Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young.

Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young

Veteran Labor Senator Jacinta Collins doesn’t like to be defined by her Catholicism.

She told The Australian in 2013 that the image of her as a Catholic crusader — the Tony Abbott of Labor — is a myth, but she is opposed to abortion, and has voted strongly against IVF rights for same-sex parents. Collins is also one of the last hold-outs in Labor to remain opposed to same-sex marriage and faces being forced into a binding vote on the matter after the next election. While she doesn’t like the label of the Catholic crusader, the former Shoppies union official found herself defending the Catholic school sector against both government senators and the Greens over the government’s proposed changes to schools funding.

As part of the changes, Catholic schools get an extra $1.2 billion over four years, but the schools are still crying poor, claiming it will result in a reduction in funding going to those schools. 

The federal government allocates the funding to each school based on need, but then pays a lump sum for the whole state or territory to that state’s Catholic education commission. It has been reported that the commissions are then short-changing some schools in lower socio-economic areas while boosting funding for schools in higher socio-economic areas. In front of the Senate committee yesterday, the commissions defended this approach by saying they had their own needs-based formula, and that socio-economic measurement didn’t take into account other factors like catering for special needs students, students on government healthcare cards, and offering VET courses, which require higher funding.

The debate over funding for Catholic schools has placed each of the three major parties in positions that are seemingly at odds with their previous party stances. The Coalition is fighting back against the Catholic school sector, Labor is stepping in for the sector, and the Greens — at times — appeared to be supporting the government’s policy approach. 

[Catholic educators’ bitterness over Gonski 2.0 is rich indeed]

Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young accused the commissions of “funneling” funding from poor to rich schools, and that ideally money would go to public schools and those in most need. When Hanson-Young targeted funding being taken away from one specific school, Collins repeatedly questioned Hanson-Young as to what data she was relying on. Hanson-Young then accused Collins of trying to step in and cover for the Catholic schools sector:  “I know you want to run a protection racket for the Catholics, Jacinta, but really we all have a right to get transparency.”

“Why am I running a protection racket?” Collins replied, saying it was “simply wrong” and her own children attended school in every education sector. Hanson-Young withdrew the comment. Later when Hanson-Young questioned why leaflets distributed by Catholic schools on the funding changes prioritised evangelism above education, and suggested public funding shouldn’t go to promoting religion, Collins loudly exclaimed “oh dear”.

Nationals Senator Bridget McKenzie — who was chairing the committee — also tweeted during the hearing that Collins was running a protection racket for private schools but also withdrew this comment. To woo the Coalition, Catholic schools focused on the idea of their form of education being about “parental choice” but didn’t find much sympathy from McKenzie, particularly for the Catholic sector in the ACT crying poor over its funding compared to those in regional Australia.

“I’d be fascinated with the needs-based system in the ACT,” McKenzie said during the committee hearing. “What is the socio-economic status of people in the ACT when I compare them to people in Ouyen, people in Donald, people in Bunbury, etc?”

The hearing points to a deeply damaged relationship between the government and the Catholic schools sector, and that is something Labor is looking to seize upon in its opposition to the so-called Gonski 2.0 funding plan.

“You keep relying on a model that is flawed,” Stephen Elder, executive director of Catholic Education Commission Victoria said to McKenzie. “So if the model is flawed, then you have to say this is bad public policy.”

 “Mr Elder, thanks for your commentary, and you can hold a press conference after this hearing and go hammer and tong,” McKenzie replied.

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Peter Fray
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