FIFTY YEARS SINCE THE 'GOULBURN STRIKE': CATHOLICS AND EDUCATION POLITICS
An address to the Australian Catholic Historical Society
Sydney, July 8 2012
An experienced non-Catholic observer very close to political events, Labor speechwriter and historian Graham Freudenberg, has observed in 1977 that 'the oldest, deepest, most poisonous debate in Australia has been about government aid to church schools'. Furthermore, thirty-five years ago he offered the damning opinion that: 'The century old failure of the Catholic Church in Australia to achieve her principal social aim is remarkable testimony to the political incompetence of the bishops'.
The first aim of this paper is to put the Goulburn strike of July 1962 in context of the state aid debates. Secondly, I want to trace the story of Catholics and education politics over the fifty years since then. Finally, I want to reflect on how far the state aid debate has come and to ask where state aid for Catholic schools sits now.
I rely not on fresh historical research about the strike, but on some of the major secondary sources, especially The Catholic Campaign for State Aid by Michael Hogan, and my own broader perspectives on the Catholic lobby and Catholics in politics.
This is not just a narrow story about education policy and funding, but a broader account of the Catholic community and its various interactions with politics. This involves the structure and organization of the church, including the teaching congregations, the changing place of the church and its schools in society, Catholics, voting and political party politics, and contributions by other interested participants in politics and education debates.
A number of themes emerge, most of which can only be discussed briefly. These include the situation of the times, the education funding arguments advanced by Catholics, the strategies and tactics of pressure group advocacy and, perhaps most importantly, the pattern of government funding of Catholic schools.
The ecclesiastical and political context was tantalizingly poised. In 1962 Robert Menzies was in his thirteenth year as prime minister of a Coalition government, after his narrow victory at the 1961 federal elections. He was supported by the largely Catholic Democratic Labor Party which had formed seven years previously after the Labor Split of 1955. The DLP, keeping Menzies in office, was vocal in support of state aid. The Leader of the Labor Opposition was a Catholic, Arthur Calwell. Three of the four federal Labor leaders were Catholics. The other was the new Deputy Leader Gough Whitlam.
At the state level the Labor party was dominant in NSW, the most Labor of all states and had been in office since 1941. It was a very Catholic branch of the party. RJ Heffron had been the Premier since 1959, succeeding Joe Cahill, but he was to lose office to the Liberal Bob Askin in 1965.
John 23rd was Pope and the second Vatican Council took place from 1962-1965. A large section of the Australian Catholic community was at war with Labor over communism. The politics of the permissive society, in which Catholics played a large part, did not hit Australia till later in the 1960s. Five years earlier Rome had declared that the Catholic Social Studies Movement was not Catholic Action and the Movement lost the formal support of the Church and became the National Civic Council. The Archbishop of Sydney was Norman Gilroy and his auxiliary was James Carroll. Goulburn was part of the Canberra-Goulburn Archdiocese, headed by Archbishop Eris O’Brien.
The Goulburn 'Strike'
Catholic education in the 1960s was in crisis as growing enrolments caused by population growth outran financial resources and school capacity. Very large classes and poor facilities were the norm. There were even rumblings of the church restructuring its commitment to education in some way, perhaps even dispensing with one or more levels of Catholic education. Yet the schools received little or no government funding and progress in attaining state funding was moving at a glacial pace. What support there was came indirectly from state governments in the form of bursaries and assistance with teacher training.
Some of the opposition was philosophical but some was personal. Sectarianism in society (that is anti-Catholicism and in return anti-Protestantism) was rampant and consequently the governments and political parties were extremely cautious about tackling this issue. They regarded state aid as electoral suicide because it would generate more opposition than support. Catholics were a big minority but a minority nonetheless. Catholics within the main political parties, including premiers and prime ministers, had proved impotent on the issue over many years. Most Catholics supported the Labor Party but the 1950s Labor Split, weak though it was in NSW, had produced the Democratic Labor Party and begun the long road for Catholics away from Labor. Catholic lay militancy was in the air, though the bishops were locked into traditional forms of advocacy.
On Friday July 13 1962, Bishop John Cullinane, the Auxiliary Bishop of Canberra-Goulburn, authorized the closing of the six Goulburn Catholic schools for six weeks until the end of term, and instructed the 2,000 students to present themselves to the nearby government schools for enrolment, which they did on Monday July 16. The tipping point had been state government insistence over several years on improvements to a toilet block at a local Catholic primary school. Amid great excitement and furore 640 Catholic students were enrolled with considerable professionalism and good will but there was no room for the remainder. Some Catholic students from boarding schools marched en masse to their new schools under firm instructions of good behavior from their teachers. They were well-received, some of the government school teachers being themselves Catholic parents. It was the week of the Leaving Certificate ‘trials’ and some students were held back by the nuns.
Shortly afterwards, on July 22, the point made, most of the students returned to their schools, though some 10% stayed in the public system. The event itself, which attracted great media publicity, some of it extremely hostile, did not in itself solve anything. Nor was it 'masochistic' as academic Robert Parker described it years later. But it appears to have stimulated developments and progress was swift. There was no turning back.
Academic studies have been confident of the event’s importance. Sydneysider Michael Hogan describes it 'the most spectacular demonstration of Catholic frustration in the history of state aid' and 'a watershed in state aid politics'. Henry Albinski, an American visitor, saw it as a 'sensational episode' and 'an unprecedented manifestation of Catholic lay action'.
Looking back now from a Catholic perspective Geoff Joy, former director of the CEO in Canberra-Goulburn, describes it as 'an explosion and a watershed in the state aid debate that advanced the movement to direct government grants both Commonwealth and State to non-government schools'. Sister Kerrie Cusack, now congregational leader of the Sisters of St Joseph Goulburn, who was one of the students who transferred to Goulburn High at the time, now recalls the strike as 'both bold and attention-seeking' and 'an effective, non-violent protest'. 'Behind it all', she says, 'was Catholic faith seeking justice'.
Several general themes can be drawn from the story of what happened in Goulburn in 1962.
The strike, as the name suggests, drew on the direct action tactics of union-style industrial confrontation rather than the usual quiet diplomacy and behind the scenes negotiations practiced by the bishops. The mood was militant and the action was public. Critics objected to such a 'menacing' approach to pressure group politics.
Lay Catholics, especially men it seems in this instance, played a considerable role, though the hierarchy was formally in charge. The decision to strike was taken by a public meeting of 700 Catholics after a preparatory meeting of 40 Catholic men called by Cullinane, the parish priest. This lay action was symptomatic of growing action among Catholic parents and friends organizations in several states.
Informal Catholic interaction with the political system was largely with the Labor Party because of the traditional ties, though that was in the process of changing, initially through the influence of the DLP. Catholics were rare in the Coalition parties and those that were involved complained of anti-Catholic prejudice.
Goulburn was a very Irish-Catholic town (36%) and this was a push by the whole integrated Catholic community, not just an education sector led by religious congregations and school principals. The state aid issue was a unifying factor within the Catholic community, though not all Catholics went to church schools, and a sense of injustice was pervasive.
The strategy adopted was emotional and symbolic. Enrolment in government schools was not seen as a long-term solution but a short-term tactic to draw attention to the issue of just and proper funding of Catholic schools.
The Opposition to funding of Catholic schools was resting on its laurels and was not as highly organized as it was to become once such funding became a reality. That was to lead to the political organization known as the Defence of Government Schools campaign right up to the High Court, where the case was finally lost.
This was a NSW state issue as there was no commonwealth funding, though state aid was soon to attract such federal government interest that state politics faded from the limelight.
Immediate Consequences, 1962-1975
The Catholic hierarchy returned to the negotiating table. The Cardinal, advised by Bishop James Carroll, approached the Premier. The NSW Labor government did not want to be seen to be stampeded by the strike. Later in the year it was returned to office at the 1962 state election. During 1963 it came into conflict with Labor’s federal executive, which supported indirect but not direct state aid.
In general Labor tied itself in knots. State aid threw it into crisis. Albinski described it as self-immolation. Since 1957, post-Split, official party policy had been opposed to direct state aid. Many state parliamentarians wanted to take the lead and respond to Catholic community pressure but they were repeatedly humiliated by the federal party organization, led by Joe Chamberlain, the federal secretary, who refused to budge.
There was just as much internal conflict and opposition to State aid within the Coalition parties as there was within Labor but their parliamentary leaders had more freedom to move. Liberal leader Robert Askin tried to take initiatives but was cautious and was initially rebuffed by his own party. Unlike the Country Party the NSW Liberals did not take a state aid policy to the 1962 state election. That came later.
The 'simple Presbyterian' PM Robert Menzies took the political initiative in superb fashion at the 1963 federal election by offering federally-funded science blocks to all schools. Both sides of politics recognize that he outmaneuvered Labor, to use Gerard Henderson’s term. Sean Scalmer writes that Menzies 'exploited the demonization of Labor’s internal structures, wooed Catholic voters with generous State Aid, and profited from the economic recovery'.
Until late 1963, according to Albinski, 'successive Menzies Governments did and promised little indeed for private schools', though small indirect steps had been taken by the federal government in the ACT since 1956. At the election there was a large swing against Labor and the swing was biggest in NSW. Labor lost 10 seats, seven in NSW.
This may have been NSW’s 'DLP-type moment' at which Catholics moved to the Coalition. In 1994 John Howard recollected to Gerard Henderson that Menzies’ 'great genius was to unlock' the Catholic vote. According to Howard, 'what really happened is that we got Menzies’ Catholics in 1963 for the first time in a really big way'.
The federal Labor Party, under Calwell, initially still refused to budge on direct financial assistance to church schools. Nevertheless, at the 1963 election Labor did offer a generous indirect aid package, including a big Commonwealth scholarships program available to all students, public or private.
But the humanist agnostic Whitlam, who replaced Calwell in 1967, introduced needs based funding after coming to office in 1972. Whitlam fought the so-called faceless men that ran his party and had a furious dispute with his Federal Executive. His general view was that 'only the impotent are pure', so he sought a compromise. This solved Labor’s internal problems and offered a coherent approach to funding. The Catholic bishops as a whole did not accept the needs based approach, however, and looked like lining up against Whitlam, but Archbishop Carroll intervened with a last minute statement that both political parties had an acceptable approach to funding Catholic schools. It defused the issue and a majority of Catholic voters backed Whitlam.
Whitlam changed the politics of education funding forever though he did not end the state aid debate. Dean Ashenden calls it an education revolution in which money from the federal government 'gushed into the Catholic schools and flowed to the state systems'.
Since the bishops wanted to lock in public funding as a right not a privilege, Whitlam agreed that the second, tiny component of the non-government sector, the high-fee independents, should get some money too. Suddenly the ancient taboo on 'state aid' to church schools, ,dating back to the egalitarian and sectarian settlement of the 1880s, seemed obsolete. Everyone ws in the money. Class sizes tumbled, teacher salaries rose, new schools were built.
Longer Term Developments, 1975-2012
There have been two long periods of Labor federal government, 1983-1996 and since 2007. Labor governments and oppositions, including Bob Hawke and his Education minister Susan Ryan (1983), Opposition Leader Mark Latham (2004) and Kevin Rudd and his Education shadow minister Jenny Macklin (2007) have wrestled with how to fund elite schools under a needs-based formula. Regular conflicts took place between Catholics and Labor over its interpretation of needs funding and the church’s precautionary support for largely Protestant elite schools. Catholics maintained solidarity and the principals of small Catholic parochial schools publicly stood by their GPS Catholic brothers and sisters. For example, in November 1983, 5,000 people protested in the Sydney Town Hall against the Hawke government’s plans to cut out recurrent funding to 41 elite Protestant schools, though there were no Catholic schools on the list.
The Howard era, including Education Ministers David Kemp and Brendan Nelson, played a significant role. Kemp introduced the SES system in 2001 as a formula for allocating Commonwealth funding, but Catholics did not join and continued to be funded separately. At Howard’s insistence Nelson bought Catholic involvement in 2004 for $300 million through the idea of 'funding maintained schools', that is, no one loses, (60% of all Catholic schools), which remains an element of public debate today..
The church built considerable professionalism in the NCEC, created in the 1980s, and was well-served by its boards and staff. It installed powerful and politically-attuned NCEC Chairs, including the former head of the NSW Premier’s Department, Gerry Gleeson from 1990-1996, and Western Australian Catholic leader Dr Peter Tannock from 1996-2001. It bolstered its political credentials by appointing leading retired political figures, including former NSW Liberal Premier John Fahey and former SA Labor Education Minister Greg Crafter. It gained a reputation for expertise and experience , and chairs such as Monsignor Tom Doyle, 2001-2008, developed a formidable reputation.
The ACBC accorded the education portfolio a high priority and chairs of the bishops committee have included Cardinal George Pell and Bishop Greg O’Kelly.
2004: Catholic Power
There were two illustrations during 2004 of how Catholics ‘do’ education politics. Both are examples of Catholic power, implicit or explicit.
Howard desperately wanted Catholics in the SES scheme to make it comprehensive and authoritative. He also recognized that when he came to office in 1996 for the very first time a majority of Catholics had voted for the Coalition. He sent his Catholic Minister for Education Brendan Nelson to seal the deal. Catholics agreed for a price to come inside the tent.
Latham tried to limit federal funding to a hundred or so largely Protestant elite schools by cuts and freezes. George Pell, Denis Hart and the two Anglican Archbishops of Sydney and Melbourne, in an example of inter-church solidarity, objected to this so-called hit-list. Labor subsequently retreated by changing its policy for the next election.
Catholics and Education Politics Today
The Catholic community is very different now; that includes its political profile. It has maintained its numerical size (2011 Census) and strength as a political lobby nevertheless.
The church is also very different in composition, that includes its declining religious workforce, particularly relevant to education, and its more national organization, including the ACBC and NCEC.
The education sector as a whole has become much more expensive for the community to fund and faces many new issues, including technology, science, English as a second language, and disabilities, etc.
The Catholic education sector is now very different too, including the CEOs and the NCEC. Catholic funding for all but 60 schools is distributed by block grants through CEOs, which are then distributed according to needs. Other private schools are funded individually and their lobbies look enviously at the relative cohesion of the Catholic lobby. The NCEC reported that in 2011 71% of all funding for Catholic schools came from governments (on average 53% from the Commonwealth and 18% from state governments).
There is bipartisan support for federal funding of Catholic education, despite some new opposition from some sectors of the Greens, especially in NSW.
Catholic education funding is extensive and by that criteria the last 50 years have been successful. Of all the sectors in the church the education lobby has been most successful. Freudenberg’s negative judgement of the 1970s would have to be revised.
Funding has increased at both state and federal level but the federal funding has become the focus of debate about the funding of private schools.
The arguments for funding by 'right' (1962) have been adapted to 'capacity to pay'. Public funding is no longer a right but follows the school’s own capacity to contribute. This is spelled on in the NCEC’s 'Funding Principles for Catholic Schools' (December 2009) and in the NCEC Gonski submission in 2011.
The distribution of funds from all levels of government must be needs-based to take into account the general educational needs of students as well as the particular needs of children disadvantaged educationally by social, economic, geographic, cultural and physical factors. Needs-based distribution also should include consideration of the recurrent resources available to a school from private income.
Education lobbying is largely administrative and bureaucratic. It is rarely militant, especially at the federal level. Where Catholic militancy occurs it is generally in other sectors, such as life and death issues, including abortion and euthanasia. Education advocacy is led by church bureaucrats and bishops rather than by lay Catholics. This takes place within a modern style of politics and policy-making which is common to many sectors.
The denominational composition of the political parties has changed dramatically. The entry of Catholics into the upper reaches of the federal Liberal Party has been remarkable. Tony Abbott, Leader of the Opposition, and Christopher Pyne, Shadow Minister for Education, illustrate this shift. They both attended Jesuit schools at which Bishop Greg O’Kelly, Chair of the Bishops Commission for Catholic Education has been the Headmaster.
The Catholic education lobby remains divided along three or four different lines (elite schools versus parochial; congregational schools versus CEO systemic schools; state and diocesan differences). Catholics are caught uneasily between a binary framing of the issue as a public-private one rather than a public-private-Catholic one. In this context the alliance with the Independent private sector is crucial.
The Goulburn peoples’ strike in 1962 is a world away from Canberra politics and advocacy in 2012. Hogan hypothesized that perhaps the state aid campaign, including Goulburn, was 'the last hurrah for ‘Catholic’ politics'. That’s not quite right but it is an interesting proposition because Catholics are losing their distinctiveness and risk being submerged into broader Christian lobbying.
There is no such thing now as the Catholic community of old nor, if there ever really was, the Catholic vote. Catholic identity is increasingly blurred and the Catholic ‘brand’ has been damaged, though it still has some purchase.
Half of all Catholic students are in government schools. In the late 1960s Catholic schools educated close to 70% of Catholics. Catholic schools have become increasingly middle-class, with the working class disproportionately in government schools and many of the upper middle class attending elite private schools. Increasingly Catholic schools attract non-Catholic students (28% of all students in Catholic schools).
Bishops negotiate with governments on a professional non-partisan basis through their intermediaries, state CEOs and the NCEC. The political reputations of bishops and Catholic education bureaucrats vary. Some would now be seen as favouring the Coalition, while others would be seen as inclined towards Labor.
Those involved in the Goulburn strike, if they were alive today, would recognize that they were part of the success story that is Catholic education. Not only are Catholic schools much better funded, despite having the lowest average level of resources of the three big sectors (NCEC), but like the whole education sector they probably provide better education. Dean Ashenden , for one, concludes: ' Australian schools are a lot better than they were during the overcrowding and funding crises of the 1950s and 1960s …'.
In 1962 educational aspirations were at the heart of an aspirational church that still saw itself as a bit of an outsider. The Catholic community wanted to make its mark in the wider Australian community through professional advancement and education was central to this vision. In 2012 the Catholic community has achieved that goal and is definitely mainstream.
Government funding of Catholic schools is seen as just part of the furniture of Australian politics. The danger, if there is one, is the complacency that may follow if a belief spreads among Catholics that the flow of government money is endless and that the tap will never be turned off.
Furthermore, as Catholic education is at the heart of the church’s relationship with the federal government it raises the question whether it weighs on the minds of the hierarchy in its other dealings with government. After his recent retirement, for instance, Archbishop Hickey of Perth, for instance, was quoted as saying that he regretted that his worries about possible financial repercussions for the Church played a part in his not being more active in the public square. There is no such thing as a free lunch.
Henry Albinski, The Australian Labor Party and the Aid to Parochial Schools Controversy, Pennsylvania State University, 1966)
Dean Ashenden, 'Good at gardening, hopeless at engineering', Inside Story, June-July 2012
Edmund Campion, 'Achieving State Aid-Arthur Rolfe', Madonna, January-February 2012
Catholic Voice, July 2012 (Geoff Joy, Kerrie Cusack)
Marie Flint, telephone conversation, 30 June 2012
Graham Freudenberg, A Certain Grandeur: Gough Whitlam in Politics (Sun, 1977)
Gerard Henderson, Menzies’ Child: The Liberal Party of Australia 1944-1994 (Allen and Unwin, 1994)
Michael Hogan, The Catholic Campaign for State Aid: A study of a Pressure Group Campaign in New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory, 1950-1972 (Sydney, 1978)
Michael Hogan, Public versus Private Schools: Funding and Directions in Australia, 1984
Hayden Manning and John Warhurst, 'The Old and New Politics of Religion' in Marian Simms and John Warhurst, eds, Mortgage Nation: The 2004 Australian Election, 2005
National Catholic Education Commission, Catholic Schools 2011
National Catholic Education Commission, Funding Principles for Catholic Schools, 2009
National Catholic Education Commission, Australian Catholic Schools Why we have them? What they aim to Achieve?
National Catholic Education Commission, Submission to the Review of Funding for Schooling, March 31 2011
Robert Parker, The Government of New South Wales (UQP, 1978)
Sean Scalmer, 'Crisis to Crisis', in John Faulkner and Stewart Macintyre, eds, True Believers, 2001
Gavin Simpson, 'Hickey Regrets not speaking out', The West Australian, 15 August 2011
John Warhurst, 'The Catholic Lobby: Structures, Policy Style and Religious Networks', Australian Journal of Public Administration, June 2008
John Warhurst is Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University. In 1962 he was in year 10 (Intermediate) at St Ignatius College, Norwood, Adelaide.