Australian Federal and State Ministers Clash Over Schools

May 3, 2020 Updated: May 3, 2020

Federal Liberal education minister Dan Tehan has launched a scathing attack on Victorian state Premier Daniel Andrews over the controversial issue of opening schools during the COVID-19 crisis, which Labor has described as “bullying.”

The attack came as state health minister Jenny Mikakos reported a teacher had tested positive to COVID-19 at the Meadowglen primary school in Melbourne, which will be closed for three days for cleaning.

Andrews has been adamant in not opening schools for fear of spreading the virus, while prime minister Scott Morrison has urged all schools to open.

But the prime minister has also previously said parents should listen to their premiers, although that stance now appears to have changed.

“The question to Dan Andrews is, sure, take a sledgehammer to defeating the coronavirus but why are you taking a sledgehammer also to your schools system?” Tehan told ABC on May 3.

He said Western Australia, South Australia, and the Northern Territory hadn’t had to quash their education system to fight the virus and have a 70 percent attendance at their schools.

Pressed several times on the prime minister’s previous advice to parents about listening to their premiers, Tehan said the government’s advice was that parents should listen to the medical experts.

“It’s safe for schools to be open and it is safe for teachers to be in the classroom when the right protocols are in place,” an unusually heated Tehan insisted.

He said the Victorian chief health officer was on the national medical expert panel which is providing that advice.

But Brett Sutton, unlike his federal counterparts, is against allowing students back to the classroom at this stage,

Mikakos said the prime minister needed to clarify whether Tehan was speaking for his government.

“(Morrison) asked Victorian parents to listen to the advice of the Victorian premier,” she told reporters.

“I too would urge Victorian parents to listen to the advice of our government. The advice remains unchanged and that is that we will continue to engage in online learning for the foreseeable future.”

Labor’s education spokeswoman Tanya Plibersek said Tehan’s attack was “disappointing” when states and territories had been working so well with the commonwealth government during the crisis.

“We don’t need the federal education minister trying to bully and harass state education ministers and state governments,” she told reporters in Sydney.

“This is a very difficult and stressful time for families … and to have a big political fight between the states and the commonwealth when it comes to schooling is the very last thing they need.”

Australian state of Queensland Health Minister Steven Miles said he was unaware of Tehan’s comments but said no one should be criticizing state leaders.

“It would be pretty disappointing if the Morrison government was using it as a chance to take potshots at the states,” Miles said.

“The last thing we need right now is levels of government criticizing each other.”

However, Deputy Chief Medical Officer Nick Coatsworth said COVID-19 affected far fewer children than they represent as a proportion of society.

“We know now that COVID-19 is not behaving the same way as influenza,” he told Sky News.

“Whereas with influenza, children are often primary transmitters in our society. It is clear now for COVID-19 that is not the case.”

By Colin Brinsden