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JANUARY 17-19, 2001


The  following is an edited version of the address by Denis Fitzgerald to the AEU Federal Conference. This was read out on the DOGS 3CR program on Saturday 20 January 2001.

"..The year past has not been a particularly good year for our Betters. We have as a federal minister, Dr. David Kemp, the worst politician ever to be given national responsibility for education in Australia.  He has now completed over four years in office without ever being caught saying or writing anything positive about public education or teachers in public education. His commitment to destroying the things that we work for as teachers and as unionists is a vestige of the past and we have an opportunity this year to ensure that he becomes a memory of our past. In his personal re-enactment of 18th century values, he has been joined by a host of acolytes who have given us glimpses of what passed for thought in previous times.


In what has been a highly competitive field, perhaps the award for the most nauseating contribution to educational debate goes to the headmaster of the Kings School in Parramatta, one Dr. Tim Hawkes. This is the school with gyms, swimming pools,indoor rifle ranges, basketball courts and no fewer than 15 cricket fields. [ the last fact is most incredible as one notes that from these 15 cricket fields, not a cricketer of note has emanated since the time of the Boer War]. Dr. Hawkes unburdened himself of some observations about people and parents in his school community during the funding debate which ignited last year.


In his explanation for his school's  privilege, he shares these utterances with us:


"Attendance at independent schools is not a statement of wealth, but a statement of priority,"


Dr. Hawkes reckoned. ignoring the tens of millions of dollars the Australian public has involuntarily remitted to his school, he went on to say,


"I am humbled at the heroic sacrifices these families make to send their sons to Kings....Clearly Kings has accumulated more and it seems very wrong for politicians to penalise the school because parents, teachers and students have had the gumption, energy and sacrifice to create an excellent school."


So that is apparently all it takes- gumption, energy and sacrifice. We heard much talk about sacrifice last year. Kings and the other citadels of privilege like it flourish according to this reasoning because the parents there love their children more, make greater sacrifices for their offspring, and because all concerned are essentially more worthy human beings.


This time last year I was preparing to return to my high school in Sydney's west. There the parents had crossed mountains and oceans to build a better life for their kids. Many h ad survived bombing, wars and insurrections. Hundreds had been in camps for interminable periods. Others had hidden in the hills to escape to Australia. Almost all had known death in their family along the way. And for their children public education has become their refuge and their hope. Yet of course all of this pales in comparison when set beside the stoic sacrifice of the parents of Kings, of Wesley, of St. Peters and their ilk.


It was indeed a bumper year for the resurrection of patrician values as encouraged and exemplified by the current Federal  Government.


The Marie Intonate award for the Most Odious Patrician Observation on Education Funding might go to Danebank, a girl's academy in southern Sydney. Danebank, again a beneficiary of tens of millions of dollars from us, the general public, announced amidst the education funding debate that they were about to open a new pool. I will quote from the suburban newspaper the chirpy observations they made at the time.


"Danebank School has a new $3.9 million pool which should help boost the all girls school's ranking in the world of water polo...This month the private Anglican school opened an Aquatic Centre with arguably the best water polo pool in Australia."

It went on to trillingly observe that:


"The facility would give the school a home pool advantage."


Now I have always found that it was perfectly horrid as a teacher to have to take one's water polo team to someone else's water polo pool. It would of course be just super to have this "home pool advantage." Better still if someone else is paying. And we are.


Other contributors to the debate have used the position of the pulpit and the epistle to reinforce the privileged position of those who claim to be church leaders. The Anglican Archbishop of Sydney, Dr. Goodhew, for example, was a tireless campaigner for the government's education legislation. He used the position of the church to lobby and pressure parliamentarians. He used public platforms to defend the government's windfall to wealthy schools and even justified this funding to his flock because,e to quote the good bishop, they offered "educational advantage". I am not, however, exactly sure in which of the Gospels, "educational advantage" is regarded as a Christian value.


Other Church leaders distinguished themselves by their very silence. We are often given the benefit of various church leaders' views on all manner of subjects to do with our political, social and personal lives. But many erstwhile spiritual and moral leaders appeared to have taken a vow of silence in elation to the reinforcement of privilege that government policy represents. If indeed " blessed are the poor" then the poor found no defenders amongst church leaders in these debates. The church leaders had a choice of manna over morals and they chose manna.


As one Catholic academic and ethicist observed in The Age newspaper last month,


"I am deeply ashamed that my bishops are prepared to be silent bystanders to the injustice of David Kemp's school funding proposal. As a Christian, I am disheartened that the numerous private schools who say they have a religious basis are similarly silent. As a human being, I am distressed at the government's narrow individualistic rhetoric of choices for everyone, which belies the unavoidable needs of a very many children. "


If there is a case for shame on the other side of these debates, we can feel nothing but pride in the efforts that we have put in across Australia to raise the banner of public education. Public education now has a prominence in debate across Australia and we have only just begun to fight. Whilst arrayed against us is an assembly of reactionary politicians, medieval headmasters and curious clerical silences in an alliance befitting pre-revolutionary France, we find ourselves mustering strength against their world view which seeks to subordinate the interests of the common people.


It has been heartening to note the contents of our polling and community research which tells us these things:

  • that education is the most important issue leading up to the federal election;
  • that there is great awareness of the federal government's plans in relation to education;
  • that 90% of Australians agree with the proposition "that public schools need more funding to ensure that all Australian children get a decent education";
  • that Dr. Kemp is simply not believed;
  • that over 99% of Australians believe that it is important to maintain a system of public TAFE colleges as part of the Australian education system; and
  • that there is overwhelming support for federal governments to increase funding levels to public schools, pre-schools and TAFE.

One of the major challenges we have is to point out to the Australian Labor Party that there is both an ethical and electoral advantage in becoming the champions of public education. We are the majority and we must become the majority political force. Certain the ALP moved to more worthwhile policies at its National Conference held in Hobart in the middle of last year. There was indeed some encouragement to be had from Kim Beazley's remarks in the parliament during the States Grants Bill debate. When Mr Beazley said in the House of Representatives on the 27th November that :


"Labor's first priority in policy and funding terms is and always will be public education",


he became the first Federal Labor leader to make such a statement. We will be reminding the ALP of this statement many times in the months ahead.


What we have already made clear to the Labor Party is that there will be no return to the policies and funding practices of the Hawke and Keating years. In those times, Labor governments persistently reduced public education's share of schools funding and enthusiastically embraced private providers and fundamentalist competition theory in the VET sector.


A Labor Party which believes that the role of government is merely a sub-branch of accountancy and which gives predominance to those who know the cost of everything and the worth of nothing will engender very little enthusiasm from ourselves or from the Australian public. It has been noteworthy to observe the ease with which the Democrats and the Greens have embraced the cause of public education and it has been similarly noteworthy to observe the increasing level of support they have gained from the position they have adopted.


Yet indeed we are experiencing transformational times in politics and there has been several highlights along the way. One of the more joyous occasions for me was the strike of early childhood teachers held here in Victoria in late July. The outstanding features of the campaign and industrial action were the determined, yes militant, position taken by the teachers, our colleagues, during this strike.


At the rally and march, enthusiasm was palpable from those early childhood colleagues who crossed all age ranges and backgrounds. The atmosphere was not dampened by the thin misty rain that came down upon us. Most of all it was highlighted by the scores of very young children who joined us at the rally and march. With their joy and enthusiasm they reminded us that they were exactly what we are all about. As a union committed to creating a better world and to the opening up of life's potential for all, early childhood education is vital to our being and our purpose. As we know, if we are to effectively address disadvantage and equality then we must start as early as we can. And we must.


We have also been given some encouragement in our struggles over TAFE funding and policy. The Year 2000 was the year when the Ministers for Education rose up ( or at least stirred) to do battle against Dr. Kemp. We know that we need approximately $152million extra to match the 5.7% enrolment growth that we will be experiencing in TAFE for each of the next three years. We know also that Dr. Kemp underspent $220 million on his portfolio because of inefficiency.  The education ministers forged a slightly unusual alliance as they defied the Doctor and launched a public campaign against his underfunding of TAFE. They have stuck to their position and we look forward to further pressure.


The Federal Minister is fond of terms such as "growth through efficiency" to explain his funding cutbacks to TAFE. The same minister justifies the Enrolment Benchmark Adjustment in the schools sector on the basis of increased funding being automatically triggered by enrolment growth. He claims that this is simply fair and reasonable. However, when there is sustained enrolment growth in the TAFE sector, he dreams up the somewhat Teutonic notion of "growth through efficiency". In any event, we now seem to be getting somewhere with growth funding for TAFE and when every minister now seems to be turning their sights on the Doc, there is cause for hope, if not unbridled optimism.


Whilst all of this was happening, we were still able in our Branches and Associated Bodies to come close to the completion of another productive salary round for our members. Whilst occasionally there seems to be some slight suggestion of quietude descending on some other unions in relation to salary campaigns, public education teacher unions fight to the last decimal point for their members. In a variety of ways and by all means at our disposal, we have maintained our vigilance in terms   of the living standards of our members. We have also successfully seen off a range of attacks on our working conditions and have notably gained some improvements in conditions across the nation.


Our international work has continued apace, as it should. We have been active in East Timor, in the pacific and in international forums. We side quite deliberately with teachers and unions from the developing world and we continue to take up the issues of justice and equity on a global scale. We will need to further encourage Education International to take a more activist stance in relation to the emerging corporate intervention in global education and public systems. As we hurtle towards the globalised future, in which education is to become the largest component of the world economy, we need to strengthen our international links and understanding. We will need as part of this to urgently study some of the unfolding developments in Britain which continues to be the mother country of educational change, for good or ill. In some respects Australian politicians are yet to go beyond a colonial mind set in terms of educational ideas and inspiration.


And so we return to the dual themes of justice and equity - for our students, for children and their communities, for our members. This is indeed the business of unionism. In our states and territories, across the nation, and across the planet, we are focusing quite specifically on the two Rs of resources and redistribution. The year 2000 was the time we set oursleves to make public education matter as a vital national concern. This has been achieved.


We have focussed our priorities on public schooling, early childhood and TAFE. Each of these corresponds to period of life and passages of opportunity. our early childhood focus has the goal of providing access to all pre-school children to a public pre-school with qualified teachers who will provide a springboard for success in school years. In the compulsory years of schooling we, as in all sectors of public education, welcome all children from the battlers to the brilliant. We will teach them values but we will spare them the dogma. We hope all of our students leave our schools knowing that they are not to take a subordinate role in life or society and we aim to equip them with the skills to ensure that this is so.  In TAFE we now have over 1.6 million Australians from all ages and backgrounds using TAFE to skill and re-skill themselves to survive and prosper in a world of rapid change.


As teachers and unionists, we share a common view of opening life up for all of our young. We need as teachers and unionists as well to confront those reactionary or timid forces who would prevent us carrying out these tasks.


As Cassius describes this condition to the overly cautious Brutus:


"The fault, Dear Brutus, is not in our stars,

But in ourselves, that we are underlings.."


Most of all, we work in the knowledge that the meek will not inherit this earth. We will not be underlings, nor will we allow our students to become underlings in their lives. We are not about creating or reinforcing inequality, rather we seek to identify it and eradicate it.


Let us continue this work.



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Last modified:Monday, 25 April 2005