Above: Head of Federal Education Department, Dr Michele Bruniges with CaSPA President Andrew Watson at the recent CaSPA Board Meeting where the issue of equitable funding for the future was discussed.
When Malcolm Turnbull jumped on stage with his good friend David Gonski nearly a year ago and announced a 10-year plan to inject billions of dollars into education, he said it was time to "bring the school funding wars to an end".
The package that squeaked through the Senate a few months later seemed like it might actually achieve that lofty goal. Its basic premise was to deliver more money than Tony Abbott's offering, but less than Labor's, and with a fairer distribution of the funding without "special deals".But there was always a sticking point: the Catholics. Having enjoyed a privileged position under Labor's original Gonski arrangements, the massive Catholic education sector lobbied intensely against the new model, under which their funding would keep increasing but at a slower rate.
The law passed but the Catholics never surrendered. And Labor stuck to its guns, promising to inject $17 billion more than the Liberals over 10 years, if it won at the next election.Despite this week's flare up, little has changed on those fronts. The Catholic school sector still claims the new model is unfair because it gives their over-funded systemic schools less time to transition than their independent cousins. Labor is still promising more money for everyone, including $250 million for Catholic schools in the first two years.
But the political interests of Labor and the Catholics aligned in recent weeks in curious - and, to some, questionable - fashion. Opposition Leader Bill Shorten wrote a letter to Australia's most senior Catholic, the Archbishop of Melbourne Denis Hart, declaring the ALP stood "shoulder-to-shoulder with the church" on school funding.Shortly after, Catholic Education Melbourne boss Stephen Elder launched a robocall blitz of households in the seat of Batman, praising Labor's school policies ahead of last weekend's byelection. Labor won, although no serious interpretation of the result would give particular credit to the Catholic campaign.
But Shorten's letter and Elder's robocalls demonstrate a relationship of convenience between Labor and the Victorian Catholics. It's worth noting that Elder, somewhat of a renegade, is a former Liberal MP in Victoria, and it's likely his frenetic campaigning is partly an attempt to save face after he failed to extract a special deal from Education Minister Simon Birmingham.The aggressive tactics in Melbourne might seem counterproductive, but Catholic schools strongly backed their head office this week. Andrew Watson, President of Catholic Secondary Principals Australia, said it was the only way to get Birmingham to listen.
"Perhaps there's a bit of arrogance there that he's not prepared to accept he's got it wrong, or hasn't understood the complexities of the schools and the various systems," Watson told Fairfax Media. "I don't think he has been well advised."
Watson and others are continuing to lobby by going around Birmingham, securing meetings with Victorian Liberal senators Scott Ryan [April 24th coming] and Jane Hume, who are prepared to hear out the Catholics' concerns.
Adapted from The Saturday Age, Melbourne by Michael Koziol24 Mar 2018