Four Questions to the St James Ethics Centre

The St James Ethics Centre in their own words are,

a unique centre for applied ethics, the only one its kind globally — … we pride ourselves on being a catalyst for ethical change by working with passionate individuals and organisations to bring about successful collaborations. Over the years these have included the highly lauded Primary Ethics program, the Banking & Finance Oath and the Corporate Responsibility Index amongst many others

Our Purpose

To serve as a catalyst and enabler for society to think, debate and act in good conscience, particularly in the face of uncertainty and ambiguity.

Our Vision

A better world where people have the capacity to do the right thing.

Primary Ethics exists to develop and deliver philosophical ethics education for children who do not attend scripture classes in urban, regional and rural schools.

Primary Ethics has Charity status, a future funding foundation and relies on volunteers – usually parents /carers who are given some training to teach ethics to young school age children, and is currently in over 300 NSW primary schools.

My questions to St James Ethics and Simon Longstaff:

1. Do volunteer teachers, as part of the Primary Ethics curriculum, explain to their pupils the ethics of locking up children (exactly like them) in Mandatory Detention?

2. If Mandatory Detention of children is not on the Primary Ethics curriculum why not, is it not an important and relevant ethical issue for (local) children to understand?

3. Are the Parents/carers /volunteers and Schools in the Primary Ethics program made aware of the close connection between the St James Ethics Board of Directors and the current Offshore Mandatory Detention program and the Operation Sovereign Borders program?

Mr Doug Sneddon Director, Board member and Treasurer of St James Ethics Centre is also on the Board of Directors of Transfield Services – where he holds the office of Chair Human Resources. Transfield Services are the lead contractor at both Nauru and Manus island detention centres.

Major Jim Molan Director and Board member of St James Ethics Centre is also the Government Special Envoy for Operation Sovereign Borders.

4. Should parents / carers / volunteers and schools be given full disclosure of St James Ethics Centre Board Members involvement in Mandatory Detention so they can decide for themselves whether their child’s participation in SJEC project Primary Ethics accords with their own views on this issue?

— Susan Flower @SusanFlower1 

Four Questions to the St James Ethics Centre

22 thoughts on “Four Questions to the St James Ethics Centre

  1. Primary Ethics teaches kids how to think. It doesn’t tell them what to think. So no, we don’t ‘explain to children the ethics of locking up children’. See our curriculum Students learn about empathy, fairness, stereotyping, evaluating reasons, children’s rights and diversity and tolerance, to name a few topics that would help them come to a position on the rights and wrongs of placing children in mandatory detention.

    Our curriculum is not topic-dependent in the way it works. Evidence shows that well-reasoned moral judgement does not come automatically as young people mature and that these skills are best developed by engaging children in collaborative dialogue about a wide range of issues that matter to them. That’s how our Primary Ethics’ curriculum works. Once acquired, these skills accompany individuals into adulthood.

    Teresa Russell
    CEO, Primary Ethics

  2. Ray Polglaze says:

    What has been the response from the St James Ethics Centre to these questions? It looks like there has been a conversation on twitter. Where do things stand now?

  3. Ray Polglaze says:

    It looks like Teresa Russell has responded to your first two questions along the lines that teaching ethics is about teaching skills in ethical thinking rather than what is ethical or unethical on particular issues like mandatory detention.

    She does not seem to have responded to your third and fourth questions on disclosure of the involvement of members of the Board of Directors in Mandatory Detention.

    Nor has she responded to your implied suggestion that this may raise ethical issues and should therefore be disclosed.

    It might also be challenging to unpack and clarify the suggested ethical issues.

    Maybe you could approach some prominent philosophers to see what views they have on whether this board member involvement in Mandatory Detention raises ethical issues and should therefore be disclosed. You might also ask what they think these ethical issues are.

    Alain de Bottom and Peter Singer may have interesting views. But many philosophers may have views on these issues and this case may lead to a useful discussion of ethical issues.

    Just some suggestions.

  4. Teresa Russell, CEO of Primary Ethics, has provided a response to two of the four questions posed by Ms Flower. I am responding on behalf of St James Ethics Centre – addressing the remaining questions – and then opening up the discussion to consider wider principles that arise when it comes to the teaching of ethics more generally.

    To begin with Ms Flower’s questions, the basic facts are these:

    1. Following an 8 year program of advocacy to reverse an historic injustice (some 150 years in the making) Primary Ethics was established by St James Ethics Centre to provide ethics classes as an option for children not attending classes in Special Religious Education (Scripture) at NSW State Primary Schools. The Ethics Centre was attacked in some quarters for doing so – its bona fides questioned for various – often contradictory – reasons (e.g. that the Centre is ‘anti-religion’, that the Ethics Centre is too ‘soft on religion’, etc.).

    2. Primary Ethics is a separate not-for-profit organisation, authorised by the Government of NSW to provide ethics classes. It is governed by its own Board of Directors and has Deductible Gift Recipient (DGR) status in its own right. The curriculum and lessons are developed by Dr Sue Knight (who is directly contracted and paid by Primary Ethics to produce this material). All material produced by Primary Ethics is vetted and approved for age-appropriateness by the NSW Department of Education. Furthermore, attendance at classes offered by Primary Ethics is entirely voluntary.

    3. I serve on the Board of Primary Ethics in a personal capacity. My views about the issue of asylum seeking are published: No doubt some will agree with my views. Others will disagree. The same will be true of the fact that (amongst other things) I sit on the Council of Voiceless – the animal protection institute (working in an area that attracts strong passions). Either way, my views on such topics are irrelevant to Primary Ethics because they have no influence on the material being taught or the educative process that underpins the lessons.

    4. Given that the Board of St James Ethics Centre has no influence over the material taught by Primary Ethics, the interests and associations of its members are irrelevant to a discussion of what is taught. However, if anyone is interested to know the identity of who serves on the Ethics Centre Board, then the information can be found in the Ethics Centre’s Annual Report which can be found here: . As noted elsewhere, the members of the Board reflect a diversity of public opinion, political alignment and practical experience. The interests and activities of Board members are equally diverse – and no doubt attract support and criticism (in equal measure) depending on each individual’s perspective. For example, Geoff Cousins has recently joined the Board of the Ethics Centre. His work as an environmental activist will be profoundly troubling to those who oppose such activism – and some might think that the Ethics Centre should not comment on environmental issues because its views will be coloured (green) because of Mr Cousins’ presence on the Board. However, members of the Board have no influence on the ‘editorial’ policy of the Ethics Centre which is set, independently, by the Executive Director. Editorial independence is a cornerstone of what the Ethics Centre’s operational ethos – just as it is (or should be) in organisations performing a role similar to that of the Ethics Centre.

    5. However, as noted above, all of this is irrelevant to the issue of what is taught (or not taught) by Primary Ethics – where, as Teresa Russell has commented, children are encouraged to develop the capacity for principled, independent thought and reasoned argument. One hopes that this might produce a generation able to sort the ‘wheat’ from the ‘chaff’ in public debates of this kind.

    Turning to the larger question posed by Ms Flower. In essence, she is inviting discussion about the extent to which parents of children attending ethics classes should be advised of the beliefs and ancillary activities of those offering such an education. Presumably, this is a general question that applies not only to the organisation that created Primary Ethics – but also to all of the staff and volunteers who organise and teach the lessons … especially as there are the people with an immediate influence on the children being taught. Furthermore, I suppose that the same question could be asked of all those who teach ethics (or material with ethical content) in any part of the school curriculum. Apart from the practical question of how to manage the onerous disclosure requirements that would flow from a policy of having everyone involved in the teaching ethics reveal their beliefs and ancillary activities, I doubt that this would be a reasonable requirement to place on people working in this field.

    Rather, I think that we must allow for a measure of trust in organisations like Primary Ethics – trust that their motivation remains true to the ideals that led to the organisation being established; trust in the fact that this is a widespread popular movement meeting a genuine need (and that the very breadth of such a movement would soon lead to revelations of bias, etc.).

    Finally, if the standard required to be met by those working in the filed of ethics is ‘ethical perfection’ – then we might as well close down every ethics centre and philosophy faculty in the world. But in any case, who is to decide where such perfection lies?

  5. @susanflower1 says:

    As the originators and Board members of Primary Ethics Ltd. my question is to Dr Simon Longstaff and the St James Ethics Centre.

    Many people have strong views on Mandatory Detention, especially the locking up indefinitely of children and identifying them as numbers not names on CI and PNG. They may take the view it is morally reprehensible that the Government Special Envoy of OSB and also a BoD of the Corporate contractors profiting from this Detention,are both Directors of the Ethical entity teaching ethics to (our) school children.

    As Mandatory Detention is the Moral issue of our times my Question is:

    Does Dr Longstaff and St James Ethics Centre disclose to Parents,Carers,Volunteers or Schools involved with Primary Ethics these other Directorships and Government positions held by the St James Ethics Centre Board members so Parents can make an informed decision whether or not they wish their child to participate in the Primary Ethics curriculum.

    1. It may be that you have missed the posts from Primary Ethics and St James Ethics Centre in response to your blog (see above). To summarise:

      1. Primary Ethics is an independent organisation – with its own Board. No member of the Board of Primary Ethics has a connection with Operations Sovereign Borders.

      2. St James Ethics Centre does not control the curriculum of Primary Ethics. This is ultimately a responsibility of the Board of Primary Ethics. But in any case, the curriculum teaches people how to think (not what to think). It is built on a basic premise of respect for persons.

      3. Disclosing the interests of members of the Board of the Ethics Centre is irrelevant to any consideration of Primary Ethics.

      4. In any case, the ethical stance of the Ethics Centre is not shaped by its Board (which is made up of people with diverse opinions, associations, experience) such that controversy is bound to arise when any aspect of their involvement is viewed in isolation.

  6. alanalentin says:

    What primary Ethics teaches and what the views if its staff or board are on a variety if matters seem irrelevant to the question posed by Ms flowers, namely don’t parents have a right to know what other interests board members have, especially when these concern areas such as mandatory detention that many would feel are unethical. Put another way, would we be happy to know that a board member was also on a board of a gambling or tobacco company?

    1. The problem with Ms Flower’s question is that it is based on a false assumption – namely that the members of the Board of the Ethics Centre have any influence over the work of Primary Ethics. They do not. The better question would be to ask about the interests, views, etc. of the members of the Board of Primary Ethics. As far as I know, no member of the Board of Primary Ethics has any connection with Operation Sovereign Borders (nor any connection to tobacco or gambling companies).

  7. There is a separate connection between St James Ethics Centre and Operation Sovereign Borders: the forthcoming IQ2OZ debate entitled “History’s judgement will be to vindicate our treatment of ‘boat people'”. There is criticism on the debate web page of how the debate has been framed.

    While the title and framing of the debate are no doubt editorial choices from IQ2OZ and SJEC, and formally independent of the board of directors of the Centre, the question remains as to why the debate seems to be framed so uncritically of government policy and OSB, which carry such heavy ethical burdens.

    1. Well, no matter how one frames a debe question one side or the other is bound to feel upset that it forms the negative proposition. So, if you frame a debate topic such as ‘Euthanasia should be legalised’, those opposed (often on the basis of religious conviction) will complain while those in favour will be satisfied. Given this, our practice is consciously to adopt variability in terms of which side has the affirmative proposition – and to do so while avoiding complex ‘double negatives’. We consciously adopt this degree of variability so as to avoid the perception that the Ethics Centre has a bias in favour of one particular political or ideological position vs. another. After all, we might be open to criticism if every debate was framed in terms predictably sympathetic to: majority opinion, or popular sentiment, or the ‘right wing’, or the ‘left wing’, or whatever. The truth is, that on nearly every question one group or another will be annoyed by what we have done – and there is not much that we can do about this. In any case, it seems that commentators about the framing of this particular debate topic are forgetting (or, perhaps, failing to mention for rhetorical reasons) that we are talking here about a debate! As such, both propositions are aired with equal force, over an equal amount of time. As anyone who has been to an IQ2 debate will know, the audience is perfectly capable of ‘reading through’ the wording of the topic and shows an able capacity to vote according to its view of the arguments. Perhaps we should accord to the community more respect by recognising that people understand: a) the debate format, b) the variety of positions expressed in debate topics over time and c) the value of reasoned discussion.

  8. @susanflower1 says:

    Dr Longstaff
    Many words have been written to distance yourself and Primary Ethics from the fact that one BoD St James Ethics Centre is Chair HR Transfield Services and another Special Envoy Operation Sovereign Borders, Why?
    Unfortunately these #kidslikemine cannot escape OSB so are only able to express their bewilderment, hurt and fear in drawings

    1. Ms Flower – the facts are the facts. Like everyone else, you have every right to ask questions about the varied interests of the members of the Board of the Ethics Centre – and to question how they might affect the work of the Ethics Centre. However, it is misleading, deceptive (and perhaps cynical) of you to suggest that any of this has anything to do with Primary Ethics – and the children whom they serve. As you know, there is no connection between the Board of the Ethics Centre and Primary Ethics. To imply otherwise simply flies in the face of the facts. I also notice that you have had nothing to say about my own published views on the topic of how we treat asylum seekers. Is that because you agree with them?

  9. @susanflower1 says:

    Dr Longstaff your posts appear to focus on yourself and deflecting the close ties between Primary Ethics and St James Ethics Centre.

    This strategy does not address PE Parents right to disclosure when Children just like theirs are suffering unimaginable damage under Operation Sovereign Borders,a policy directly supported by two Directors of St James Ethics Centre Board

    St James Ethics Centre are the founders of Primary Ethics and you are Executive Director and Board Member of each respectively.

    Public perception is they are one and the same and surely it is the imprimatur of SJEC that reassures Parents their children’s ethical guidance is in safe hands with Primary Ethics.

    1. Ms Flower – there can be little doubt that the time and effort you devote to the issue of how the Australian Government treats asylum seekers is admirable. If only more Australians were so constructively engaged. However, the virtue of your cause and the sincerity of your commitment cannot be used to excuse a misrepresentation of the simple facts. Nor can it justify the attempt to draw Primary Ethics into the fray by pretending that the Directors of the Ethics Centre exercise some kind of influence over the affairs of Primary Ethics. They do not. No matter how much I (or others) might admire your concern for the asylum seekers, I cannot ignore the facts or endorse poor arguments.

      That said, I am happy to discuss what I think is a real question – the effect (if any) on the work of the Ethics Centre of having two directors with an interest in Operation Sovereign Borders (OSB). As you probably know, there are ten directors. They have varied interests and beliefs – drawn from across the political spectrum and with a diversity of opinion such that the views of two directors (Molan and Snedden) can hardly be thought to dominate the Board’s thinking. But in any case, as I have explained above, the editorial position of the Ethics Centr is not set by the Board. Rather, the Centre operates like the ABC where the CEO is also Editor-in-Chief (with a duty to maintain an independent mind).

      I wonder if your real point is to suggest that nobody who supports the Commonwealth Government policy (OSB) should be allowed to serve on the board of an ethics centre? Is this your proposal?

  10. @susanflower1 says:

    Dr Longstaff

    I believe my Question to you and SJEC is quite simple – and I ask it in your dual roles as founder and Director of Primary Ethics Ltd and Exec Director St James Ethics Centre Inc.

    Will St James Ethics Centre and Primary Ethics publicly disclose to Parents, Carers, Volunteers of children enrolled in Primary Ethics the fact that two St James Ethics Board Directors are directly profiting from the Operation Sovereign Borders program of Mandatory Detention – which includes the detention of children?

    My question does not relate to who should serve on the Board of SJEC, any Govt Policy or your own personal views.

    1. Ms Flower – my answer to your question is quite simple:

      1. Primary Ethics should disclose the membership of its Board (which it does).

      2. St James Ethics Centre should disclose the membership of its Board (which it does).

      3. The relevant associations of the directors of each Board are public knowledge.

      4. There is no practical connection between the membership of each separate Board.

      I will leave the discussion there – wishing you well with your larger project.

  11. @susanflower1 says:

    Dr Longstaff

    So in simple terms your answer is – No.

    Both St James Ethics Centre and Primary Ethics decline (when asked) to publicly disclose to Parents,Carers,Volunteers of children enrolled in Primary Ethics the fact that two St James Ethics Board Directors are directly profiting from the Operation Sovereign Borders program of Mandatory Detention – which includes the detention of children.

    1. I would respectfully request that you not misrepresent my answers – or the detailed reasons that lie behind them. All of the relevant information that your questions relate to is in the public domain. If not, we would not be having this exchange. I can see no good purpose in engaging with you further on this particular topic as the evidence suggests that no matter what is said you will move to recast it in terms that fit your predetermined view of the world. This approach to the truth is uncomfortably close to that adopted by those who ‘never let the facts get in the way of a good story’ or who believe that the ‘ends justify the means’ – positions that you would no doubt reject in others. Again, I wish you well for your larger project.

  12. @susanflower1 says:

    Dr Longstaff

    I’m concerned you have made unfair assumptions and are casting aspersions about me personally as a result of me asking you clear and relevant Questions.

    In particular the question of whether or not St James Ethics Centre Inc and Primary Ethics Ltd intend to publicly disclose to the Parents, carers and volunteers of Primary Ethics that two Board Directors of St James Ethics Centre profit from Operation Sovereign Borders including the Mandatory Detention of children. The relevance being that St James Ethics Centre project Primary Ethics is teaching ethics to children in NSW schools

    My conclusion from studying your lengthy answers is that St James Ethics Centre and Primary Ethics do NOT intend to publicly disclose this fact to the Parents. I do not see this as a misrepresentation.

  13. Hi Susan, as a parent of a child in a NSW public primary school I’m interested in this issue.
    I understand that you’re looking for parents like me to be publicly informed about the activities & associations of the people who currently sit on the board of Primary Ethics and St James Ethics Centre.
    Out of interest, how do you propose that this public disclosure be made? For example, a note home to parents? How would a note like this be worded – for example, a link to the publicly available information that Dr Simon Longstaff has provided above, or something else?
    I’m all for fully informed consent, just interested in how it would be applied in this case.

  14. @susanflower1 says:

    Hello Martin

    I think there are a couple of issues here.

    First is the question of whether or not the Parents, Carers and Teachers of Primary Ethics have the right to be properly informed that the parent company, or originator, of Primary Ethics the St James Ethics Centre’s Board of Directors are involved in the implementation of, and profit from, the Mandatory Detention of children – children just like theirs.

    Secondly of course is that Dr Longstaff on behalf of St James Ethics Centre and Primary Ethics has now declared,on behalf of the parents of the 11,000 students at 230 public schools that this particular information is Irrelevant to them and their decision making.

    There’s a few questions arising. How are the parents to decide whether to enrol their child in Primary Ethics if not given all the facts? Is it reasonable for Dr Longstaff to unilaterally make these decisions for them? What would the parents feel about these decisions being made by others on their behalf? Is it ethical?

    In answer to Martin’s question – how should this information be made available to the parents? It’s not really for me to say. Dr Longstaff has very many connections in the Media and Public Relations so he’s more the expert than me. But perhaps on the Primary Ethics website under ‘About Us’ and where it refers to the formation of Primary Ethics Ltd by St James Ethics Centre Inc it could read

    Welcome to the Board of St James Ethics Centre – our expertise is many and varied
    Chair Peter Joseph, Investec Bank, Black Dog Inst
    Treasurer Doug Sneddon, Director Transfield Services, Chair Transfield Services Human Resources. Black Dog Inst
    Major Jim Molan (Retd), Government Special Envoy for Operation Sovereign Borders.
    Christine McLoughlin, Director Whitehaven Coal
    And so on ………….

    Something like that maybe.

  15. Reblogged this on infinite8horizon and commented:
    Reasonable questions. I don’t believe in guilt by association, however “don’t do as I do, do as I say” is not a good ethical stance. Detention of children, in violation of international conventions as well as basic morals, is not an ethically difficult problem.


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