Catholic Education Commission of Victoria executive director Stephen Elder

One of the many facets of the long-running and increasingly messy fight in Parliament this week over the issue of school funding has been that, like the banks and mining companies before them, the Catholic school sector has sent in former politicians to make the case that their schools are hard done by in the so-called Gonski 2.0 legislation.

The government this week is attempting to secure passage of its “Gonski 2.0” legislation for schools funding. Labor is opposed to the legislation on the grounds that it is substantially less than what the ALP had promised under the original Gonski model, in particular for the Catholic schools sector. While the government attempts to get crossbench support, the Catholic schools have been lobbying hard both in Parliament and in the media to get more funding than that currently on the table.

The most prominent is, naturally, the National Catholic Education Commission (NCEC). This is an organisation headed up by former Labor MP for Macmillan Christian Zahra. Zahra spent his entire time in Parliament in opposition during John Howard’s tenure and left Parliament in 2004, when he lost his seat to Liberal MP Russell Broadbent. According to his speeches during his time in public office, Zahra has been consistent in his support for both public and private schooling.

Zahra was relatively young when he left Parliament and took on several directorships in the intervening years, most recently leading the indigenous social enterprise organisation Wunan Foundation.

In May this year, Zahra became the executive director of NCEC, taking up his post just a fortnight after the government announced the Gonski 2.0 funding proposal. Given his previous political career, his positioning seems less about getting the government to change its mind and more about shoring up Labor’s opposition, as well as fronting the media to make the case as to why the Catholic schools would lose out under Gonski 2.0. In announcing his appointment last month, Archbishop Timothy Costelloe, the chairman of the Bishops Commission for Catholic Education, said that Zahra would “speak clearly and passionately on behalf of Catholic school students, teachers and families”.

The other prominent spokesperson for the Catholic schools sector is Stephen Elder. Elder is the executive director of the Catholic Education Office in Victoria. Elder was a state Liberal MP until 1999, but unlike Zahra, he has been involved in the Catholic education sector since departing politics. This is possibly why Elder’s role has been more to front the parliamentary inquiry into the matter, but judging on the reaction he received from Coalition chair Bridget McKenzie, having a former Liberal MP in the position to lobby the government on behalf of the Catholic sector might not be that effective:

Elder: You are relying on a measure that it is flawed, so you keep pushing a public policy which everyone understands when they are talking about — whether it be the Grattan Institute, Gonski or Associate Professor Farish. If the model is flawed, you have to say, ‘This is bad public policy.’ You cannot say, ‘We’re going to give this amount to this school’ when–

McKenzie: Mr Elder, thank you for your commentary. You can hold a press conference after this hearing and go hammer and tongs — absolutely defend your right to do that — but here I am asking the questions.

Elder has a history of lobbying outside of the education sector, as well. In 2014 he lobbied then-minister Kevin Andrews to get rid of the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (which the government did not scrap). Now dumped from the ministry, Andrews has been one of the most vocal opponents on the backbench against the Gonski 2.0 funding arrangement for Catholic schools.

On the same side, but from a different perspective, the education unions are lobbying the Greens to block or delay the legislation as the government attempts to cut some deal with the minor parties in order to secure the funding agreement.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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