President dashes minister’s attack

Teachers, as a grouping, generally like to follow the rules. They like to know the boundaries, they like their students to follow the rules (sometimes with more or less success) but if the rules are wrong they have a duty, a professional obligation, to speak out — sometimes as individuals, sometimes as a collective voice. The collective is always more powerful.

There can sometimes be a clash between teachers’ “duty” and the need, obligation or responsibility to speak out against government policy, especially when they believe it will affect the learning conditions of their students or their own working conditions.

Sometimes this puts them in direct conflict with the regulations and statutes that define their work.

Sometimes it needs someone to speak for the greater good and not be timid.

At the time of Federation’s formation, teachers were still bureaucratically bound and disciplined servants of the state; their individual status precisely defined by statute and numerous strata determined by a restrictive classification and efficiency award. This is best summed up by the formulaic response that closed all official correspondence: “had the honour to be, Sir, your obedient servant”.

Teachers had to be careful about engaging in public controversies or expressing their views on educational conditions, including their working conditions. “They could be called on to explain, and be reprimanded if officialdom or the Minister considered that their actions had overstepped the restricted bounds of official rectitude,” as former General Secretary Matt Kennett wrote in The Teachers’ Challenge – Professional Standards and Public Service.

Teachers had been wary of the Public Service Act, the Public Service Board and its punitive regulations since its introduction in 1895. One of the board’s first actions was to reduce the salaries of higher-paid teachers, which seemed to drive a widening of teachers’ scope of activities including the discussion of salaries.

However, the ghosts of the previous era still haunted them; any criticism might represent “disloyalty” to the minister and government.

Teacher organisations of the day were of the convention that salaries were not to be discussed, and public comment on the system of education was simply not permitted. This was reflected in the President’s address to the 1898 Conference of the NSW Public School Teachers’ Association: “We are not met here today to discuss matters pertaining to our financial condition as teachers; nor have we assembled with any desire to criticise the administration of the Department; but for the sole purpose of respectfully making suggestions, which we conscientiously believe if adopted, tend to an improvement in methods and application of the standards of instructions … We vigorously repudiate the suspicion that any element of disloyalty suggested by the holding of the Conference.” (Samuel Bent, President as reported in The NSW Educational Gazette, May 1898)

Teachers’ sensitivities lay in the regulation that all public servants were “instructed that except in the course of official duty, no information concerning public business shall be given directly or indirectly, by any officer”.

Further, “in order that officers of all ranks may be enabled to render loyal and efficient service to Government, they are expressly forbidden to take any active part in political affairs otherwise than by recording their votes for the election of Members of Parliament”.

These guidelines were reflected and carried through to the creation of the Teaching Services Regulations in 1970 and the present Code of Conduct. It wasn’t until the formation of Federation as a registered trade union that teachers gained some form of collective voice against government and ministers of the day.

Ebenezer Dash

Ebenezer Dash was a significant influence not only in the formation of the Teachers Federation and its structures but also in speaking out against government policy contrary to the interests of the profession. Dash (Headmasters Association) was defeated in the election for Federation’s first President by Mr A.G. Gilchrist (Assistant Teachers) 36 votes to 26, but by 1920 was elected President.

Two years later, in one of the most significant events of Federation’s early years, the minister of the day threatened Dash with disloyalty and possible breaches of Regulation 21 (that an officer “shall not publicly comment upon the administration of any department of the State”).Dash had made public comments critical of the reintroduction of secondary school fees by the incoming National Party government.

The comments were made as President of Federation but Dash was still a teacher on leave without pay from the Department.

Dash had made statements after a Council decision rejected the reintroduction of secondary school fees as follows:

  • The scheme is a retrograde step.
  • It raises unnecessary class distinction in the schools.
  • It inflicts a heavy burden on the parent in the country whose children must of necessity reside away from home.
  • The small financial gain is not worth the abandonment of a democratic principle.
  • The Qualifying Certificate (QC) will become the Leaving Certificate and the pupils will be driven into dead-end occupation since apprenticeship does not commence till 16.

The minister, “Briggy” Bruntnell (a former Brigadier of the Salvation Army), sent the following to the President:

“I noted with no small degree of surprise and regret that you, personally, and the Teachers Federation under your presidency, have seen fit to publicly criticise one of the administrative acts of the Minister … without first representing your views to the official head of your Department … is extremely discourteous to me and unworthy of the high traditions of the Public Service of the State … Whether you and your Federation criticised Cabinet action in the matter of High School Fees are, or are not guilty of a breach of Regulation 21 of the Public Service Act is a concern of the Board.”

Further, in the correspondence the Minister basically says he will refuse to meet with the union as it is a political organisation opposed to the government.

Dash made the correspondence the principal item in his presidential report to the next meeting of Federation Council.

“You will notice that the letter attacks me personally and the Federation generally. Serious as the accusation/charges are against me personally, they are more serious to the Federation. They strike at its very existence! If the Minister’s dictum is to be accepted, then we are plunged back again into the period when any officer who dared open his/her mouth to protest, or to join a teachers’ organisation, was marked for departmental displeasure and victimisation … To teachers organisations has been granted the right to criticise any proposal concerning education in the state. They have used the right freely, their criticisms have been constructive, and the administrative officers of the Department, knowing this, have over and over again called for consultation before launching a new scheme.

“What Alternative is offered? Practically this: You must not express an opinion until the Minister has censored your discussion, and you must put forward nothing that does not meet with official approval. Your meetings and your annual conference must be held in secret. You must submit your agenda papers for censorship, you must not warn the public, whose servants you are, of dangers that are threatening.

“If you are satisfied to do this! Then go further and inscribe on your collars the old inscription ‘Gurth thrall to Cedric’ [be a slave to a pig farmer].”

Dash’s forthright statement was warmly applauded and supported by teachers, who were anxious to see that the free education principles of the Public Instruction Act drawn up by Henry Parkes were maintained.

It was because of this support and public opposition to the policy, no further action was taken against Dash as an individual. The collective will of teachers was prosecuted, and the right of Federation and its officers to express their views publicly on matters of educational and industrial importance was thus more firmly established.

Director General Peter Board retired during this incident and said of the policy at his retirement function provided by Federation: “We are not in danger of becoming an uneducated people, but we are in danger of becoming a half-educated people.”

In his writings, Dr H.V. Evatt said “the reimposition of high school fees in the early ’20s was a political blunder which largely caused the Fuller Government’s defeat at the next election”. The succeeding government abolished the policy immediately on gaining power.

While Dash’s potential charges targeted his role as President and on matters directly relating to education issues, the other significant event relates to political activity in a private capacity and a significant woman in Federation’s history, Beatrice Taylor.

John Dixon, General Secretary