Wren's Week: Morrison's push to reopen schools sees Dan Andrews emerge a hero

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Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews has been defying pressure from Scott Morrison to comply with his desire to see schools reopen, writes John Wren.

A FORTNIGHT AGO, I wrote about the unconscionable drive by conservatives to reopen schools and the economy in general. The debate is still ongoing. This week, Prime Minister Scott Morrison attempted to bribe independent and Catholic schools to reopen by bringing forward their 2021 funding if they did so and achieved certain student return numbers. If the schools were to comply, it would clearly leave them with a funding shortfall next year as well.

The school principals have been equally scathing of the offer. Their duty-of-care is to their students, staff and their families. Not only would reopening schools too early breach that duty of care, if a member of their school community gets ill and/or dies through infection traced to the school, those principals and schools could be held liable. In some states like Queensland and Victoria (from 1 July), industrial manslaughter laws could also apply — and if found guilty, principals could face prison sentences for criminal negligence.

Morrison has also been busy announcing plans to gradually reopen the economy. These are his plans, of course, and don’t necessarily reflect either the plans or the desires of the premiers with whom that decision should lie.

Morrison is desperate to give the appearance of being in charge, which is why of course he formed the National Cabinet — it gives him the appearance of being in charge. The premiers and chief ministers call the shots in their states and territories on healthcare and education. The only power Morrison has is via the federal chequebook, hence his attempted bribe to private schools. He did perhaps achieve something of an own goal, though — his offer has raised the age-old question yet again: why are private schools receiving public monies at all?

Crises create leaders. Out of the pandemic, we have seen two regional politicians emerge head and shoulders ahead of the pack on their communication skills and the results they have achieved through prompt compassionate, well-informed and intelligent leadership-by-example. These two are New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews.

Both are products of the Labour and Union movements. Ardern has proven her mettle already in the Christchurch mosque shootings and the White Island eruption so her emergence was not unexpected. Andrews came to the fore during Victoria’s bushfire crisis earlier in the year, but the pandemic has pushed him into the national spotlight. Both Ardern and Andrews have achieved superb results — both Victoria and New Zealand are well on target to eliminate (for now) the virus from their regions. Keeping it out, of course, is an issue.

Ironically, it was Morrison’s National Cabinet that gave a national platform to Andrews. He has emerged as the key influencer within the Cabinet with other states, even the Coalition ones, generally following his lead. This, while wielding actual power at the state level, has frustrated Morrison. Morrison may have the job title but Andrews is now Australia’s de facto national leader.

Andrews has made it very clear that his decisions will be made on the basis of actual medical and scientific advice. Human lives are more important than the economy and he will not give into the conservative pressure being applied by Morrison and others in the Coalition. The more they pressure him, the more intransigent he becomes and the more the Victorian voters appreciate his concern for their safety. The latest Newspoll confirms this with Andrews having an almost unbelievable 75 per cent approval rating.

There are now calls for Andrews to move into federal politics. It is yet to be seen if this will ever happen, or if Andrews is even interested in doing so. It would not surprise me if he chose not to. He has demonstrated over the last few weeks that real power to improve people’s lives lies in the states, not the Federal Government. Why would he bother?

Morrison does seem unusually obsessed with the reopening of schools. He has made several public claims that doing so poses little risk. However, there is evidence mounting from around the world that this is most definitely not the case. A recent study showed that children are just as at risk of infection as adults, although they may show fewer symptoms. This makes children so-called ‘’super-spreaders” of the virus to others (their families and the greater community in general). There is also evidence that children may present with different symptoms to adults, that are just as life-threatening.

Why the impetus from Morrison? Personally, I think his narcissism sees getting the schools to reopen as a political win over the premiers (especially the Labor ones led by Dan Andrews). Morrison's myopic world view has almost always seen him make decisions that support short-term political wins. Ethics and legal compliance are seldom factors — think sports rorts for example, or his reluctance to purge his party of the seemingly corrupt Angus Taylor. It has also been surmised that Morrison wants the schools to reopen so it would set a precedent to allow the Hillsong Youth Conference to go ahead in July. It’s currently in limbo, although Hillsong is still selling tickets for it.

The other big news has been the announcement of the retirement of Labor’s Mike Kelly, the member for Eden-Monaro. A former Australian Defence Force officer, Kelly is a rarity in the Federal Parliament, soundly respected from all sides of politics. Kelly has led a life of service in both conflict and peacetime. His representation of the people in his electorate has been nothing short of superb.

Kelly’s region was devastated by the bushfires in January and he was at ground zero throughout providing leadership, compassion and clear thinking. Kelly’s premature departure for health reasons will lead to a by-election. Given that Morrison’s promised yet “notional” bushfire recovery funds are largely yet to flow to the area, it would seem an uphill battle for the Coalition candidate to actually get up. Many voters still feel very let down and bitter that so little help has been forthcoming despite the promises made when Morrison finally returned from his Hawaii holiday. One thing is for sure, nobody in Cobargo will be shaking Morrison’s hand again this time around if he appears on the campaign trail.

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