In the recent Batman by-election, the Catholic Education Commission of Victoria (CECV) headed by Executive Director, Stephen Elder, contacted voters directly through so-called Robocalling to urge them to vote Labor. Since then, I have been asking myself two questions. Why should the Catholic Education authority do this at all and, second, where did the funds come from…parents, taxpayers or the Church’s own coffers?
The public funding of private schools in this country remains a highly contested and sensitive political issue. Its history has been marred by politically driven deals based on old forms of sectarianism that have little or no significance to contemporary and culturally-diverse Australian society and even less relevance to the purposes of education.
For our school system to advance, one priority for governments is to build a workable consensus about the basis for continuing taxpayer support for these schools, which now educate around one-third of all students. The only rationale likely, in my view, to provide a basis for that consensus relies on the principle that all Australian children are entitled to schools with the resources they need to achieve their best, in their own and in the national interest. Governments have the responsibility to see that school authorities spend their recurrent education funding on just that: either directly on teaching students in schools and classrooms or on related forms of support.
Of all the factors that have bedevilled the attempt to find a rational, equitable, coherent, transparent and affordable policy for the public funding of public and private schools in Australia, one prime contributor has been the unhealthy relationship that exists between the major political parties and the Catholic church, in particular.
The CECV phone blitz followed hard on the heels of a commitment by Labor leader Bill Shorten that, if elected, Labor would restore to Catholic schools a level of funding inflated by a string of ‘special deals’ introduced by the Coalition Government under John Howard and protected by Labor when the Gillard Labor Government pre-empted its own Gonski review of schools funding with a promise that there would be ‘no losers’.
One of the few positive aspects of the Coalition’s Gonski 2.0 policy has been the provision for a National Schools Resourcing Board (NSRB). Its first task is to resolve one of the key concerns expressed by the Catholic sector – the criteria for assessment of a school community’s anticipated private income, and it is due to report in June. Despite having established the NSRB in a timely way, Coalition Education Minister Simon Birmingham is now reportedly under pressure by his own colleagues, ahead of the NSRB’s independent review findings, to mend fences with Mr Elder and to avoid a brawl with the Catholic school sector that could jeopardise marginal seats in the next Federal election.
The actions of the CECV and the two major political parties raised the depressing prospect of schools funding in this country remaining forever a ‘wicked problem’: a national game where a team of school bullies brandishing votes play spineless and unprincipled politicians for a pot of public dollars.
The fact that I was so affronted by the CECV’s telephone intervention in the Batman by-election puzzled me. After all, I belong to a generation that has long been used to Catholic clergy (and those of other denominations) using the pulpit to tell their own congregations which party to vote for. And I have always taken the view that religious leaders are as entitled as any other citizens to engage publicly in political debate. From time to time, I have welcomed statements from churches emanating from a concern for the downtrodden and the persecuted.
Of course, a priest giving the congregation orders on how to vote could be seen as a private conversation within a church community itself. Whereas telephoning outsiders in their own homes to tell them what to vote is a somewhat different matter.
Could it be that I was simply being a Luddite – offended by the CECV using a new technology to amplify the Church’s traditional political thunderings from the pulpit? What would my reaction have been had Stephen Elder employed an intermediate technology and driven a van all around the electorate of Batman? What if he had simply used a loud hailer to instruct voters to favour the ALP over the Greens in Batman, providing a sharp reminder at the same time to the Coalition (which ran no candidate in Batman) of what it could expect in the next Federal election if it failed to come up with its own special deal for Catholic schools?
To start with, Mr Elder is not a priest, he is employed as the head of a school authority. Had he chosen to spruik his pro-Labor message in the streets, this would very likely have raised questions about why, in that role, he was doing this at all. The Robocalling certainly provided him with a more subtle and insidious form of communication, combining as it does the advantages of remote control with a capacity to invade the privacy of individual voters in their own homes.
There were some other interesting aspects to the whole incident, in that here we had a Catholic Education director, formerly a Liberal Party member in the Victorian Parliament, now contacting the electors of Batman to tell them to vote Labor. By contrast, back in the 2004 federal election, Cardinal George Pell lined up with his Anglican counterpart to oppose the then Labor policy to re-distribute funds within the private school sector from the over-funded to the neediest – at the direct expense of those of his own Catholic schools serving children from poor families.
But back to the Robocalling: Who paid for it?
To the best of my understanding, there are four possible answers. The Robocalling was paid for directly by the Church itself, or it was paid for by the CECV from the funds provided by taxpayers or the income derived mainly from parents fees, or a combination of these sources of funding.
Did the Catholic church itself foot the bill? Faced with dwindling congregations and authority, is this institution now intending to use its large school systems rather than its churches as the vehicle through which to exert its political influence? And what are the implications for our national system of education if a significant element of its schools, not to mention the children they serve, are to be used in this way?
I have no idea how much this annoying and intrusive practice of Robocalling costs and I don’t care. What matters here is that there is a very significant principle at stake if the Catholic system authority used its own funds to foot the bill for the Robocalling.
The Church itself now contributes very little towards financing its own school systems including their head offices. The recurrent funding of Catholic systemic schools by Commonwealth and State governments runs at about 80% of the total, and almost all the remaining 20% comes from fees paid by individual parents.
The legal situation is clear when it comes to the use by the CECV or any similar private provider of schooling of the public funds provided by governments. They must be used for the educational purposes for which they were provided. It is hard to imagine that political Robocalling could be judged as such a purpose.
But what of the CECV funds that come from private sources? Unless it proves to be the case that fee-paying parents were asked by the CECV to donate money in addition to their normal school fees specifically to finance the Robocalling venture, then a serious issue arises.
This is because the public funding provided by governments and the private funding from parents are inextricably linked, if the resource standard and the educational purposes of the public funding are to be achieved. An assessment of the capacity of parents to contribute financially through fees for their children to attend Catholic schools is the basis for determining the level of a schools’ entitlement to public funding. The implicit understanding here is that this private contribution is applied to the same purposes as the public funding, to the education of children in Victorian Catholic schools. The actions of the CECV raise the question of whether this understanding needs to be made more explicit.
If the private funding derived mainly from parent fees can be siphoned off for other than for the educational purposes for which it was collected, then the integrity of the funding scheme as a whole is corrupted. If that is what has happened, then surely the effect is the same as if the public funds available to the Victorian Catholic system had been used to pay for the Robocalling.
So there is a question about whether the actions of the CECV raise a legal question about compliance with funding conditions set out in the Act and accompanying regulations.
If the answer is that the Robocalling by the CECV does not represent non-compliance, then this only serves to illustrate the dubious foundations on which schools funding policy for Catholic and other private schooling is based. If using system funds for Robocalling to influence the outcome of an election is permissible, then we have a significant portion of our school system being funded under Rafferty’s rules. To financing what other activities might we see Catholic or other system authorities diverting funds from schools?
There is another question of legality arising from the CECV’s use of funds for political advocacy of this kind. This arises from the fact that the Catholic Education Commission of Victoria Limited enjoys charity status and is obliged to comply with the requirements of the Australian Charities and Not for profits Commission (ACNC).
These questions, in my view, merit further investigation by the appropriate authorities.
It may well turn out to be that such is the laxity of our regulations, we are looking at misfeasance on the part of the CECV: conduct that is lawful but inappropriate.
Mr Elder is reported as having claimed that ‘people who dismiss the church forget we are on high moral ground when it comes to school funding’. Any reference by Mr Elder to ‘high moral ground’ does not deserve to be dignified with comment.
But then high moral ground is all too rarely the preferred venue for the key players in the politics of schools funding.
Lyndsay Connors AO has had extensive experience in education policy work and her previous positions have included leadership roles in key education authorities and agencies, at national and state level. She is a co-author of the 2015 report, Imperatives in Schools Funding, published by the Australian Council for Education Research (https://research.acer.edu.au/aer/14/).