• David Hines

Chris Hipkins' secret baby

26 June 2021: My lead story this week is about "Chris Hipkins' secret baby", a plan launched by the Minister of Education two years ago, to introduce neutral education about religions into state schools. In December last year, religious studies Professor Paul Morris presented specific recommendations about the plan, and now Mr Hipkins doesn't want the public to know.

The Ministry of Education has bluntly rejected my request for a copy of the report under the Official Information Act, hinting that my request is not in the public interest.

So last Wednesday I made a fresh OIA request to Mr Hipkins and asked him to overrule the Ministry. I said the difficulties faced by religious and non-religious groups had become worse in the past year. and the public interest now means that those concerned about the issue should be able to discuss the professor's work.

Mr Hipkins may be busy fighting Covid-19, but we need to do some extensive consulting about these plans before it's too late. It would not take much of his time to say to one of his staff: "Yes, release Professor Morris's report."

Muslim advocate says the government is not listening to them either

By coincidence, Muslim advocate Aarif Rashid walked out of a government forum on security this week, saying the government wasn't listening to Muslim concerns.

He shared his complaint with me, because I had listened to his story after the Christchurch massacre, inviting him to speak to a Auckland Unitarian church service I was leading.

I replied that Chris Hipkins had taken action - over religious education - but he had seriously failed to tell the public about it.

I am delighted that Mr Rashid will be encouraging Muslim leaders to join the discussion on this website and elsewhere. We will keep listening.

Here's my complaint to Chris Hipkins

"I believe your proposal is very promising, and could address our concerns. However, very few people know about it so it gets counted as lack of action, not compassion for the people affected. A Muslim leader who walked out of a government forum this week also complained to me about it; he said the government is not listening to Muslims. I told him you had done a lot behind the scenes. But behind the scenes is inadequate.....

[RNZ photo, Dom Thomas, shows Chris Hipkins speaking to the first reading of the Education and Training Bill 2019]

"So I’m:

1. asking for a copy of both sections of Prof Morris’ report, under the Official Information Act.

2. asking about the terms of reference of his report

3. updating my question about the timing and

4. telling you why I believe the situation has grown far worse since last September, when I first filed my OIA request to the Ministry.

Huge delays

"I am not blaming you for all this, but workers for secular education have suffered an appalling set of government delays since the Secular Education Network began in 2012. From where we stand, delays over the Paul Morris report are the last straw.

"Our case has been shot down in two sets of negotiations about government guidelines (one under Hekia Parata and one under your watch), three attempts to bring evidence before the High Court (one led by Jeff McClintock, another by Tanya Jacob and me joining McClintock's case, and a third attempt by Tanya and me last year), two attempts to bring it before the Human Rights Review Tribunal (we gave up because they were so short of funds the Tribunal was effectively out of action). The government also give minimal attention to our submissions on the Education and Training Bill last year: it addressed only fraction of our concerns.

"The third High Court failure was a direct result of your Education and Training Act 2020. The Act changed the law about religious instruction so it now requires parents to make a written request in advance if they want their children to take part in religious instruction. Our legal advisers said this new clause made most of our evidence useless, because it focussed on the (old) opt-out system.

The final straw, came in legal advice to me in September 2020: that we should now wait till the E and T Act has been in force for some time, so that we can gather evidence from a new generation of parents and children, following the tweaking of the law in the E and T Act. This horrified me.

"Your piecemeal approach turned into a disaster for the Secular Education Network. That case cost us about $100,000. About $20,000 of it came from me, and it is distressing to be told to go back to square one.

Bias by default

"A significant aspect of all these failures, in my view, is that none of these forums considered the whole picture: they were biased by default, and annoyed different sections of society with each roll of the dice:

1. For instance, till now, none of these forums has considered the case for religious education.

2. Religious observances were dropped from your agenda in the 2019 guidelines and again in the E and T Act.

3. Christian karakia were dropped from the Ministry’s agenda in the guideline project under Hekia Parata, and again in your 2019 guidelines and again in the E and T Act.

4. Some of these results hurt religious people, some hurt atheists. None of them brought people together.

5. I am one of many to be caught in the crossfire. In evidence for the E and T Bill, I conducted a survey about five kinds of religious activity and was kicked out of the NZ Association of Rationalists and Humanists for my trouble. It seemed to some that I was too friendly to religious education. The question they hated in my survey was one that asked people what they thought of your plan to introduce religious education. The survey showed that a high proportion of religious people loved the idea; others hated it. Some objected to me even asking the question.

I believe we need a process where a balance might be achieved, between the religious and anti-religious sides of our society. The current process, starting with Paul Morris’ recommendations, has the potential of reaching a balance: it deals with religious education but also proposes to end religious instruction. But delay is harming it.

My personal response is to continue working on these issues with religious and non-religious people (about 80 of them are on my contact list), and to prepare a website where the issues can be discussed more thoroughly and fairly. The issues have been discussed on the Secular Education Network Facebook group, but often in a style that is hostile to people with different opinions.

My site, www.wesleyschair.net got under way on June 25.

"My requests

1. Could you please send me a copy of Prof Morris’ report and supplement, under the Official Information Act. ...

2. Could you please advise your intentions for religious instruction. Are you hoping to end it by legislation, or some other process?

3. Is it your intention to legislate for neutral education about religions and non-religious philosophies?

4. Is it your intention to make these laws or policies apply to secondary schools? How would this differ from the policy for Years 1-8?

5. Does the Morris report cover religious observances? Can I please have a copy of the advice which led to the Ministry’s decisions not to regulate religious observances in the 2019 guidelines, and for them not to be subject to an opt-in clause in the E and T Act?

6. Does the report address Christian karakia? Can I please have a copy of the advice which led to karakia not being subject to guidelines in 2019, nor in the E and T Act?

7. Ben O’Meara, leader of this process, expected that the Morris report would not be referred back to you until early this year but at that stage I don’t think he knew of the supplementary report. What would be your time estimates now?

"Thank you for considering this. I realise you are doing a phenomenal job on Covid 19 and other education issues, but releasing Prof Morris’ report in particular would only take minutes, and would make us feel we are part of the team of 5 million. I don’t believe you have issued a single media release on this topic.

David Hines

Researcher and member of the Secular Education Network

23 June 2021