I first met E. G. Whitlam when he spoke at a series of ‘State Aid’ rallies in Sydney prior to the 1969 federal election. He was in full voice before a Catholic community that had packed halls and cinemas on eight Sunday evenings, demanding financial support for their schools from federal and state governments.
The final gathering was in the Sydney Town Hall. Around 5,000 people crammed into the upper and lower levels, and on the George Street steps. The proceedings were broadcast live on radio station 2SM.
His message was always the same. Australia must increase spending on education and both government and Catholic schools should be funded according to need. Gough had a very clear view that the Commonwealth must make “a comprehensive and continuous financial commitment to schools, as it has to universities.”
A few years ago, I located a sound recording of the Town Hall speeches. I sent a copy to Gough who phoned me the next day with his reminiscences of the campaign by Catholics for financial assistance for their schools.
Over the past 40 years, I have had many discussions with Gough. He spoke about the struggle in the early 1960s to change the attitude of the ALP to state aid. He was convinced that Labor was unelectable until the divisive issue of school funding was resolved. He also believed that funding all schools was the right thing to do. It was a justice issue, not a religious one.
He took considerable pride in the role he played in ensuring that all students had access to well-funded schools.
On a number of occasions, he came back to the 1969 rallies. He lamented the passing of public meetings that provided a stage for a gifted orator. “Television is a poor substitute for the Town Hall,” he said.
Gough played a key role in changing the attitude of the electorate to the funding of Catholic schools. He gave legitimacy to the claim by Catholic parents for some government funding for their schools.
Much of the opposition to the funding of Catholic schools by governments, and the sectarianism that was very obvious in the 1950s and early 1960s, had largely disappeared by the early 1970s. Whitlam played a key role in this change of attitude across the electorate.
When elected in December 1972, Gough established the Interim Committee of the Australian Schools Commission. This committee reported back in May 1973 (Karmel Report) and funding for all schools was increased immediately.
In Sydney Catholic schools, the benefits of the long-awaited funding increases were felt immediately. Additional teachers were employed and class sizes reduced. Teacher salaries came in line with colleagues in government schools. Programs to meet specific needs of students were introduced and teachers had access to a range of Commonwealth-funded professional development courses. The survival fears of the late 1960s were quickly replaced by a new optimism, and the decline in Catholic school enrolments was soon arrested with the opening of new schools in the growth areas.
While the Whitlam government lasted just three years, successive governments have continued to fund Catholic schools along the same trajectory, and the Commonwealth is now a major player in school education. Today, Catholic schools in NSW receive nearly 80 per cent of their annual income from federal and state governments or about $8,000 per student. When Whitlam was elected in 1972, the comparable figure was about $122.
By reforming the way that governments funded schools, Gough Whitlam changed forever – and for the better – the educational landscape in Australia.
Br Kelvin Canavan, fms
Br Kelvin Canavan has been a leader in Catholic education since he was appointed Inspector of Schools in the Catholic Education Office Sydney in 1968. He was Executive Director of Schools from 1987 to 2009 and was appointed Executive Director Emeritus: Catholic Schools, Archdiocese of Sydney in 2009.