DENIS Fitzgerald apologised for not turning off the mobile phone that had rung several times
during our lunch. The national president of the Australian Education Union had put the cat among the pigeons by criticising the opposition Labor party's lack of support for government schools, and journalists wanted to talk to him. It may not be common for a union to criticise policies of a left-leaning political party, but it underlines the AEU's depth of feeling about the treatment of government school systems in Australia's states and territories.
The nation's private sector educates a much higher proportion of students than in Britain - just over 30 per cent of the 3.2 million school pupils. The vast majority of private schools are Catholic. However, Fitzgerald says that the right-wing Liberal government provides about 85 per cent of these schools' running costs. "Just about all private schools are subsidised; even the very, very wealthy schools such as Scotch College in Melbourne, that charge A$12,000 (pound;4,740) a year, are still getting public funds," he says.
Part of Mr Fitzgerald's antipathy to funding church-run schools is his belief that a secular public education system has been one of the keys to the success of multicultural Australia. "It provides a freedom of religion by providing a freedom from religion ... it has been the glue that keeps us together."
According to Mr Fitzgerald, whose 155,000 members include more than 90 per cent of teachers in government schools, the criticism of both opposition and government policy reflects the union's concern about the consequences of a weakened public education system.
Mr Fitzgerald adds that a union analysis of statements made by Dr David Kemp, the Liberal federal education minister, reveals he has not made a single statement supporting government schools or said anything positive about the teachers in them since his appointment four years ago.
The Australian education
system reflects the British model, and in Fitzgerald's opinion has retained a very colonial approach to education policy.
For some reason, Australia does not seem to learn from others' mistakes, he says. "If something is tried overseas, preferably in England, and if it has failed cospicuously, it will be tried in Australia." City technology colleges are but one example.
Although Australia has been spared the Office for Standards in Education, he says the lack of a quality control system means testing is the only - and imperfect - way of assessing school performance.
Australian teachers share one thing with their British colleagues - low morale - even though the teaching force is more highly skilled than it has ever been.
His members are both battle-hardened and battle-weary, Fitz-gerald says. Winning pay rises seems to be even harder; it took 13 cases of industrial action by teachers in New South Wales before the state government agreed to a 16 per cent increase, to be paid in increments.
Mr Fitzgerald, 46, has been in the system long enough to have seen it all at least once before. Married, with two children, he is a soccer fan who hedges his bets by supporting a team in every country (Liverpool, Celtic and Spain's Athletico Madrid, for instance). He gained an honours degree in government and politics from the University of Sydney before making a "fortuitous" decision to take a diploma of education rather than pursue law.
He started his teaching career at a government agricultural boarding school in 1978,
followed by a girls' school and two co-ed state high schools. After a stint as president of the New South Wales Teachers'
Federation, he returned to the classroom as head of English at Condell Park high in south-west Sydney, where the pupils - many of them refugees - speak a total of 58 languages.
Opinion polls continue to place teachers in the top three most trusted and respected professions in Australia. He believes this reflects the fact that when former "beacons of certainty" such as family and religion are changing or even breaking down, teachers and schools are the only
certainty in many pupils' lives.
Delegates at the Labor party's national conference last month seem to have agreed with his union's championing of state schools. The conference agreed a policy that was much more pro-public education than the document he had criticised.
One wonders if opposition leader Kim Beazley could be thinking of emulating Tony Blair's mantra of "education, education, education" for the Australian federal election that is due before October 2001.
Australian Education Union: www.aeufederal.org.au