Defending education in Victoria


Comment by Ray Fulcher

MELBOURNE — The battle to save Richmond Secondary College (RSC) was a hard fought and militant campaign, one of the strongest actions against Kennett's attacks on community living standards since he came to office.

The year-long occupation and running of the "rebel school" proved the determination of those involved and laid the foundations for the broad support received after the occupiers were evicted on December 7. The pickets imposed on the school after the eviction provided a central focus for continuing the fight for co-ed secondary education in Richmond and, had it been taken up, a broader campaign for defence of education in Victoria.

The disciplined and peaceful pickets were an example to other movements. They avoided the confusion of other demonstrations such as Aidex because they provided no scope for the go it alone, supposedly "more militant" antics designed to "confront the police" that have been evident in some protests over the past few years.

Central to the discipline and organisation were the democratic functioning and decision making of the campaign. Open general meetings of the Friends of Richmond Secondary College (FORSC) decided on the actions to take and the rules to apply on the picket line and in the base camp. People were disciplined because they were carrying out their own decisions after discussing all options.

The outcome of the campaign, a still inconclusive annex to Collingwood Secondary, though rightly seen as a limited victory against the Kennett regime, need not have been the conclusion. At the January 17 meeting that accepted the government's offer, some argued that a simple reimposition of the pickets would lead to total victory. This was rightly seen by the majority as a rather simplistic position which took no account of the changed situation.

Steve Jolly, one of the central leaders of the campaign, argued that the position had been weakened by not maintaining the pickets after Trades Hall withdrew its support. He argued that maintaining the pickets would have shown that we could carry the campaign ourselves. This would have put us in a better position, where we would not have been forced to accept the government's offer. This may have been true to a certain extent but I believe that the weaknesses in the campaign can be traced to more fundamental problems.

First was the Richmond-centric nature of the campaign, best exemplified in the slogan "Richmond united will never be defeated". As the campaign was to save RSC, this school and the actions around it would, rightly, provide a central focus for the campaign. However, the campaign never seriously moved beyond the Boulevard site of RSC. It imposed a self-isolation, apart from what the media were prepared to say about it.

No serious attempt was made to position the fight within a broader campaign for state education in Victoria — in which RSC (along with Northlands) would have been the obvious focal point. Such a campaign (which could have been initiated by RSC activists) would have drawn in all those people concerned about cuts in education (and other attacks by Kennett) but who were not directly connected to RSC.

Faced with such a broad political opposition, the Kennett government would have found it much harder to impose its tawdry deal, and John Halfpenny would have been hard pressed to pull the trade union rug from under RSC. The RSC campaign would have been strengthened by the heightened political atmosphere focused on education.

Secondly, while seeking trade union support for the campaign was correct, undue reliance was placed on the union officialdom and therefore, indirectly, the ALP to provide the "muscle" for the pickets. This came in the form of Trades Hall endorsement, which turned the pickets from community-based affairs into actions having legitimacy in the union movement.

Important as this was, without the sort of mass campaign mentioned earlier, this support was ephemeral. Neither Trades Hall nor the ALP were serious about fighting Kennett on this issue — the ALP endorsed the budget which closed RSC. Trades Hall never mobilised workers for the pickets, and it forced FORSC to capitulate to Kennett's first offer by removing sanction of the pickets before FORSC had even discussed the issue. Victorian Secondary Teachers Association deputy president Mary Bluett, at the January 17 meeting of FORSC, lauded the forced deal as an "exciting and innovative opportunity".

Halfpenny's endorsement of the pickets was a reflection of the pressure brought to bear on Trades Hall by the campaign around RSC. It is an indication of what is possible by organising and campaigning on issues independently of the "official" union movement and the ALP.

Finally, there was the failure to seriously mobilise students in defence of their education. There was much talk of "the kids" and of what was being done "for" them, but they were noticeably thin on the ground throughout. Those who did participate played a very positive role and took on a lot of work. A serious attempt to organise this base of support could have extended beyond RSC students to secondary students generally, similar to what was done in Canberra last year.

This is not to denigrate a hard-fought campaign. It is to open a debate on the strengths and weaknesses of the campaign so that we can learn from the experience and be better prepared to deal with future attacks.
[Ray Fulcher is a member of Friends of Richmond Secondary College, now Friends of Richmond Co-Education — FORCE.]