Government reaches out to Catholics on Gonski 2.0

The government is making frantic efforts to seal a deal on its school plan before parliament adjourns for the winter break. Rob Blakers/AAP

The government is offering concessions to try to mollify the Catholic sector, as its epic battle to land its Gonski 2.0 schools package continued on Tuesday.

In other developments during a day of frantic activity, Malcolm Turnbull met Greens leader Richard Di Natale on the issue, and Tony Abbott and former minister Kevin Andrews attacked the plan at the Coalition partyroom meeting.

In their speeches Abbott and Andrews reflected the Catholic sector’s discontent, with Abbott focusing particularly on schools in his Sydney electorate of Warringah. But in a debate with more than a dozen speakers, the government’s plan received firm support.

It was a particularly awkward day for the powerful Australian Education Union (AEU), which represents teachers in government schools.

The AEU is strongly against the legislation, and has been leaning heavily on the Greens to oppose it.

But its case was undermined by an open letter sent to all sides of politics from its former president Dianne Foggo, in which she said: “I implore you to support the bill with the tighter funding amendments raised by the Greens.

"This is one of the most crucial potential improvements for funding for public education for decades – please do something positive to restore equity to our public education systems.”

She wrote that Labor could increase the funding when in government “but the fundamentals of this reform are too important to not support”.

Later, the AEU reiterated its opposition to the legislation, declaring in a statement that its “unanimous position is that the government should abandon its plan to push this through parliament in the next two days to allow a proper process of negotiation and consultation with state and territory governments, stakeholders and the community”.

Education Minister Simon Birmingham met the Catholic education representatives on Monday night, receiving such a haranguing that at times it was difficult for him to get a word in.

Although the concession has yet to be formally put, the government is proposing that the present “system-weighted average” for funding provided to the Catholic sector be continued for a year, while the basis for calculating how much parents should be expected to contribute is reviewed.

Government sources say this would help the Catholics to make the transition to the new system, but it would not compromise the plan. It would cost probably up to A$60 million.

But Peter Goss, the Grattan Institute’s school education program director, said it would be a big concession because it would perpetuate for a year “subsidies to keep fees low regardless of how well off the parents are”.

The concession would also be available to any schools within the independent sector that form a system, although most are stand-alones.

The National Catholic Education Commission said in a statement it had not been notified of a compromise offer. “Accordingly, our position continues to be that this legislation should be withdrawn and all sectors invited to contribute to the redesign of a school funding model that will enjoy the support of Catholic, government and independent schools.”

On Tuesday night the Greens partyroom had discussions with delegates of the party’s organisation from different states.

Negotiations between the government and the Greens, and the government and other crossbenchers, were still afoot late on Tuesday. The government seemed more confident of reaching an agreement with the non-Greens crossbench but those Greens who want a deal believe they remain in the game.

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