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  • A Pivotal Moment – The Goulburn Strike

    July 2012 marks the 50th anniversary of one of the most pivotal points in the story of Catholic education in Australia. Indeed, it can be said to mark one of the pivotal points in the story of the Church in Australia  and to the history of Australia generally

    The Catholic school had always been considered to be one of the major works of the church in this country. Until the 1860s, Catholic schools co-existed relatively peacefully with other schools and systems throughout the land. In 1867 though, colonial governments throughout Australia began to enact legislation that made school education free, compulsory and secular.

    The Catholic Bishops of Australia found that to be entirely unacceptable. They took the courageous decision to conduct Catholic schools without government financial support. It was, indeed, a brave move and one for which we in Australia need to be thankful. And not only is it Catholics who need to be thankful. It is very clear that Catholic schools have added enormously to the richness of the fabric of our society.

    Those schools, however, needed resources to run them and those resources came, not in money terms but from the generosity of the men and women of the religious congregations. These great people came, not only from Australian families, but from far away overseas, particularly from Ireland and from France.

    For the best part of a century, Catholic schools prospered and grew thanks to parish priests who had the passion and commitment necessary, to the nuns, brothers and priests who staffed them and to parents who made such enormous sacrifices to pay the fees that were necessary. But it grew increasingly difficult as costs continued to rise and enrolments continued to burgeon. Those enrolments became quite unmanageable after WW2, with the baby boom and the influx of many migrants, mostly Catholic, from Europe.

    There was a growing sense of injustice, too, among Catholic people. They became more intensely aware of the fact that they were paying taxes, some of which was supporting public schools, while having to pay fees to support their own freedom of choice and freedom of conscience. And they were receiving no government support to match what they were contributing to the public system.

    Over those years, the cry for “State aid for Catholic schools” grew ever stronger. Tensions around it were heightened by the fundamentally sectarian nature of society that prevailed at the time.

    The Labour Party of the time was not interested in changing policy, as they believed they had the Catholic vote already guaranteed. The conservative side of politics were much more closely aligned with the Anglican/Protestant tradition, so they too had little interest in responding to the cry. It continued to grow, to fester and to become more urgent.

    Then, in July 1962, it came to a head. Some six years earlier (in 1957) the principal of Our Lady of Mercy Primary school in Goulburn, New South Wales, had been advised that the school would not continue to be registered unless additional toilet facilities were made available. The school, and the Bishop, argued that there was simply no money to comply with the government’s requirements.

    On 9 July, 2962, a public meeting of Catholics of the town was called. Over 700 people attended and passed a motion that saw all the Catholic schools in the town closed! The “Goulburn strike” had begun.

    On 13 July, approximately 700 primary school children went, not to their parish primary school as usual, but to the local public schools demanding enrolment. Only about 420 could be accommodated. Another 650 Catholic secondary school students turned up at the local high schools. Just over 200 could be accommodated. Very clearly this was a major challenge to government policy. It really stirred things up.

    The publicity throughout the town, as might be expected, was enormous. But not only in Goulburn was it thus, but in fact in all of New South Wales, and indeed, all of Australia.

    The strike lasted a week before the Catholic schools were re-opened but the point had been well and truly made. Governments realised that “State aid” was an issue they could no longer afford to ignore. From that time, gradually at first, government money began to flow, as justice demanded it should, to Catholic schools (and other non-government schools).

    We need to be thankful to these pioneers who confronted the government over this issue of justice. Catholic schools in this country are a wonderful institution that must be valued by all Australians. We must continue the fight to ensure justice. And we can celebrate a risky, brave and radical action 50 years ago this month that saw such a momentous change in the way education in Australia was structured.

    (This article has used information from “Catholics in Australia – Volume 2” by Naomi Turner, Collins Dove, Melbourne, 1992)