Activist's pragmatism led to education breakthrough

Gough Whitlam's campaign to end 23 years in opposition took an unexpected turn in Sydney during the afternoon of November 12, 1972.

Archbishop James Carroll, one of Sydney's auxiliary bishops, was opening a Catholic school library. His statement that the then disagreements between political parties over ''state aid'' were ''unimportant'' was seen as freeing Catholics to vote for either Labor or Liberal in the approaching election.

The archbishop's words, running counter to the prevailing official view that Catholics could not vote for a Labor party that withheld funding from Catholic schools, came out of the blue. Apparently.

In fact, the archbishop's message was the result of an initiative by Arthur Rolfe, a long-time member of the ALP and, crucially, a man with the credentials of an activist on the issue of state aid.

It was Rolfe's judgment that Archbishop Carroll offered the best chance of freeing Catholics to vote Labor if they so chose in the federal election, despite others in the Catholic hierarchy speaking against it.

Rolfe broached the idea of a direct approach to the archbishop with Mick Young, the ALP federal secretary and a campaign strategist for Gough Whitlam, and with Whitlam staffers Eric Walsh and David White.

Arthur George Wellford Rolfe was born in Cooma on February 14, 1923, the son of George Rolfe, a publican in Cooma and Dalgety and a World War I Light Horse veteran, and his wife, Ethol Wellford, a ''country nurse''.

Rolfe went to St Patricks College, Goulburn, then joined the education department in Sydney. During World War II, he served in Darwin as an anti-aircraft gunner with the army.

As a young man in Cooma, Rolfe had joined the ALP and when he returned, he became a councillor during the time of the Snowy Mountains scheme.

His social activism and pragmatic approach in dealing with workforce negotiations helped improve conditions for employees.

However, throughout Rolfe's long life, what mattered to him most was his extended family and he remained a constant source of assistance and good advice.

Arthur Rolfe is survived by Jill, their children, Paul, Andrew, Philip, Mary Ann, Michael and Judith, their partners and 18 grandchildren.

FULL OBITUARY: Labor stalwart helped secure Catholic vote (Sydney Morning Herald)


The Battle for State Aid (ABC TimeFrame)

A History of State Aid to Non-government Schools in Australia (Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations)

Archbishop James Carroll (CEC NSW)

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