The genesis of state aid
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The genesis of state aid

A Catholic schools strike in Goulburn in 1962 had long-term implications for education funding in Australia, EMMA MACDONALD reports

It seems so unlikely that a crumbling, decommissioned block of toilets could have changed the course of Australian political history.

Fifty years ago, on July 17, Goulburn's seven Catholic schools closed their gates to students. In effect, they went on ''strike'' because they received no government funding and depended entirely on the goodwill of clergy, brothers and nuns to run them, as well as fees and donations from parishioners to pay for them.

Sister Frances Fitzpatrick at the Catholic Education Office, Manuka.

Sister Frances Fitzpatrick at the Catholic Education Office, Manuka.Credit:Graham Tidy

This left 2000 Catholic school children descending on six government schools across the town, where only 640 spots were available. School principals at the government schools then drew names out of a hat for a place during a tumultuous five-day period that became known as the Goulburn ''Roman Catholic Row''.

The extraordinary scenes - which captured headlines across the nation - forced the then prime minister Robert Menzies to commit to funding Catholic schools through ''state aid'' against opposition from the Labor Party, which had the flow-on political effect of undermining the ALP's traditional Catholic voter base.

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By the time Gough Whitlam came to power, Labor had embraced state aid. Commonwealth and state contributions to non-government schools have been happening ever since.

But what started it all was a humble toilet block.

Father Dermid McDermott, Goulburn's parish priest, recalls availing himself of the urinals while a student at St Brigid's Primary, never imagining the modest brick outhouse would one day become infamous.

In 1962, the Southern Area Director of Education determined that ''the provision of an additional sanitary convenience in the boys' toilets'' must be made before St Brigid's received its Certificate of Efficiency. In other words, another toilet was needed for the swelling school numbers and in order to meet the occupational health and safety standards of the day.

But, quite simply, the parish could not afford it.

Church authorities wrote back and forth to authorities and finally decided to push their point.

Parents, who were paying taxes as well as school fees, backed them.

It was decided Goulburn would close all of its Catholic schools for six weeks as a message to government that students deserved a better deal.

Flooding local public schools with new students also showed how they would fail to cope if Catholic schools closed down for good.

But Father McDermott recalls how the strike divided the town and brought out high emotion. His dad Ernie was a local publican, as well as the town mayor and president of the local ALP branch.

Reports at the time indicated vastly differing opinions in the town, with Catholics fighting among themselves as well as against Protestants and various splinter groups arguing to keep schools open. These arguments sometimes spilled into fisticuffs on the normally sedate streets of Goulburn.

While he supported Commonwealth funding for Catholic schools, Ernie McDermott didn't want to see children on the front line of a political debate, according to his son.

''Dad was definitely not in favour of closing the schools,'' Father McDermott said. ''He thought the Catholic system should have got its act together and argued its case a bit better.''

Father McDermott, who was away studying law at the University of Sydney at the time and would later become a judge, is, however, grateful for the education he received at St Brigid's. ''It was a wonderful school. And in the end I think it became a question of fairness, and trying to give all students access to a good education''.

While parents were anxious about the effects of such political agitation on their offspring, Sister Frances Fitzpatrick - a 14-year-old convent border whose name was pulled out of the hat for a temporary place at Goulburn High School - found it rather exciting.

In a memoir of the week she said there was no shortage of nuns keeping a watchful eye on their charges, delivering them safely to the gates of their new schools, handing out lunch and snacks, and ensuring every student had clean sandshoes for Friday sport. But that is not to say there was not genuine goodwill and understanding on the part of the six government schools who were inundated with new students.

Jack Plews, Goulburn High School's English teacher at the time, recalls facing the influx of new faces. ''I welcomed them as students,'' Plews said. ''I said I wanted them to enjoy their stay with us no matter how long it was, and we'd do our best to meet their needs in education. And I said, 'For both of us, I hope it will be a learning experience'.''

The director of Catholic Education for the Archdiocese of Canberra and Goulburn, Moira Najdecki, said the 1962 strike had a profound impact on politics and education in Australia which was still evident today as the Gonski Review recommends sweeping changes to fund all Australian students based on need, regardless of whether they are enrolled in a religious or government school.

''We are still arguing about these sorts of funding issues, although it's not quite as sectarian as it was. If nothing else, the Goulburn strike showed that if we didn't have non-government schools, paid for largely by families, the cost to the Australian taxpayer would be phenomenal.''

Najdecki said all non-government schools owed a debt of gratitude to the small group of stubborn Goulburn Catholics who had decided they'd had enough.

Reading the headlines as a student at the Catholic Girl's High School Griffith - now St Clare's College - Najdecki said the strike provided ''a flashpoint'' for long-running financial struggles in parish schools. One concern was they could not afford to provide adequate science education because of the prohibitive cost of labs and equipment.

''The strike is still talked about and there are still differing opinions on it,'' Najdecki said. ''But there is no doubt these schools were absolutely at the point of desperation, they had no money in the bank, were bursting at the seams (St Brigid's had 84 students in one kindergarten classroom at the time) and made a pretty radical and unusual step to do something.''

So history was made when Bishop Cullinane backed a mandate from the congregation, gained the blessing of the Diocesan Archbishop and threw down the gauntlet to the Menzies government.

As it turned out, the strike did not last six weeks as the clergy decided the point had been made after just one. The Catholic schools quickly reopened, the media left town, and peaceful order was restored.

It should also be noted that Menzies did not hand any money over then and there, instead promising capital grants to fund science labs in Catholic schools and broadening the scope of state aid in successive federal budgets.

For his part, from 1972, Labor prime minister Gough Whitlam kept the practice going, having already defied his own party to publicly support federal funding to non-government schools despite threats of expulsion from the ALP.

''The funny thing is that despite all of the excitement,'' said Father McDermott, ''at the end of the day it was the parish which cobbled together the money for a new toilet block. The federal funding didn't start flowing until sometime after that.''

The ''new'' toilet block is still standing some 50 metres away from the original one - at the back of the old Saints Peter and Paul Cathedral.

St Brigid's stopped taking students in 1976. To this day it remains empty - with both of its politically significant toilet blocks protected by heritage orders.

Emma Macdonald is Education Editor

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