The Federal Government had to do an embarrassing walk back on Sunday after spending days pressuring states to get face-to-face learning restarted at schools contrary to health advice.
The ferocity of its demands was underlined by Education Minister Dan Tehan going on ABC television slamming Victorian premier Daniel Andrews for a “failure of leadership”, “jeopardising the national consensus” and taking a “sledgehammer” to education, due to his refusal to get kids back into schools.
No sooner had he stopped talking than the Victorian Government announced the closure of a school due to COVID-19. On Monday, a Sydney school was also closed after a student tested positive for coronavirus.
In New Zealand, one teacher tested positive at Catholic school Marist College, which resulted in 94 infected people so far.
Tehan withdrew his attack on Andrews later in the day on Sunday saying he “overstepped the mark” and he was simply concerned about the negative impact online learning could have on remote, disadvantaged and Indigenous kids.
Tehan was so keen to get kids back into classrooms he tried offering $3 billion “bribes” to Catholic and independent schools in order to get them to ignore the Victorian government’s guidelines to teach kids from home.
Victorian education minister James Merlino said this was “completely inappropriate” and Tehan was “using funding to force non-government schools to ignore the expert medical advice”. Independent Schools Victoria said the government was using independent schools as a “wedge”.
Scientists have cautioned against reopening schools after a study found children could be as infectious as adults, The Guardian reported. Children do not have significantly different concentrations of the virus in their respiratory passages compared to adults.
Victorian school teacher Daniel Paxton told Voice of Action that kids should only come back to school in a “very slow, controlled manner” as he was worried about increased infection risks if kids go back early. Paxton has been teaching kids of essential workers since term 2 began, and even with reduced numbers in class, it was “nigh on impossbile to enforce” physical distancing and hygiene measures
So why has the government been so gung to pressure schools and state governments to restart face-to-face learning so early, risking a second wave of infections and more deaths?
Federal shadow minister for health Tanya Plibersek said she was “sceptical” pointing out that if the government was really concerned about educational disadvantage it wouldn’t have starved public schools of funding.
“You’re trying to bully or control or bribe schools to return against the medical advice in those states. That makes no sense at all,” said Plibersek.
But it does make sense if you consider the strong influence of the business lobby which has been campaigning to lift restrictions so corporates can get back to making money. The longer the economy is shut down the greater the threat to existing power structures.
NSW Treasurer Dominic Perrottet provided a window into the real reason for state and federal governments’ rush to end homeschooling on Sunday when he said NSW Treasury data showed a 12.5% drop in the amount of labour available in the economy, because parents were unable to work with their children at home.
He told The Sydney Morning Herald that getting kids back to school was “top of the list” to “drive economic and productivity growth”.
On Monday, NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian admitted she expected children testing positive to COVID-19 was “likely to occur on a more regular basis as schools go back”, but despite that she expects full-time face-to-face teaching to resume faster “than we had anticipated”.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison was initially talking about at least a 6 month lockdown and encouraging parents to listen to state governments, but he changed his tune following lobbying from the business community.
While Finance Minister Mathias Cormann said the government was simply trying to avoid “massive disruption” to kids’ education, it has become clear that the corporate elite have given the politicians their marching orders.
This could be seen from early on in the lockdown when the business press was running columns essentially arguing we should sacrifice our old and infirm for the good of the economy. The billionaire-funded Institute of Public Affairs has been consistently calling for the lockdown to end.
The Business Council of Australia (BCA), a lobbyist for the biggest corporate CEOs and one of the closest advisers to the government throughout the crisis, released modelling showing Australia’s economy could take a $400 billion hit from a six month lockdown.
While Victoria has been cautious – health authorities insist kids should continue studying at home if they’re able to – the rest of the states have aligned with the federal government and are in the process of easing restrictions.
This is at odds with health experts who have said maintaining lockdowns and restrictions could eliminate rather than just suppress the virus.
Last week over 100 researchers from the Group of Eight universities delivered a Roadmap to Recovery report to the government, which found maintaining strict restrictions until June could drive a 50 per cent greater economic boost over an 18 month period, compared to easing lockdowns a month earlier.
The response from the federal government and most state premiers suggests that the business lobby has got its way – which will be unsurprising to many given that the government has been talking about emerging from the crisis to implement the business elite’s full set of desired reforms including lower company taxes, deregulation and watering down industrial relations protections.
This is despite leading economists saying neoliberal economic policies and an austerity agenda, as opposed to big government and increased spending, will cause a more prolonged downturn.
Meanwhile, despite the government’s insistence that it is just looking out for the kids’ future, it continues to do everything it can to snuff out the possibilities of organised human life within their lifetime, by continuing to promote fossil fuels despite it being inadvisable on both commercial and moral grounds.
The Minerals Council, along with the BCA, have been calling for cuts to red tape (read: reduced protections) and fast-tracking mining approvals. Environment Minister Susan Ley has indicated she is onboard.
“If you watch the fossil fuel lobby like we do then that drum beat has become deafening in the last couple of weeks,” Dan Gocher, climate and environment director at the Australasian Centre for Corporate Responsibility, told Voice of Action.
“They’re in front of the political class every day – we know that when [Treasurer Josh] Frydenberg wants policy ideas he calls up the Business Council; that was made clear in the AFR recently he held a conference call with the head of the BCA and 10 of its largest members.”
The government’s National Covid Coordination Commission has an inherent bias in favour of fossil fuel and gas, a Guardian Australia investigation found, with early signs the commission intends to pursue a contentious agenda of opening up the onshore gas industry, expanding the petrochemical industry and building pipelines across the country.
“It’s up to civil society and democratic institutions to try and put a stop to some of this stuff because it feels like the vested interests have already got their claws into this Covid commission,” said Gocher.
Climate change and energy expert Ketan Joshi told Voice of Action he was stunned that even after the recent extreme bushfires, the government is still openly using its power to push “a dangerous and harmful activity”.
“The government’s ‘Underwriting new generation investment‘ program, or UNGI, seems to have become a very simply and unashamed engine of pushing fossil fuels,” Joshi said.
He compares the government’s rush to get kids back at school amid the current crisis to when the government told kids who were protesting inaction on climate change to get back in school.
“What a dark and sinister thing to say to kids, when they are going to bear the absolute brunt of a problem worsened by those same politicians,” said Joshi.
“It certainly puts any claim for caring about their safety or future in severe doubt.”