The federal education minister Dan Tehan has capitulated after picking a public fight with the Victorian premier Daniel Andrews about school closures, issuing a statement apologising for over-stepping the mark.
Tehan provoked fury from the Victorian government early on Sunday after an interview on the ABC where he accused Andrews of taking a “sledgehammer” to education by digging in his heels about school reopenings.
The Victorian government hit back almost immediately. The health minister Jenny Mikakos queried whether Tehan was freelancing, given the prime minister had recently counselled Australians to take the advice of their premier or chief minister about timetables for school reopenings.
Mikakos also announced Victorian intended to close a primary school in Melbourne because a teacher had become infected with coronavirus. She said the Meadowglen primary school in Epping would be closed for three days at the start of the week to allow the school to be cleaned and to facilitate contact tracing.
Mikakos told reporters Victoria was very confident about its public health strategy. “We look forward to the prime minister coming out today and explaining whether Dan Tehan’s comments reflect the position of his government,” Mikakos said.
“I think Victorians understand who’s been leading the effort in Victoria, how to keep them safe, to suppress the number of cases that we’re seeing in Victoria, and that’s certainly not been Dan Tehan.”
The eruption began when Tehan used the ABC interview on Sunday morning to try and ratchet up public pressure on Victoria to reopen schools, declaring the national cabinet was failing to deliver progress “because we have one premier in particular who is jeopardising the national consensus on this”.
Sunday’s public stand-off was the most significant argument inside the national cabinet since disputes in late March, when the premiers of New South Wales and Victoria moved to accelerate the pace of lockdowns of non-essential services.
Morrison has been frustrated for several weeks about persistent school closures, believing that education unions are behind the resistance. Opening schools is important to transitioning Australia past the economic shock of the coronavirus, because parents are struggling to work because of having to supervise their children’s distance learning.
Tehan said initially on Sunday: “Our national medical advice has been consistent right throughout this: it’s safe for schools to open and it’s safe for teachers to be in the classroom when the right protocols are in place.”
Tehan said other state leaders had flagged plans to reopen schools over the coming few weeks, so it was “time that we seriously call Dan Andrews out on this”. He said two other Labor leaders, Michael Gunner in the Northern Territory and Mark McGowan in Western Australia, were acting in line with the national medical advice.
Victoria’s chief health officer Brett Sutton said on 24 April his medical advice was “it should be a mix of learning, that kids should learn at home to the extent feasible”. Sutton said that advice would be reviewed over time.
The Victorian education minister, James Merlino, said on 29 April the government had a plan for a testing blitz of 100,000 people before the current state of emergency expired on 11 May, and he noted that “settings may change” after that date.
As well as Sunday’s jawboning, Tehan has also used other levers at the disposal of the commonwealth to try and force the schools issue. Late last month he wrote to non-government schools offering to bring forward one quarter of their funding if they reopen in term two and half their students return to classrooms by 1 June.
But by the middle of Sunday afternoon, Tehan staged a tactical retreat, issuing a statement saying all premiers and chief ministers were seeking to make balanced judgements, in the best interests of their state or territory, on the basis of the advice they have available to them.
“No one wants a situation where students are missing out on their education based on where they live or what school they go to,” Tehan said. “The academic research tells us that the remote learning arrangements have the potential to result in poorer educational outcomes for up to half of Australian primary and secondary students if continued for an extended period, in particular the vulnerable, poor, remote and Indigenous students who suffer the most”.
“It was those examples I was thinking of this morning during my interview on Insiders when I expressed my personal frustration that more schools weren’t starting more in-class learning in my home state”.
“It was this frustration that led me to overstep the mark in questioning premier Andrew’s leadership on this matter and I withdraw”.
The Labor leader Anthony Albanese said the rolling argument between Canberra and Victoria was confusing parents. Albanese said parents wanted clarity “so they can plan their own lives”.
Albanese told Sky News things became difficult for parents when “the prime minister one day is saying it’s up to the states and territories, and the next day offering advice and making suggestions that are contrary to the advice of the states and territories”.