Once upon a time, from the 1940s to the ’80s, strikes were rampant in Australia, hitting hard at the transport, energy, construction and manufacturing industries. Particularly in the lead-up to Christmas when there was invariably a strike, or a threat to take industrial action, in the breweries. In those days, a pub at Christmas with no beer was not something to behold.

Strange, then, that these days perhaps the best remembered walkout of the period was the Goulburn school strike of 1962. This was discussed by Joe Kelly in his page one story in The Weekend Australian last Saturday and on Sky News’ The Bolt Report on Wednesday.

Yet this was not a strike in the traditional sense of the term. What happened was that the Catholic bishop of Canberra and Goulburn decided to close six Catholic schools in Goulburn. On July 7, 1962, around 700 people attended a meeting in Goulburn concerning the condition of the local diocesan schools.

As documented by Michael Hogan in his 1978 book The Catholic Campaign for State Aid, the meeting expressed its bitter disappointment at the failure of the NSW state governments, Labor and Coalition alike, “to recognise the justice of the claims of Catholics to a fair share of the public purse for its education system”.

In the late 19th century, the Catholic Church in the various Australian colonies set up its own education system. This was motivated by a concern that Catholic children would not receive appropriate religious instruction in the government system.

And so began what was called the campaign for state aid for non-government schools. The Catholic community, around 20 per cent of Australians as a whole, believed that an injustice was involved. Catholics paid taxes that supported all government schools. And they then paid for the Catholic education of their children.

At the time, many Catholics were of Irish background and at the lower end of the socio-economic pile. But they built schools and churches – many of which remain in situ today. The Catholic Church faced particular difficulties in supporting its own education system after World War II because of the baby boom and the arrival of immigrants, including those from non-Anglo-Saxon nations.

Throughout all of the 19th and most of the 20th century, Australia was afflicted with anti-Catholic sectarianism. It was not as nasty as the anti-Semitism that is rife in contemporary Australia in recent years. But it was unpleasant enough.

This meant that there was sufficient hostility in both the Labor Party and the Liberal Party (in its various manifestations) to make it virtually impossible for their leaders to introduce state aid for non-government schools.

Labor was vehemently opposed to state aid, despite the fact there were many Catholic Labor MPs and most Catholics voted for the ALP. Opposition came from sectarian Protestants, many of whom were members of the Masonic Lodge, along with the pro-communist and communists within the party.

As the section on the Goulburn school strike on the Robert Menzies Institute’s website attests, the Liberal Party founder was not opposed to state aid. He just knew that he could not get sufficient support on this issue in his partyroom. Moreover, education then – as now – was primarily a state government issue.

What happened in Goulburn in 1962 was that the Catholic community became angry that it was required by directive to repair the toilets in one of its schools without government assistance. It was decided to close all the Catholic schools in the town, not just one, as a protest about the lack of state aid. Around 2000 students were to present themselves at the ­local government schools.

The strike ran from July 16 until only July 22, when it was called off. During this time, 640 students presented at government schools – which could not cope with the overflow. The point was made, and footage was shown by the mainstream media of the broken ­lavatories.

The Goulburn school strike was a symbolic success but a ­political failure. The NSW Labor government did not change its policy on state aid. Instead, the initiative came from the federal level.

Menzies had won a narrow victory over Labor, led by the Catholic Arthur Calwell, at the 1961 election. The Menzies government was approached by anti-communist activist BA Santamaria, who suggested that if the Coalition promised state aid at the 1963 election, it would shore up preferences from the Democratic Labor Party – which had emerged from the ALP during the Labor Split of the mid-1950s. The DLP was a strong supporter of state aid.

In the 1963 election, the Coalition promised to fund science blocks at all schools, government and non-government alike. This was the first occasion in which Catholic schools had received any form of state aid.

A similar situation took place in Victoria in 1967. The Liberal Party government, led by Henry Bolte, was concerned that the DLP might preference the Country Party over the Liberals in seats that both parties were contesting. Santamaria and the DLP were involved in negotiations on this issue.

The Bolte government promised, if elected, to introduce per capita grants for all Victorian schoolchildren. It held its seats. This was the second breakthrough and, once again, not directly related to events five years earlier in Goulburn.

The Goulburn school strike of six decades ago is in the news again because of the discussions between the Albanese government and members of the Catholic hierarchy over the foreshadowed religious discrimination legislation.

On June 1, Kelly reported that Catholic Archbishop of Sydney Anthony Fisher had told a meeting of the Catholic Business Network that he was hearing suggestions that the church should “do another Goulburn (and close its schools) if it was denied by legislation the ability to take religion into account with respect to employment and ethos”.

However, Fisher recognises that such a strategy might backfire. Moreover, it also would rob the community of needed services. Correct. The Goulburn strike was symbolic. State aid was gained due to the operation of conventional politics. It is likely that politics will result in a stalemate – for the moment at least – due to political opposition to the government’s proposals.

Still the Goulburn strike, like no beer for Christmas, certainly drew the media’s attention – which has never died.