Put ideology to one side for a moment and look at the work chaplains do
Along with many other Australian Christians who believe in social gospel, I have almost voted Green for years. Almost.
Old-growth logging, marine reserves, asylum seekers, indigenous rights: tick all the progressive boxes.
But just as my stubby pencil hovers over the ballot, the Greens say something silly about religion, every time, and the substantial demographic of Australian Christian progressives stampedes away in a panic, back into the arms of conservative politics.
This time it was the federal chaplaincy program. The fascinating High Court case brought in June this year by Queensland school parent and atheist Ron Williams ruled it unlawful for the federal government to fund the chaplaincy program, already operating in 2700 schools nationwide, with its promised extension to a further 1000.
Atheist bloggers around the nation celebrated. They shouldn't toast the un-spirit of Christopher Hitchens just yet, however.
The High Court ruled that all federal executive funding may be unlawful without legislation. Similar to the Dred Scott US Supreme Court case in 1857, ruling it unlawful to ban slavery anywhere in the US, the Williams ruling is being seen by many as a provocative ''anti-ruling'': designed to demonstrate legal weaknesses of a widely popular cause, with a view to provoking legal change.
Where there was disunity about chaplains before, now all sorts of strange bedfellows will clutch together: funding to roads, funding to private schools; funds, funds, funds.
The topic has drifted off religion in education, to the old federal versus state funding debate: a bad outcome for atheists wanting to focus on ideologies of secular schooling.
None of this complexity is filtering through to the Greens, however, with their leader, Christine Milne, welcoming the High Court ruling, saying that ''schools across Australia need the resources to employ properly qualified counsellors, student support officers and other non-teaching staff to help students through difficult times''.
I guess the ideological high ground is a beautiful place - for those with all opinion and no responsibility.
Look at the numbers: there are chaplains in 2700 schools, soon to be 3700. Most of these schools already have a school counsellor, overworked and underpaid, and filling an entirely different role to a chaplain.
School counsellors keep a strategically low (almost furtive) profile, and mostly deal reactively and formally to student trauma, abnormal mental health and mass school crisis. A school counsellor typically has a bachelor's degree, a post-grad in education, and a masters in educational psychology. This is (at least) an eight-year training process.
The Greens and any other opponent of the program would need to supply 2700 extra of these, come up with some other definition or source of a school counsellor, or suddenly and violently create chaplain-shaped holes in 2700 outraged school communities. Not good for votes.
Unlike school counsellors, chaplains tend to be public personalities, complete with antic dispositions, fulfilling a kind of community ''glue'' function.
In the 2011 Commonwealth Ombudsman's inquiry, hardly any schools complained about what their chaplains were doing. Where counsellors mostly deal with abnormal psychology, chaplains deal with positive psychology, wandering around bus lines and chatting to mums and kids. When a little boy gets cancer - which sadly happens all too often in all school communities - the chaplain might get up during a school assembly and say something comforting, yet not religious, just when something needs to be said, and just when the school counsellor is flat out counselling the traumatised little brothers and best friends.
Most importantly, most chaplains have beneficent and gregarious personalities and a capacity to connect with youth: things a formal qualification simply cannot guarantee. If they did not, under current arrangements the schools would sack them.
And yes, chaplains owe much of their beneficent impulses to their personal religious beliefs. Despite the euphemising of chaplaincy organisations and churches about ''neutrality'' and ''non-proselytising'', it is a no-brainer that the presence of religious chaplains in state schools is an unspoken endorsement of religious worldviews. On this Ron Williams is absolutely right.
But perhaps we have to live with that. After all, that much is true of the vast majority of NGOs and community-oriented volunteerism currently happening worldwide.
Whatever its claim to rational truth, it is an empirical truth that secular atheism just doesn't produce a larger quantity of community generosity than religion. I am not saying that atheists don't generously give to the lives of others: many manifestly do, and many better than religious folk. But as a cause celebre, secular atheism just doesn't seem to have the ideological muscle to produce 2700 bright-eyed serving volunteers overnight: religion does.
And so again my voting pencil will hover uncertainly over the Green box. Milne and Williams are right to note that this is about secular versus pluralist education: whether we can cope with the idea that religious world views can be socially present in state schools (I think we can, and they should). But ultimately for parents and schools, this is not an ideological question. It is a pastoral one. For those of us on the ground in education, when one extra child is comforted, when one extra class is helped, when a chaplain's extra smile is given, ideology can go and get stuffed.
David Hastie is head of English at Presbyterian Ladies College, Sydney, and a PhD candidate in education at Macquarie University.