Dan Tehan tried to pressure Victoria to reopen schools, but he went from raging bull to mewling kitten | Katharine Murphy

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The federal education minister banked on parental frustration with home schooling, the same parents are also worried

It’s been a wild old Sunday, with the federal education minister Dan Tehan going from raging bull to mewling kitten in the space of four hours, so let’s work through things step by step.

Scott Morrison has been intensely frustrated with school closures for weeks. The prime minister wants schools to reopen as the bedrock of getting the economy moving again, and the bulk of the medical advice before the government suggests that schools are low risk.

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It’s been a wild old Sunday, with the federal education minister Dan Tehan going from raging bull to mewling kitten in the space of four hours, so let’s work through things step by step.

Scott Morrison has been intensely frustrated with school closures for weeks. The prime minister wants schools to reopen as the bedrock of getting the economy moving again, and the bulk of the medical advice before the government suggests that schools are low risk.

Morrison is also very attuned to the frustrations of parents trying to home school primary school aged kids and still continue to work, and to the worries of senior students who have had their Year 12 blown off course. We should also worry about the needs of disadvantaged kids, who will be falling between the cracks.

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Morrison also is correct to counsel that politicians should follow the medical advice, because so far, following the medical advice has served Australia very well. So far, so rational.

But as we start to drill down below these inoffensive sounding top lines, things become more complicated.

Victoria has demurred from the majority view inside the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee about schools. The Victorian position has been that kids should learn at home to the extent it is feasible. The state wants to conduct more testing in the community before deciding when to reopen schools.

So tracking back to the Morrison dictum about experts – which advice is the premier Daniel Andrews supposed to follow? His own expert, assessing local inputs, or other advice, where circumstances might be different?

As for following the medical advice, let’s be clear: Australian politicians have listened to their experts. I am profoundly grateful they have, because evidence-based policy making is always better than the alternative.

But two points about this are important: the first is Australia’s medical experts have a wealth of knowledge, but they are not in possession of perfect information, because this virus is still new.

The second point to make is the medical advice has been interpreted through a political lens since at least the middle of March. This has never been a perfectly clean process where experts say “do this” and politicians dutifully execute down to the footnotes – otherwise you could suspend the process of representative democracy and just put Brendan Murphy in charge.

Managing Covid-19 is a risk management exercise, and political leaders, like all of us, have different appetites for risk. With schools, governments have tried to paper over those differences by meeting as a national cabinet and articulating basic principles. On April 16, Morrison articulated seven principles for the school education response to Covid-19. Principle four says the states and territories are responsible for making operational decisions about their school systems.

But apparently not on Sunday. Tehan went onto the ABC’s Insiders program and gave Andrews a blood nose. Tehan wondered why Andrews was taking a “sledgehammer” to his schools. Not content with that, he wondered further why one premier was “jeopardising the national consensus on this”.

And so it went. It was a bout of what my mother would call “fast breathing”, which is a much nicer characterisation than having a tantrum. Not Dan Tehan’s finest hour.

After the program, the immunologist Peter Doherty, a Nobel Laureate, took to Twitter to try and land a nuance that seems a bit lost in the mix. Doherty said it was interesting how schools were being invoked as “a homogeneous entity”. “Realities may be different re both teaching and Covid-19 transmission for primary and secondry schools and in New South Wales and Victoria where there have been the most cases,” Doherty said. “Opening the schools is an experiment that must be closely watched.”

Prof. Peter Doherty (@ProfPCDoherty)

#Insiders Interesting how we use "schools" as a homogeneous entity. Realities may be different re both teaching & COVID-19 transmission for 1ery & 2ndry schools & in NSW & Vic where there's been the most cases. Opening the schools is an experiment that must be closely watched. May 2, 2020

Also after the program, Victoria’s health minister Jenny Mikakos returned serve. She fronted reporters to announce a school in Melbourne’s north would be closed because a teacher had tested positive to coronavirus. The campus would close for three days to allow for cleaning.

Mikakos said she was confident Victorians understood the state government was acting to keep people safe. She contended Tehan hadn’t provided that leadership. “I encourage Victorian parents to continue to heed the advice of our government, we are in fact the government that runs our schools in Victoria.”

Hmm. What’s the word I’m looking for minister Tehan?

I know. The word is checkmate.

This case study tells us precisely where we are along the chronology of Covid-19. We’ve reached a tipping point in Australia, where Morrison wants to reward Australians for complying with public health advice, where he wants to reward people for our early success – and again, that’s rational.

But rewarding our early success in flattening the curve will involve a bunch of really difficult judgment calls. Parents of course want their kids back at school. But views will change if parents think their kids are at risk. The latest Covid infection in Victoria reminds parents there are risks.

Being a leader during coronavirus requires two things: listening to experts and making the on-balance political judgments leaders make.

Tehan made a bold political decision on Sunday morning: to suspend the consensus framework of the national cabinet, front a high-rating political current affairs program, and ratchet up community pressure on Andrews to reopen schools.

Perhaps this seemed like a good idea at the time, or perhaps the “decision” gives what Tehan did this morning too much credit. But in any case, within hours, he was forced to eat crow, issuing a statement accepting that he “over-stepped the mark”.

Doubtless the official story now will be Tehan just had a brain snap, that there was never any intention to stick the boot into Andrews. Except there’s been evidence for weeks that Morrison and the government have been both pushing the envelope, and trying to weigh up where the parents of Australia are currently at.

Parents will be in two minds. There will be frustration at having to supervise home learning, and there will be worry about their children catching coronavirus, or passing it on to someone more vulnerable, when they go back to school.

Perhaps Tehan made a judgment this morning that frustration was more front of mind for Australian parents than worry.

But here’s some breaking news for Tehan that really should be obvious: the ratio between parental frustration and worry is predominantly events driven, and it could flip in a heartbeat.


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