An insight into the enigmatic Dr Peter Tannock

Dr Peter Tannock is the Vice Chancellor of the University of Notre Dame in Western Australia. He is a former chairman of the National Catholic Education Commission and earlier than that could arguably be described as one of the chief architects of the model of modern Catholic Education that was set up by the Bishops of this nation beginning in about 1971. In some respects he could also be described as being influential in framing aspects of national education policy in this country. Despite the enormous influence he has had in the Church and in educational policy he is also a very private man not given to blowing his own trumpet. Brian Coyne set out to gain some insight into what makes Peter Tannock "tick" as an educational entrepreneur and as a lay Catholic facing the struggles we all face.

Brian Coyne : Peter, when did you first become involved in Catholic Education?

Peter Tannock: I've been involved in Catholic Education virtually all my life. I was educated by the Christian Brothers and went on to become a student at St Thomas More College (the Catholic residential college run until recently by the Jesuits situated at the University of Western Australia). But I became actively involved in what could be called Catholic Education policy in the 1960s. That was partly because I had done a lot of academic work looking at Government policy - the role of governments at the State and Federal level in education. I also looked at it cross-nationally. I got to understand the philosophical underpinnings of policy as well as the practicalities of what's possible and how it happens.

That was at a time when the Church was in desperate trouble with its school system. The school system was teetering on the brink. The religious orders, in terms of both numbers and leaders, were in sharp decline. There was virtually no economic and no training base to replace them. So it was a really interesting point, a "tipping point", for the Church and its involvement in education in Australia. The broad questions that were being asked by some of the bishops were: "do we go on, or do we wind up?"

BC: That wasn't public knowledge at the time was it?

PT: There was some public knowledge about it. For example in Victoria in the 1960s there was a Director of Catholic Education, Fr Crudden, who led an investigation into the situation in Victoria and the Archdiocese of Melbourne. I'm a bit hazy on the detail now but they recommended that the Church get out of secondary education. They felt the Church couldn't afford the involvement in both primary and secondary education and they recommended that the Church re-direct resources into primary education. They even considered the concept of closing down the whole show and shifting what resources were available into adult education, parish education programs and the State school apostolate. All that was on the table when I became involved in the 1960s.

I was asked by the Church in Western Australia to have a look at the future of the school system here. The trigger for that was the Commonwealth Government. The States had been hammering the Commonwealth to provide more money for education. Finally Malcolm Fraser, the Commonwealth Minister for Education, agreed to receive this survey of needs among the government school systems in Australia.

To his great credit, Fraser said he wasn't just prepared to look at the needs of government schools alone. He wanted a parallel survey of needs in the non-government sector. Father James Nestor was Director of Catholic Education here at the time. He contacted me and said "what about you doing that for us" and I did.

BC: How old were you then?

PT: I would have been 28 or 29

BC: So this has been a life-time's work then?

PT: Yes. But what I've been saying is that I was involved in looking at the policy side of things even before my first formal involvement with Catholic Education. I had done my Masters at the University of Western Australia and my Doctorate at Johns Hopkins University in the States in those big policy areas. I think the academic training was important. It gave an intellectual underpinning to my work. So, to cut a long story short, I became involved in the 1960s then I took an academic position at the University of Western Australia as a Lecturer and then a Professor and that was an important academic base for what I was doing. I was also still involved with James Nestor who should get an enormous amount of credit for what happened at that time. He's a very special person. He and I were very much a team. Our work led to the establishment of the Catholic Education Commission of Western Australia in 1971, which was the first in Australia.

BC: Was what happened here some sort of model for what happened elsewhere in Australia?

PT: Yes. It was. Underpinning it was the policy decision that was made here, in contrast to the thinking that was going on in some quarters in Victoria at the time. The decision that was made here was that "we're going to really fight for this - we're going to fight to retain the school system. It's going to have to become a lay school system - it will have to be lay led, lay staffed and lay managed. The religious involvement would be quite different. We'd continue to rely on it for as long as we could. In essence, the direction that was set was that "unless we get organised and pull our resources together, and speak with one voice, deal with governments in a united fashion on both sides of the political spectrum - unless we do that we'll go under." That was the start of it.

BC: Looking back on those 35 years since the new Catholic Education system was formed in 1971, how do you see the outcome now? Some of the conservative elements in the community for example feel that it has been a disaster because people are not continuing to practice in adulthood. What's your position?

PT: It's still evolving of course. I think that the Catholic Education system in Australia today is magnificent. I think it is the heart of the Church. Everyday in Australia there are 650,000 young people who go to a Catholic school and everyday they are presented with the witness to the faith. It's fantastic. It's the engine for the Church. And yes, we all know, that large numbers of their parents don't go to Mass every Sunday, we know that large numbers of their parents have all sorts of personal difficulties and problems in their lives - who hasn't? But there are wonderful schools with their forty or fifty thousand teachers who are giving witness to the Church and to Jesus. I'm not saying I wouldn't like to have 650,000 daily communicants, I would. I'd love to have fifty thousand teachers as committed, lifetime, traditional, practising Catholics. I'd like to see that but it's not going to happen. It's not the real world.

What I'm saying is that if you have a look at the world - this increasingly secular society - Catholic Education is a phenomenon. It is amazing. There are all sorts of oddities -for example gradients of the demand for places in Catholic schools and Mass attendance figures are going in opposite directions at the moment. Where would the Church be, though, as an entity - where would its mission be - without Catholic Education?

CONTINUED [use navigation below]...

This interview was published in OnLine Catholics under the pen name Tom Scott.

©2005Tom Scott/Brian Coyne/Vias Tuas Communications
Published: 5Aug2004