By Brian Morris
Australia is creating a new socio-religious divide — inadvertently, or perhaps intentionally — based squarely on education. And it is reflected in the growing imbalance between an increasingly secular public and what can be described as an endemic piety that percolates through parliaments, the bureaucracy and judiciary.
After more than a century the education system has regressed from a uniform and nationally accepted principle — of being “Free, Compulsory and Secular” — to a divisive two-tier system. While public schools labour under funding cuts a burgeoning private system has flourished, with generous governments grants.
With high fees that exclude many bright students, private religious schools have become elite enclaves for the affluent. They cocoon a privileged demographic that creates an economic, cultural and Christian divide. It defies the original egalitarian principles of education that were already in place at the time of Federation.
This recent Christianisation of education — mainly in private schools — has a political connotation. It serves the interests on both churches and conservative politicians to perpetuate a mutually beneficial alliance.
This close relationship between religious schools, neo-liberalism and a more Christianised parliament has been evident for decades. But before focusing on more detailed educational aspects — and how that manifests in wider society — we should first consider the conservative political environment.
Neo-liberalism, private schools and religion are inseparable.
God in politics: As a perceived ‘moderate’, Malcolm Turnbull continues an extended line of Prime Ministers who appeal to God. After the Paris massacre he declared the terrorists “godless” — though they were not atheists, they were fanatical followers of Radical Islam. He pleaded for “God’s love” after the Orlando massacre, and he follows a long line of leaders and dignitaries who regularly “call for prayers” after any disaster. This appeal to the supernatural is not seen in the progressive secular countries of Europe.
These are the organisations that support Turnbull’s government — the Australian Christian Lobby and a phalanx of similar lobbyists, it’s Bob Day and the Family First Party and a full sweep of charismatic churches with views akin to Sheikh Alsuleiman.
Tasmania’s Family First candidate, Peter Madden, made brazen comments connecting Orlando with same-sex marriage. And we can expect more of the same when angry Christians begin to vilify gays, once the upcoming $160 million plebiscite gets into full swing — should a Turnbull government be returned in July.
Since Orlando the internet is once again alive with Christians raving about “God’s punishment of gays.” Governments have for decades remained silent on this bigotry — due primarily to the symbiotic relationship between Churches and politics. As such, Australia can literally be termed a “Soft Christian Theocracy”.
But none of this is new; although it’s become pernicious since John Howard’s term.
It was Professor Marion Maddox who first blew the whistle with her scathing book “God under Howard; the Rise of the Religious Right in Australian Politics.” We have become more ambivalent to the Christianisation of parliament while the population is becoming more secular. It’s a yawning gap between our anachronistic political establishment and a progressive general public.
Parliamentary Christianity is on the rise, exposing the religiosity of a string of Liberals that brandish their faith — Cory Bernadari, Scott Morrison (point 9), George Brandis, Eric Abetz, Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull states, “Love for humanity is when we are closest to God.” The judiciary, too, appeal to God for guidance in their perennial Red Mass.
There is no place for public appeals to God at any level of public office!
It is a mindset that blocks parliamentary process on a raft of contemporary social policy. It’s not just marriage equality; it’s voluntary euthanasia, abortion rights, contraception, prayers in parliament, religious exemptions from anti-discrimination laws, mandatory reporting of child abuse, and tax exemptions for all religious organisations that top $20 billion per year. The list is endless when including religion in schools.
And mainstream media tends to ignore this broad disparity between citizens and an overtly Christianised government — particularly on education policy. It includes religious instruction, another $248 million for chaplains in public schools, and the $11 billion for private religious schools that enroll almost 40 per cent of Australian children. And there’s no concern for the dozen of church schools still teaching creationism!
Next, we explore why this trend continues but the blunt question is how all this can occur in a secular country. No other secular nations have these extreme examples of government-endorsed religiosity and church sanctification.
And it’s all paid by the public that is religion-neutral.
In April the Rationalist Society of Australia commissioned a national poll on religiosity in Australian. A total of 45 per cent said they had “No Religion”, a substantial increase on the 22 per cent from the 2011 Census. And from the upcoming Census in August that tally is predicted to increase closer to 50 per cent.
“Cultural Christians” are not included in this figure. They are people who no longer have a commitment to the religion of their childhood but who “traditionally” continue to mark the “Christian” box — through sheer force of habit. Collectively, the religion-neutral count is now a minimum two-thirds of the population!
It is unequivocal, from historical evidence researched by Professor Helen Irving, that the writers of Australia’s constitution made it abundantly clear that the nation was deemed to be secular. It remains a tragedy that Section 116, the only part relating to religion, was so poorly drafted. Failure to enforce its intent has allowed religion to embed itself firmly into politics, education and general society.
There have been few instances in the recent past where the High Court has had to deal with arguments concerning the meaning of each of the four clauses of s.116. The 1981 challenge to federal funding of religious schools (Defense of Government Schools) was lost 1-6 as the Court majority refused to interpret the first establishment clause as meaning “separation of church and state.”
Two of the judges came right out and said that s.116 did not mean separation. The Chief Justice, Sir Garfield Barwick, endorsed one of them. But the High Court can change its mind. The challenge now is to mount a new case that can prise open the establishment clause and recover the secular intention behind it.
That would make the federal funding of religious schools, the Chaplaincy Program, and teaching religion in public schools unconstitutional. It would end prayers in parliament and a broad sweep of other situations where religion imposes itself — uninvited — into the public space of a constitutionally secular Australia.
But EDUCATION has once again become the Achilles Heel . . . !
We thought the debate was settled almost 150 years ago! The on-going feud between Anglicans and Catholics — dating from King Henry’s split with Rome — was imported along with British colonisation. Inevitably it spilled over into the early schooling of children, requiring strict segregation of the religions.
Finally, by 1870, the churches in each colony believed the struggling and fledgling country would advance more effectively if all education became “free, compulsory and secular”.
Churches and governments came to the conclusion that segregated religious schools were “damaging” social cohesion by “dividing children on religious lines, and limiting access to good education to only those who could afford to pay”.
Prophetic words from the early colonists — just as relevant today.
That quote, and a wealth of research on the schools crisis today comes from “Taking God to School: The end of Australia’s egalitarian education”, the book published in 2014 by Professor Marion Maddox.
Maddox is a Christian but like the early colonists she believes religion in education is damaging secular equilibrium and creating a social divide.
“Free, Compulsory and Secular” education lasted for almost 100 years, until Prime Minister Robert Menzies reintroduced Commonwealth funding for Catholic schools in the 1960s. In the 60 years since then the economic disparity between state schools and private religious schools has widened to a point where public education is in crisis.
Since John Howard’s tenure as Prime Minister federal funding of private religious schools has exploded to the point where almost 40 per cent of children have a private religious education, an OECD high.
Most of the public system remains on a par with the private sector — scholastically — as it has first rate teachers and good resources to provide a first class education. But some areas in each state have become impoverished due to effective funding cuts, and successive governments favouring religious schools.
A recent Sydney Morning Herald leader says it all; “Private schools get more from the government than public schools, and that’s seriously wrong.” By 2020 Catholic schools will receive more funding than the entire public education system. According to the SMH, government funding for Catholic schools in 2016 exceeds $11 billion — which doesn’t include parents’ fees, other revenue and corporate sponsorship.
The original Gonski Review, and its 41 recommendations, was a landmark program to eliminate the funding disadvantage in public education. But the axing of on-going Gonski funding — first established under Labor — indicates this government’s political motive (as with Howard to Abbott) to fully privatise education.
A clear warning came with Turnbull’s pre-election policy when he stated his plan to off-load public schools to the states, and for the commonwealth only to fund the expansion of private religious schools.
So, what are the long-term implications?
If public education is degraded, fewer public school students will qualify for the prime university degrees. Over time the corporate sector, politics, the bureaucracy, judiciary and media will be the exclusive preserve of affluence and privileged graduates, educated initially in a dominant private religious school system.
That trend was already evident in the 1980s . . .
During that period a neo-liberal shift brought structural changes in government bureaucracy and policy. Senior bureaucrats increasingly came from university, via elite private schools funded by wealthy parents, and straight into the prime departments of Treasury and Finance, which formed the new economic model.
In his revealing book, “Economic Rationalism in Canberra“, sociologist Michael Pusey exposed in 1991 a bureaucracy of young conservatives with private school backgrounds that predisposed them to see government policy solutions in terms of more deregulation, more privitisation, smaller government, and less welfare spending. The neo-liberal agenda.
Twenty five years on there is a far greater ratio of students in private religious schools who then move on to university, taking the majority of prime high-cost degrees. No longer is it merely the bureaucracy that reflects the profile of more affluent and privileged graduates. That profile now extends to the corporate sector, the political mainstream, the judiciary, the media and every level within the establishment.
Public education provides a unique benefit unmatched by religious schools. Beyond the Gonski Review we have many authorative research projects to verify the immeasurable advantages of public education. Most recently is the review by Professor Alan Reid in “Building our nation through Public Education“.
The critical features of his research attest to the primacy of public school education. Not only does it have an overall delivery of quality, it provides essential links to the local community, an ethic of collaboration, innovation, diversity and cohesion, and the fundamental principles of democracy and — most importantly — of equality among the diverse cultures of students. Vital elements for a cohesive society.
But this will be lost, together with dire social consequences, if public education is not funded to the full extent given to the private school system.
With sound reasoning and critical appraisal we need to recognise three key factors — from the points already outline here — if we are to avert a deeply troubling and most serious division in society.
One: That Australian politics has become increasingly Christianised, with an established policy agenda that favours private religious schools over public education. This political agenda needs to be reversed.
Two: That further expansion of the private school system and monopolisation of university places creates a “graduate class” that is increasingly affluent, and taking prime senior positions in organisations that shape Australia’s future. It creates a decline in publicly educated graduates with traits that emphasise not only academic achievement but also the advantages of diversity, community grounding and social inclusiveness.
Three: That a largely mono-dimensional private school elite in a majority of influential management and executive positions is ultimately damaging to the structural fabric of society. It tends to breed a corrosive “us and them” dynamic within the populace which underpins the type of conflict experienced in Britain.
While it’s too easy to ridicule such a thesis there are examples throughout history where mono-dimensional societies either stagnate or degenerate into division and disharmony.
As Marion Maddox graphically explains in “Taking God to School” — we risk losing the bedrock ingredient of a just and egalitarian society if we abandon the unique benefits of public education. But that will require an essential injection of funds and resources, whether through Gonski or a similar model.
A God-fearing parliament and a secular public is evidence of a “Soft Christian Theocracy”. It denotes a government that is guided more by the influence of churches and supernatural beliefs than by rational and secular principles. It leads ultimately to an education system that is based — however loosely — on elitism.
The final question is why there is a media taboo on openly discussing this crucial question of religion in politics and education. Honesty and transparency are the first requirements for a healthy society.
We are a nation that was deemed secular from the time of Federation — and we are a population that is majority religion-neutral. To advance successfully, further into the 21st century, we need a parliament, bureaucracy and media to support public education that is once again “Free, Compulsory and Secular.”
It’s time to de-fund private religious schools and back public education — to the hilt!
About Brian Morris: World travel shaped Brian’s interest in social justice — wealth, poverty and religion in many countries. His book Sacred to Secular is critically acclaimed, including from the Richard Dawkins Foundation. It’s an analysis of Christianity, its origins and the harm it does. It’s a call for Australia to become fully secular. More information about Brian can be found on his website, Plain Reason.
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