QUENTIN DEMPSTER. Catholic Church duplicitous and unaccountable in needs-based school funding says Malcolm Turnbull

Former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull has detailed private conversations with a Catholic Church leader to substantiate claims that the church has been duplicitous and unaccountable in distributing taxpayer money within its school system. 

The vivid revelations in a chapter in Mr Turnbull’s memoir A Bigger Picture have reopened the debate about needs-based funding of Australia’s schools, in particular,  disadvantaged Catholic schools. Government money is received by the Catholic system in one big cheque but, according to Mr Turnbull,  is distributed, not on the basis of educational need,  but to keep school fees lower in middle-class schools to enhance enrolments and maintain ‘market share’ against public and independent schools.

Former NSW Education Minister, Adrian Piccoli (Nationals)  now director of the Gonski Institute for Education, told The New Daily Mr Turnbull’s account of 2017 conversations with the Archbishop of Sydney,  Anthony Fisher, vindicated his own public complaints about the use of taxpayer funds within the Catholic schools system.

“Malcolm is right, they had us all fooled. It’s certainly immoral and unethical,” Professor Piccoli said.

When The New Daily emailed Archbishop Fisher to check the accuracy of the Turnbull version, a spokeswoman responded: “The Archbishop doesn’t comment on private conversations”.

 In his memoir, Mr Turnbull describes in detail his clever strategy to politically neutralise the Labor Party and the teachers’ unions and their “Give A Gonski” campaign on needs-based schools funding.  Mr Turnbull persuaded David Gonski, an old school friend and fellow merchant banker, to appear at his press conference with his then Eduction Minister Simon Birmingham to announce his government would follow Mr Gonski’s formula for schools funding to be allocated on the basis of need.   Mr Gonski chaired a ground-breaking inquiry into the issue for the Gillard Labor government and had been anointed a “secular saint” by Labor and the education unions to the political disadvantage of his LNP Coalition government, Mr Turnbull wrote.

While not going as far in funding as the Bill Shorten-led Labor Party, the Turnbull government’s formula hit a snag with the Catholic Church which had enjoyed what was called a ‘system weighted average’ that reflected the average socio-economic circumstances across the whole school system, as opposed to assessing each school and funding it accordingly.

“Over the years Catholic bishops, like George Pell, had always insisted the virtue of funding the Catholic schools in one lump sum, as a system,  was that they could cross-subsidise the poorer schools at the expense of those in the wealthier suburbs.  And this claim seemed so plausible, given the church’s mission, that none of us gullible politicians questioned it.”

Mr Turnbull said he discerned from conversations and correspondence with Archbishop Fisher that the “reverse was the case.”

 “He (Fisher) explained that ‘the problem’ with our needs-based model was that more funding would go to schools in ‘the poorer outer suburbs of Sydney and country New South Wales’.  I was astonished. ‘But don’t you do that now?’  There was a long pause. ‘Malcolm if your reforms go through, it would mean the fees of St Francis’s school in Paddington, would have to go up’.  Mr Turnbull writes that parents of St Francis, with excellent education results in his Wentworth electorate, would be horrified to learn the church was doing that.

“The archbishop sighed. ‘I am afraid to say, on this occasion, the politician has a more idealised view of human nature than the archbishop’.”

Mr Turnbull wrote that he explained that government funding would still come to the church in one cheque but transparency was required.   “If they wanted to subsidise fees in posh areas at the expense of schools in poor areas, they were free to do that.  ‘Oh, come on, Malcolm,’ said Fisher. ‘You know, once you tell people how the government has assessed need and shown how much each school would get, we could never get away with it.  People would say we were short-changing poor schools to benefit the rich ones’.”

Mr Turnbull wrote that at one point Archbishop Fisher argued schools in his  Wentworth electorate were needier  “because the parents had bigger mortgages.”

The exchanges with Archbishop Fisher were some of the most “unedifying and disappointing” he had undertaken with a church leader.   “This was the fundamental issue: he was objecting to transparency and accountability and wasn’t prepared publicly to defend how they moved government money around their school system”. Mr Turnbull concluded he could only assume that the objective of the Catholic system was to maintain enrolments in middle-class areas by keeping fees lower.

Federal funding for schools 2019

Government: $8.04 billion

Catholics: $6.9 billion

Independent: $5.05 billion

Source: Commonwealth Education Department

School enrolments 2019

Total: 3,948,811

Government schools 65.7%

Catholic 19.5%

Independent 14.8%

Source: ABS

While not denying Mr Turnbull’s version of the conversations, a  spokeswoman for Archbishop Fisher said: “The abiding principle for the mission of Catholic education is that it should be accessible and affordable to all parents, who want their children to receive a Catholic education. We recognise the financial burden many families face and, as such, offer the lowest fees possible. Our schools are currently assisting many families with either a reduction in their fees or cancellation due to the current coronavirus-induced economic downturn as we have with those affected by the bushfires and drought in regional areas”.

Professor Piccoli told The New Daily unaccountable Catholic schools funding prevailed to this day.  “While they are fixing it, they are fixing it progressively.  Reducing funding to non-government schools is politically very difficult. I did it in 2012 and it nearly cost me my job.

“So the reason the Catholics were giving high SES (socio-economic status) schools more money than they were entitled to under needs-based funding had nothing to do with need.  It had everything to do with keeping market share in wealthy suburbs. I thought that was pretty disgusting.”

*Quentin Dempster is contributing editor at The New Daily where this article was first posted on 1 May,2020.

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Quentin Dempster, former chairman of the Walkley Foundation, is a contributing editor at The New Daily.

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8 Responses to QUENTIN DEMPSTER. Catholic Church duplicitous and unaccountable in needs-based school funding says Malcolm Turnbull

  1. Philip Ludington says:

    Well dare I say it, given that the Catholic schools are the subject of this enlightening article, “Bugger me, who would have thunk it?”

  2. Kimball Byron Chen says:

    It seems, Quentin, that the clear air on Table Cape is doing you a power of good. It also seems that Fisher’s moral compass is a bit deficient and he has wandered off course. Weak men who have acquired power are sometimes torn between the common good and their own self-interest. Of course, not all barrel apples are rotten. However, the triumvirate of Pell, Fisher and Comensoli give off an ordour of fermentation.

  3. Jim KABLE says:

    Maybe – finally – time for all schools to be made state-run. The amount of money the systems variously have already taken should be seen as payment in full. A private/church system is divisive in the extreme in our society. It has to stop – before we all go blind! As Malcolm seems to have been till this revealing now public exposure of his conversation with Fisher (and why it should be considered as a “private” conversation about which he will make no comment suggests a need for a Royal Commission into the rorting of which he has been a significant contemporary part. Good onyer Malcolm for bringing this to the attention of the Australian people!

  4. Lyndsay Connors says:

    Lyndsay Connors

    I don’t know why Malcolm Turnbull found Pell’s commitment to poorer schools ‘plausible’ given his demonstrated indifference to poorer schools in the context of the 2004 election. Within an overall funding increase for the non-government sector, Labor proposed to redistribute gains from some very high resource schools to meet the pressing needs of other non-government schools.
    Although the principles underpinning this policy had been developed in consultation with the National Catholic Education Commission, Pell struck out on his own and joined with his Anglican counterpart in Sydney to oppose this re-distribution, even though this meant depriving poorer Catholic schools of a fairer level and share of public funding.

  5. Sue Caldwell says:

    So called conservative Catholics have always been adept at manipulating and rorting the system in all countries for forever and a day.
    Check out the latest posting on the New Tabernacle website re their latest gambit in America.
    Then of course the “legal” arrangements described here gives them almost unlimited access to the levers of power and privilege : http://www.concordatwatch.eu

    • Dr Michael Furtado says:

      Ms Caldwell, you really need to establish the link between the website you cite and the topic in hand: one has to do the with intergovernmental relations the Holy See, as an independent state, has with various other states around the world and the other concerns disagreements around the way public monies are distributed to and within Australian school systems. Unless you do so, your remarks here cannot be construed as anything but sectarian and relating to the resuscitation of an age-old phenomenon in the Anglo-Celtic world, which is the regular reformulation and trundling out of anti-Catholic conspiracy theory to explain occurrences that require complex reasoning and evidence to support paranoia-induced explanations of them.

  6. John CARMODY says:

    Turnbull is, at times, over concise in his book — and perhaps prone to suppress the contributions of others in defending his own “achievements. While I am prepared to believe much of what he said happened, judging omissions and interpretations is quite another matter.

    The part of the book which Mr Dempster is dealing with here, fits into the category of “what did happen” and seems authentic, well documented. — and dispiritingly plausible. It is, therefore, one of the most disturbing parts of the book.

    Not only does it call into question the integrity and good faith of the Catholic episcopate (damaged as it so seriously is by the sexual abuse scandal) it also reveals a partisan deformation of the civil society which Australia purports and aspires to be. Therefore, in revealing this conversation, Mr Turnbull leaves us all in his debt.

    This is one of the most duisturbing parts of turnbll’s book

  7. John Clarke says:

    The other issue is that say in Canberra Goulburn diocese the system weighting average means that the secondary schools get more funding per student as the funding is averaged on numbers and there are more primary students in lower SES areas than there are secondary students. Suggest the first step to take would be for government funding to be done for primary students and then for secondary students so the primary SES could be different to that of the secondary

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