Labor is entitled to more than a little schadenfreude at the sight of a Coalition government defending its “Gonski 2.0” funding arrangements against complaints from Catholic education systems. Catholic groups should not try to “bully” the government into a special deal to increase funding and loosen allocation requirements, Education Minister Simon Birmingham said yesterday. Coming from the side of politics that reflexively accused Labor of having a “private school hit list” election after election, that’s rich indeed; that the Coalition once fought Labor moves to increase transparency and accountability for Commonwealth funding to private schools makes it all the richer.

The complaints from Catholic educators are also rich — about as rich as the Catholic schools that have been showered with taxpayer money in recent years. Between 1999 and 2007, Commonwealth funding for non-government schools rose by 111% in cash terms, while Commonwealth funding for government schools rose 61% in cash terms — reflecting the Howard government’s fantasy of an Aspirational Australia in which families would be subsidised by taxpayers to use private schools and private health insurance, buy privatised government business shares and be subsidised by taxpayers to invest in property.

That funding disparity didn’t go away under Labor. From 2008 to 2013, Commonwealth funding for government schools rose 7% in cash terms while non-government school funding rose 24%.

But Catholic schools are complaining that Catholic school funding will, under the government’s proposed funding increases, grow in cash terms by 53.5% over 2017-27 compared to 94% for government schools. The difference won’t even go close to denting the $27 billion extra that private schools received under Howard, Rudd and Gillard over government schools, of which Catholic schools received around half.

And as Birmingham correctly noted, Catholic educators were quite happy with the extra funding the government announced in the 2016 budget, intended to get Gonski off the government’s back for the election. This week’s announcement is yet more funding on top of the extra 2016 funding, but is now drawing criticism.

This is, then, hardly a repeat of the great state aid debate of the 1950s and 1960s. That debate was won nearly two generations ago by the Catholic Church and the Liberal Party. Instead, it’s something much more contemporary — the fury of rent-seekers who are already doing very well from government subsidies complaining that their increased subsidy is not going up as quickly as funding for a competing sector — despite enjoying a massive advantage for a decade and a half.

Tony Abbott, ever-eager for an issue on which to undermine Malcolm Turnbull, thinks differently, and is already invoking Menzies as he demands a “fair go for low-fee private schools” and foreshadows party room hostility. But so far he appears to be conducting a lone crusade. And with immaculate timing, the ABC happened upon an internal Catholic schools report from New South Wales that suggested students in the most disadvantaged diocese in the far west of the state have been disadvantaged by funding allocation to other dioceses.

This is the central issue of the whole schools funding debate — targeting funding at disadvantaged students to improve their performance. That’s the basis of the Gonski funding model from 2012: every student gets a set level of funding, but that is weighted to address disadvantage. The Catholic Church’s argument that it should control the allocation of funding, and it should not have to account for that allocation in the same way as government schools, vanishes if it is disadvantaging its own poorer students. Abbott will not so much be defending his alma mater, the luxuriantly appointed Catholic institution of Riverview, as he will a nontransparent and unfair Catholic education system, demanding even more of a no-strings-attached funding increase than it’s already getting.

Still, Abbott is a master of turning the thinnest, least plausible of arguments against sound, well-supported policy into a highly effective negative campaign.