Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site


50 years since Australia's 'most poisonous debate'

  • 09 July 2012

FIFTY YEARS SINCE THE 'GOULBURN STRIKE': CATHOLICS AND EDUCATION POLITICSAn 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