

The Dominion of New Zealand separated from the colony of New South Wales in 1840. A perfect description of our shared constitutional monarchist legal system was provided in the 7 April 1959 New Zealand Law Journal by Ivor Richardson, later Sir Ivor. He became Dean of the Law Faculty of Victoria University, Judge of the New Zealand High Court, Privy Council member, finally Chancellor of Victoria University.

He said:

… the law in many respects favours religion in general and Christianity in particular, as against agnosticism and atheism. In doing so, the state is respecting the religious interests of the people of New Zealand generally … our institutions and our traditions presuppose a Supreme Being and we are basically a religious people. In making special provision for charities and religious groups and in favouring religion generally, the State is simply recognizing the religious nature and needs of the people of New Zealand … the State has used Christianity as its basis and has drawn heavily on Christian ethics.

Further illustrating his point, some fifty years later in 2010, Sir Ivor wrote a paper in the Victoria University of Wellington Law Journal on Private Bills describing how 133 Anglican, Catholic, Presbyterian, and Methodist statutes were passed by the New Zealand parliament between 1856 and 2010.

One such Bill was introduced on 12 March 1997, by the Honourable Richard Prebble who said the Private Bill was ‘promoted by a citizen, or in this case, by Cardinal Williams and the six Catholic bishops.’ The Bill concerned bishops’ property rights.

Similar bills are also routinely passed by Australian state and territory parliaments and assemblies. Undebated, they pass on the voices.

The Williams, Vescio and Defence of Government Schools Cases

In the High Court in Canberra there is a public display of cases the Court considers pivotal in Australian legal history. A large photo of jazz musician Ron Williams is displayed alongside text describing Williams v The Commonwealth 2012 and 2014. Those cases concerned the constitutionality of religious chaplains in public schools.

The ball started rolling towards Williams on 9 July 2008 when we contacted the now deceased solicitor, Claudius Bilinsky, at his Macquarie Street, Sydney offices. We told him about a conference our Australian and New Zealand secular groups had organized for that day in the Theatrette of the NSW Parliament, just across the street, partly to oppose the Pope’s World Youth Day (WYD) being held in Sydney the following week. WYD attracted some 300,000 ‘pilgrims’ to Sydney.

The Catholic Church had received something more than $20M for WYD from the federal government and something around $100M from the NSW state government.

Mr Bilinsky was the solicitor in the case that one Michelangelo Vescio was then bringing in the High Court from 5 to 9 July 2008 in preliminary hearings before three judges to argue that federal funding of WYD was unconstitutional. With Justice Michael Kirby dissenting, it did not get past second base.

Two of the judges who dismissed the Vescio case had received honorary doctorates from the Australian Catholic University. One had been the Chairman of the Independent Compensation Panel of the Catholic Archdiocese in Melbourne. (See my ‘Conflict of Interest?’ Dissent No.35, 2011).

Vescio, led by barrister Peter King, former member for the federal seat of Wentworth, who advanced an interesting secular argument, may have been the first serious attempt to traverse some of the ground that was previously considered in Attorney-General (Vic) (ex Rel Black) v. Commonwealth (Defense of Government Schools, 1981 (DOGS) case.)

In DOGS the Australian High Court had decided that the first ‘establishment’ clause of s.116 of the federal constitution could not be characterized as a clause analogous to the First Amendment of the US republican constitution that, through decisions of the Supreme Court, had barred the US federal government from funding religious schools.

The well-publicized unequal funding division in Australia between public and mostly religious private schools, bordering now on a kind of funding apartheid, can be sourced back to the DOGS decision.

Also, despite its controversy, or more likely, because of it, the DOGS case is also curiously absent in the Canberra display of cases the High Court considers pivotal, referred to above.

In 2009 we met Ron Williams, who was livid about his children being proselytized by religious chaplains in his local public school in Toowoomba.

Ron had returned from the US state of Florida. His children had attended primary school there and any form of religious instruction in any state had been banned since McCollum v Board of Education, 1948.

When Ron found religious instruction and religious chaplains in public schools, where there was none in public schools in the US, he was aghast.

So, in 2009 solicitor Claudius Bilinsky was approached about running a case to argue that federal funding of religious chaplains in public schools was unconstitutional.

Barrister zBret Walker SC, and colleague Gerald Ng, produced an Opinion that said a case could be won, but not on the closed shop nature of the establishment clause of s.116, but more on grounds that there was no federal legislation, required under the constitution, to justify the expenditure for the funding of religious chaplains.

In the High Court display referred to above the Court says, ‘following the 2012 Williams case the Government enacted legislative support for over 400 executive funding schemes whose validity was jeopardized.’

Another important argument Bret Walker made eloquently in Williams was that the federal funding of religious chaplains in public schools contravened the fourth, religious test clause of s.116, concerning a test for an office under the Commonwealth.

While winning the case overall, he lost this particular argument 0-7 on the technical point that, to quote the Court again, ‘the chaplains did not hold an ‘office’ under the Commonwealth.’

The funding went to Scripture Union Queensland. They employed the chaplains, not the Commonwealth. Of course, without the federal funding, there would be no paid religious-only chaplains in public schools at all, but for the High Court this was beside the point. Legal reification trumped reality.

Having lost the case in the High Court, the federal government re-routed the funding, as allowed under section 96 of the constitution, to the states. They happily re-cycle it to the various state religious organizations that employ chaplains.

The government ignored the Court’s finding that chaplains were of no ‘benefit’ to students under the law. So far, $1B+ has been paid to employ religious-only chaplains across Australia. In 2019 the Australian Capital Territory refused the money on the grounds that it contradicted the secular nature of the Territory’s public schools.

In the Canberra Times on 22 March 2021 Professor Anne Twomey made the point that other forms of government expenditures for political purposes simply ignore the constitution because no one is likely to go to the High Court to challenge it. This would be because of the significant cost in doing so with the attendant risk of facing costs if a case is lost.

She said:

This is dressed up in government circles as addressing ‘constitutional risk’. It really means ‘breaching the constitution because we are confident we can get away with it’.

The Compulsory Prayer in the Australian Senate

In 2017 the Humanist Society of Queensland (HSQ) sought another legal Opinion from barristers Gerald Ng and Bret Walker through Horowitz & Bilinsky on the prospects of HSQ running a High Court case to argue that the Senate’s Standing Order 50 compelling the President of the Senate to say the King James version of The Lord’s Prayer at the start of each session was unconstitutional.

HSQ had received an Advice from now Associate Professor Luke Beck at Monash University, author of the later published Religious Freedom And The Australian Constitution arguing that was so. It looked like an open and shut case.

The point of taking such a narrowly framed case to the High Court was to have the Court hopefully declare that the prayer was unconstitutional, ipso facto, the Australian parliament is in principle secular. A win may have also led to the abandonment of prayers in the House of Representatives, put pressure on state parliaments to follow suit, and created a point for future cases.

It was not to be. Ng and Walker argued, contrary to the arguments put forward by Luke Beck, that Standing Order 50 of the Senate could not be characterized as ‘a law’ which would be subject to possible consideration by the High Court. Second, while they agreed that compelling the President of the Senate to say a prayer could be a breach of the religious test principle of s.116 of the Constitution, which could deter an atheist or non-Christian from standing for the office of the President, as there was no sanction applied to not saying the prayer, it was unlikely a religious test argument could be won.

So, whether by intention or default, it is practically impossible to shake this constitutional monarchist grip on the Australian Senate by law.


By way of a nearby total contrast, there is the 2013 constitution of the Republic of Fiji drafted by a panel of international experts led by Professor Yash Ghai, now Emeritus Professor of Law at the University of Hong Kong. Fiji scrapped its affiliation to the British Crown after the 1987 coup.

Section 4 of the constitution declares that the Republic of Fiji is a ‘Secular State’, ‘religion and the state are separate’ and that persons in public office must not ‘prefer or advance’ religion over ‘non-religious belief.’

In 2016, after Cyclone Winston devastated the islands, many religious organizations pleaded with the government for funds to rebuild their wrecked churches. The prime minister, Frank Bainimarama, would not have it. The state is secular. Churches were not government business. Scarce funds would go to repair damaged state infrastructure.

Later, on 3 June 2021, the Fijian Court of Appeal found that if a Seventh Day Adventist college accepted money from the state it could not insist on appointing a religious principal over the head of the Secretary of the Department of Education who had the authority to confirm that an appointment should be decided by merit, not religious affiliation.

But, in Australia, as George Pell said in 1988, confirmed by WYD in 2008, with extra funding for religious schools when requested in 2020, and even federal funding for Catholic priests and other religious who are not legally ‘employees’ during the Covid-19 economic downturn, there is ‘free cooperation’ between church and state in Australia.

If ever there were reasons for Australia to finally become a secular republic with a clear separation of government and religion as part of its constitution, which our surveys find have broad public support, they are matters discussed above.

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