Denis Fitzgerald, Teachers and their Times: History and the Teachers' Federation.Denis Fitzgerald, Teachers and their Times: History and the Teachers' Federation, UNSW Press, Sydney, 2011. pp. 336. $39.95 paper.
If the New South Wales Teachers' Federation did not exist, Sydney's ever-excitable Daily Telegraph would be obliged to create it. From a Murdoch press point of view, the union fosters classroom mediocrity, supports incompetent teachers and kicks down the doors of a succession of seemingly hapless NSW education ministers, nailing the incumbents to the wall. But it's not just the Murdoch press that loves to hate the Federation. Even the slightly leftist Sydney Morning Herald refers to the Federation as a 'rogue union' (20 November 2010) that has a record of 'truculent behaviour' (23 January 2009). In that context, Denis Fitzgerald's useful narrative history of the Federation Teachers and their Times is a counter to many of the myths and war stories surrounding a union that has been in business since 1918 protecting its members from bureaucratic bungling, governmental bastardry and an increasingly shrill line in media calumny
You can tell where author Fitzgerald's sympathies lie from the start. He begins his narrative with the end of the Whitlam years (good, but not a Golden Age) and ends with the end of the Howard era ('joy and relief'). As a former Teachers' Federation president (1995-1997) and career teacher, Fitzgerald is well placed to give us an inside story, and, indeed, this is what a reader might expect. Starting in the mid-1970s, the author argues that the turning point in the Teachers' Federation's approach to militancy came in the period after the 1975 constitutional crisis when a new generation of teachers, in rejecting 'passivity in all things', maintained a generalised distrust of hierarchy and authority. To illustrate the point, there is wonderful photograph (pp. 8-9) of the 1976 Teachers' Federation executive. Of its sixteen members, six are women and only seven appear to be over thirty-five. Compare that photograph with the 1970 almost all-male, grey-haired executive committee and you can see the generational change at a glance. Indeed, the 1976 younger set look like members of a sociology class about to head off to a lecture by Howard Kirk, Malcolm Bradbury's egotistical 1970s History Man.
Fitzgerald sees the turbulent 1970s as a largely exasperating period in which his union was putting out industrial brush fires but was unable to deal with the straitjacket of federal wage fixing policy. The union did make some positive moves, accepting gender equality (sort of) and eventually electing Jennie George as its first woman President in 1986--but getting itself into 1970s hot water with its membership over gay rights. More brush fires followed in the 1980s, with major conflagration over the role of the union in Australian Labor Party national political campaigning. This was all about a ground-breaking endorsement of the 1983 Hawke campaign, an action later resented by a hostile 1988 Greiner/Metherell State government which came in with a copycat Thatcherite reform agenda (market economics, teacher accountability and student testing). The new government was rocked back on its heels by the mammoth Teachers' Federation 17 August 1988 politicised union rally but the Metherell attempt at a Thatcherite revolution in New South Wales continued unabated with personal backing of blow-in Secretary of State for Education, Kenneth Baker. This 1983-onwards political interventionism of the Teachers' Federation was unforgiven and unforgotten by subsequent Coalition administrations in New South Wales in Canberra, not that everything in the garden was rosy when supposedly teacher-friendly Bob Carr took over in 1995. Brush fires as well as the bigger conflagrations continued through the Carr years and into the Howard years with the Teachers' Federation becoming increasingly vocal in the national public/private education debate. No wonder the union saw Howard's 2007 demise as a victory.
In summary, Fitzgerald provides a well-written, interesting and sympathetic portrayal that chronicles both the major and minor events that beset the union over a forty-year period. It's a detailed and contextualised narrative that takes the reader through the key events that have marked the union's changing approach to its own character and its priorities. It is neither an inside story, nor a theorised labour history. The book, however, is a good, informative and unashamedly partisan read. To illustrate the latter point, one of Fitzgerald's best, grudge-bearing triumphalist lines (there are quite a few grudges borne and the egregious Metherell is the butt of several) can be found on page 128, thus 'It was diverting to note that only a few years after the Thatcher revolution came to Australia Terry Metherell was heading off to an ashram, Nick Greiner was reduced to sitting on the boards of cigarette and alcohol firms and Kenneth Baker was to become Lord Baker of Barking'.