2001 Commemorative Dinner Speech

Priority Public: The Supreme Legacy of Henry Parkes

An address commemorating the 186th Birthday of Henry Parkes and his first entry into Parliament,
delivered by Susan Ryan AO,
25th May 2001, in the Strangers’ Dining Room of the NSW Parliament.

The timing of this event to recognise the work of Henry Parkes could not be better. Today marks the 186th birthday of Parkes and his first entry into this Parliament. And there are deeper connections.

Parkes’ own story is the story of Federation. His political tenacity and driving ideal of a unified nation were crucial to the achievement of the Australian Commonwealth. His personal story, an unsettled childhood of struggle and deprivation, no formal education, emigration from Birmingham via London to Sydney to face more years of poverty and defeat before emerging as a leading political figure, epitomises what the new colonies could offer the immigrants.

That Parkes, without money or connections, responsible for a large family and many failed business ventures could become Premier of NSW five times is a reminder of the openness of the new social environment that was created here. It was the result of a mixture of necessity and idealism.

In contrast to the England of the industrial revolution, where class, religion and geography were all grounds for discrimination against the mass of people, the colony of NSW, in order to survive and prosper needed to reward ability, pragmatism and energy from wherever it emerged.

Hence Henry Parkes became a Father of Federation, and the designer of this state’s great public education system. His achievement in education, for which we honour his memory tonight, was not inevitable. Things could have worked out differently, and worse.

Before Henry Parkes had become a person of power and influence in NSW, class, race and religious prejudice had already taken root in the colony. The few established denominational schools reflected these old world values and were supported in general by the colony’s rulers. The attractively egalitarian aspects of life that provided opportunity to Henry Parkes and his ilk had sprung up in the colonies along side of and in conflict with the old attitudes of exclusion. Egalitarian sentiment alone was not going to be sufficient to provide the building blocks for a modern democracy. For that great task more was needed.

I want to argue tonight that a strong, robust, inclusive democracy, what I term a social democracy, needs a particular foundation. That foundation has to be a public education system. Parkes believed this, and he established such a system.

It is worth contemplating the significance of this achievement, particularly now when the leaders of our community, and many members of it seem to have lost a sense of the importance of affording the highest priority to the public system.

In celebrating one hundred years as a federated nation, we find ourselves doing what is unusual for Australians, giving some thought to our nation’s history and those who shaped it. Perhaps our current focus on the events of Federation will refresh the memories of our policy makers and remind them of why a hundred years ago in education, priority was given to a public system.

In my own case, the Federation festivities have provided me with many reminders. Although always proud of Australia’s democratic traditions, I have never felt any particular pull to the events and personalities that led to the decision that the colonies would federate and form the Commonwealth of Australia. I have been surprised to find myself increasingly engaged by this collective consideration of the origins of our nation. I have started to think about not so much the federal arrangements in themselves (which I must confess caused me many frustrations when I was a Commonwealth minister), but how it was that through this rather clumsy constitutional machinery Australia became one of the first social democracies in the world, and has remained one of the most robust, inclusive and successful.

Such high praise is justified in my view by our early adoption of universal franchise, the extension to women of the right to vote and to stand for parliament, and the rapid move to the provision of universal education. The forward looking section in the Constitution, section 116, that prevented the establishment of any religion, kept church and state separate and guaranteed our secular system of government should be recognised as contributing greatly to the capacity for social harmony in the newly created democratic nation.

Of course I must qualify my congratulations to Australia. Much has been said recently about the wrong and destructive decision to exclude Aboriginal Australians from this otherwise glorious start to our national democracy. The hurt and dispossession resulting from this exclusion, backed up by decades of harsh and wrongheaded policies remain a hundred years later our most urgent moral issue. One of the first legislative acts of the new federal parliament was to exclude Chinese and other Asians on racial grounds. It has taken us nearly one hundred years to reverse fully this terrible discrimination. So we are flawed and were flawed from the start. Tonight however, in the 186th year of his birth we honour Henry Parkes, the Father of Federation. It is an occasion for celebration. One

hundred years ago flawed as we were, Australians did create a society characterised by an egalitarian ethos, and an effective attention to the needs of individuals and communities through a strong and well-resourced public sector. For the mass of people, Australia was the best and fairest country in the world.We can thank Henry Parkes for some of that.

My address to you tonight is called Priority Public. Many of you will recognise this as the theme adopted by a group of citizens alarmed at the decline in support for public education from governments and the community. In this election year Priority Public will campaign to remind politicians and their fellow citizens of a central principle understood, advocated and after much conflict, implemented by Henry Parkes.

The principle is this: for a democratic society to prosper, it must be built on an education system of the highest standard, open to all without fees or religious tests, accessible wherever school age children live. A public system was the right priority for the founders of our nation a hundred years ago. It is the right priority now.

A community debate around the principles of priority public, if it is to produce worthwhile results needs to engage all political parties. I am not a High Court Judge nor ever likely to be, so speak to you tonight free of the fear of Prime Ministerial rebuke. I am free to report to you how encouraged I was to read of Judge Michael Kirby’s strong, intelligent and heartfelt advocacy of public education.

The benefits to society in general of the kind of education Judge Kirby had enjoyed should be apparent to all. It seemed to me strange and worrying that his principled advocacy of this essential element of democracy was attacked as inappropriately “political”. Surely every political party knows, every leader knows that the majority of children are educated in the public system, as they have been for one hundred years. It is through the public system that standards are set, curriculum developed, teachers trained, students examined and the broader requirements of business, the professions and community met.

Public education is the theme. Other options outside the state system are variations on the theme. Some variations are more successful than others, some more supportive of democratic values than others. All alternatives depend in one way or another on the public system. For many years now they all have claimed they can survive, in the manner to which they have grown accustomed, only with massive injections of public funds.

This situation has produced the unfair and damaging outcomes of reduced opportunities for many children in public education. A reduction in support for our public schools and universities has been tolerated, even reinforced for many years by both sides of politics.

Despite the Prime Minister’s reaction, Judge Kirby’s remarks do not apply to only one side of politics. I know very well that a drop in support for public universities and schools has not been “party political”. Sad as it makes me to admit, Labor as well as Coalition governments can be faulted. Labor I believe allowed the infatuation with economic rationalism to undermine our democratic position on access to universities. Labor, temporarily I hope, put aside and our traditional view that funding access to university on the basis of a student’s intellectual capacity, not the capacity to pay, was the most important investment a government could make in the nation’s intellectual infrastructure. Labor while properly acknowledging parents’ rights, diversity and the correctness of a needs based approach to funding schools outside the public system, took its eye off the ball when the last schools funding formula was passed into law by the Federal Parliament.

In this state of NSW, while the rhetoric and indeed often the performance is good, planned closures of inner city schools are hard to reconcile with the principle of provision of equal opportunity to all through the public system. It seems however that a future Beasley government will be keen to rectify past policy faults, and here in NSW, a parliament that has just dedicated a room to the memory of Henry Parkes will surely not permit further erosion of the state’s schools.

Coalition parties appear to have much more difficulty with the principles of priority public. A stark comparison from recent budget decisions demonstrates the problem. The legacy of the Howard Government will have been to so reduce the operating grants from the Commonwealth to public universities, and to have transferred so much public funding to private schools, that the level of government funding for all of our public universities is now virtually on a par with the level of funding from the Commonwealth alone to private schools. The Commonwealth is the sole provider of public funds to universities. State governments give substantial additional funds to private schools as well as fulfilling their constitutional responsibility to provide public schools.

This is as stark a picture as I can draw of a government getting its priorities wrong. It is time to look again at what Parkes by getting education priorities right contributed to our national well being.

In acknowledging the great and enduring contribution of Henry Parkes, I don’t wish to romanticise his motives, or sanitise his attitudes. He was a man of his time and background, and like all of us, perhaps especially those of us who exercise political power, not without human flaws. He did indeed hold dear the centrality of public education to providing opportunity to all and building an enlightened society where ability and energy rather than privilege would be rewarded.

He was at the same time deeply affected, apparently to the point of paranoia, by the religious and cultural divisions that obstructed enlightened policy making in the colony well before Parkes gained political power.Anti Irish and anti Catholic sentiment prevailed in NSW and Parkes absorbed it. His over reaction to the attempted assassination, by a deranged Australian of Irish birth, of Alfred Duke of Edinburgh in 1868 at Clontarf, was not Parkes at his most statesmanlike. But given the depth of religious and cultural divisions, very real problems not of his making, it is understandable that Parkes saw a “national” or public school system as offering much more than the denominational alternative to social harmony.

As well, he was aware that a unified system would make better use of the always-scarce education funds. His principles and the frustration he felt in trying to implement policies that reflected them are well expressed in the following extract from the parliamentary debate on his 1866 Schools Bill. In introducing his Bill, Parkes declared that while more than half the children in the colony received no education at all, there were twenty-six places where two or more schools existed to serve fewer than 100 pupils. He blamed the clergy, of all denominations, for this disparity of provision.

“…if in a locality where there is only a sufficient number of children to form one good school they (the clergy) would consent to their children being educated side by side, extravagance would be avoided and the means of education would be extended to a number of other children who, while ministers of religion were cavilling over a division of the spoils, were left to moral destitution- to the gaols, and unfortunately to the gallows.”(A. W. Martin, p224)

After one hundred years, things have changed. Or have they? The outcome of the 1866 debate, as has become best practice in Australia’s policy making for a pluralist society, was a compromise, but a good one. Parkes’ biographer A. W. Martin, to whom I am indebted for my knowledge of Parkes and these events, wrote:

“In effect, the new Act deferred to the preference of many colonists for denominational schools and guaranteed continued funding for them, but under conditions designed to improve their quality, to moderate clerical control of them and prevent such multiplication of their numbers as would adversely affect the spread of public schools.”(p225)

In a later development however, in 1880, Parkes caused the repeal of the 1866 Act, and its replacement by the Public Instruction Act of 1880, which removed some of the compromise features. Control of the education system was transferred from the Council of Education to a new Ministry of Public instruction; state aid to denominational schools was ended. Education for children between the ages of six and fourteen made compulsory.That last measure is surely one of the earliest commitments anywhere to universal education.

State Aid to the private schools did come back of the agenda. The policy of funding these schools according to need, introduced by the Whitlam Government and further developed and stabilised by the Hawke Government while I was the responsible minister was and remains the correct policy for our pluralist democracy. Needs based funding of private schools does not undermine the policy of according the top priority to public education.

I conclude by congratulating the Henry Parkes Foundation for their excellent current work in education, and express the hope that at this time, auspicious because it is both our celebration of Henry Parkes’ work, and a centenary of Federation, we may see a renewed commitment throughout our community to the principle of public education as the foundation of our Australian democracy.

Susan Ryan AO 25 MAY 2001

References: Henry Parkes a biography, A.W.Martin, MUP 1980