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Guns debate has parallels on our shores


John Hirst

We're an odd mob when it comes to death duties and private schools.

EACH nation has its oddities. We are appalled at the devotion of Americans to their guns. Americans would be surprised that there are no death duties in Australia and that one in three children attend private schools, which receive government funding.

In the United States there are federal death duties (or estate duties) and most states have them as well. Only 6 per cent of children attend private schools, which do not receive government funding.

The Australian Greens used to be opposed to government funding of private schools and in favour of death duties. They have recently softened or abandoned these positions. The major parties criticise these Green policies as ''extreme''. In the United States they are mainstream.

Our oddities over death duties and schools are truly odd because we think of ourselves as a more egalitarian society than the United States.

The argument for death duties is that large fortunes should not be passed on intact from generation to generation and so entrench inequality. Or at least death duties extract some contribution from the rich, when in life they may well have avoided paying their proper share of taxation.

Australia used to have state and federal death duties. In 1977 Queensland premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen abolished death duties to attract old people to his state. Other states and the Commonwealth followed.

The argument for a common schooling is that all children should get an equal start in life and learn to regard children of all sorts as their equals. You shouldn't be able to buy a better education for a child and isolate them in a privileged enclosure.

American schools of course differ enormously and since they are run and funded locally, rich districts produce better schooling than poor. Still, parents don't feel that they have to go private to get a good education for their children, and for all their suspicion of the state (much stronger than here) nearly all Americans trust the state, in the form of the local school board, to educate their children.

The American university scene is very different. The best universities are private, and paying to see a child through college is a huge burden. Our universities were always public but they did charge fees.

Our egalitarian impulse is more evident in our policies for universities. Menzies provided scholarships so that able children could go to university with their fees paid; they would have a living allowance as well. Whitlam abolished fees altogether. When that policy could not be sustained, Hawke reintroduced fees but with the very clever proviso of allowing you to pay them after you had graduated, but only if you were earning enough to do so. That was designed to keep access to universities open to all able students no matter their parents' means.

So why did private schooling become so well entrenched in egalitarian Australia? The aim of those who founded the state education systems in the 19th century was the same as the American aim: government schools should take all children no matter what their background and religion and educate them together in a common citizenship.

All churches came to accept this, except the Catholics, who were a much larger minority than in the United States. They kept their own schools, which was a huge struggle because the state no longer gave aid to church schools. The ideal of educating all children together had failed, but it was too late to rethink. Protestants who had given up their own schools would never countenance resuming aid to church schools, which now meant Catholic schools.

For almost a hundred years the Catholics fruitlessly requested aid for their schools. This was the grievance that rankled most deeply in our society. It was Menzies and the Liberal Party, the much more Protestant party, that first relaxed the ban in the 1960s with aid to laboratories and libraries in private schools. From that has grown the generous funding that sustains our huge private school sector. It embraces much more than the Catholics; 40 per cent of the privately educated children are in non-Catholic schools.

The reasons why these enrolments have grown are complex. Has the quality of state schooling really declined or are over-anxious parents prejudiced against it?

Certainly, conscientious middle-class parents now almost feel obliged to send their children to a private school. Some wish they did not have to do so and know that by avoiding state schools they help downgrade them further. It's like the people who reluctantly buy guns in the United States because, with so many guns about, they feel they have to protect themselves and their families.

Americans do private security; Australians do private schooling. There is a tipping point when faith in the state fatally erodes.

Australia still feels an egalitarian place. We are an informal people who treat each other as equals and we don't worship success as the Americans do. As the Greens have discovered, most Australians do not see the absence of death duties and the prevalence of private schools as a threat to the Australia they value. I hope they are right.

John Hirst is a historian. His latest book is The Shortest History of Europe.

HuffPost Australia

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