THEY are polar opposites on the political spectrum but on Friday, former Prime Minister John Howard and local Catholic parish priest Fr Dermid McDermott sat down for a chat.
The ex PM was in town with a production company filming for a twopart ABC documentary based on his book, ‘The Menzies Era: The Years that Shaped Modern Australia.’
In a quiet back room of the presbytery, over a friendly cup of tea, Mr Howard interviewed Fr McDermott about his recollections of the famous Catholic school strike in July, 1962.
Fr McDermott’s father, Ernie, a dyed in the wool Labor man who stood at the 1965 state election, was Goulburn mayor at the time.
The council had ordered Our Lady of Mercy Preparatory School in Bourke St to replace an aged and inadequate toilet block. But without the funds, the Church, parents and the wider community waged a memorable campaign for State Aid to Catholic Schools.
Parents pulled their children out of local Catholic Schools and sent them to public ones for a week.
The debate, which gained national attention, shocked government into action It didn’t pay for the toilet block but in 1963, Prime Minister Robert Menzies ordered funding for all science labs in Catholic Schools and soon, funding flowed for Catholic and Independent schools.
“Most people agree it (the strike) was the beginning of change in government and community attitudes,” Mr Howard said.
“The year after, Menzies approved state aid so it was quite an important event.
“…I asked Fr McDermott his recollections because his father was very involved in the Labor Party. He remembers the time because he was at university then and we talked about the impact on the town and the Labor Party.”
Mr Howard described the exchange as “an interesting meeting of minds.”
He also interviewed Mary Queen of Apostles parish committee member and former St Joseph’s Primary School student, Trish Groves.
She recalled that day of upheaval in July, 1962 when students trotted across the road to Goulburn North Public School as part of the strike action.
Most memorable of all was a slap in the face she received from a North student who told her bluntly: “I don’t like Catholics.” “When you’re in fourth class, it’s difficult to have anything other than childlike memories,” she said.
“The outcome is something you reflect back on in a different light and that’s the essence of what they captured today.”
The former teacher noted that today, non-Catholics made up 40 per cent of enrolments in Catholic schools. There was no longer a divide and “that’s the way it should be.”
Mrs Groves has fought hard over the years to save that famous toilet block from demolition.
“It might be just eight little toilets but it shows that from little things, big things come,” she said.
“Over the years, billions have been pumped into Catholic and Independent Schools as a result. That block won’t be going anywhere.”
Mrs Groves said Mr Howard had a very calming effect during the interview and showed deep knowledge of the subject.
‘The Menzies Era’ was published by HarperCollins in 2014, following almost two years of research and writing.
Mr Howard, a lover of Australian history, said he was drawn to Menzies as the country’s longest serving Prime Minister.
“He was PM at time when Australia changed into the modern country it is now,” he said. “There was huge change between 1949 and the 1960s; home ownership exploded, people bought more cars, television was introduced and there were enormous development projects. “Menzies was remarkably successful. He won seven elections, three more than any other Prime Minister.”
Mr Howard also interviewed politicians, commentators and notables such as his old school friend, Clive James, and Barry Humphries.
The crew also filmed inside Sts Peter and Paul’s Cathedral and at a district property.
The State Aid debate is just one segment. The documentary, split across two one-hour episodes, will air on ABC television in February.
This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.