Last week, the ACT Liberals made a reasoned case that the ACT’s public schools did not need to close during the COVID-19 crisis, accusing the Government of mixed messaging and saying that parents deserved more certainty.
They argued the now-familiar line taken by Prime Minister Scott Morrison, and supported by infectious disease experts such as the ANU’s Professor Peter Collignon, that the medical evidence shows schools could be safe because children were less likely to contract or pass on COVID-19.
With a Labor Government in power for 20 years and a myriad of issues from planning to health to choose from, it is not as if the Liberals couldn’t make a fist of it this election year. Labor’s internal problems should be ripe fruit for the Opposition to pluck.
But just when you thought that the Canberra Liberals had worked out that the route to government in the ACT was the high road of articulating sensible policy alternatives, they made themselves easy pickings for a Chief Minister skilled in the art of political assassination with a misplaced strategic choice.
They decided to go one further and accuse the government of reaching a secret deal with the teachers union for political reasons.
It was the union bosses, not the health and medical experts, who were now dictating policy, Opposition Leader Alistair Coe said darkly at a press conference just before Andrew Barr was due himself to face journalists.
The ”secret plan” talking point points were meant to resonate with parents unhappy with remote learning at home, but only played to his party’s base.
By the time Mr Barr took to the podium, journalists had the ”secret deal” in their in-boxes, an innocuous document from the Education Directorate to the union about how the teachers’ enterprise agreement would operate during remote learning.
Mr Barr was all too ready with pointed quips.
He went on to say the ACT was hardly that different from other eastern states and with the success of the measures to contain the virus, restrictions were likely to ease and that would probably include schools.
But not before getting off a round about ”mad conspiracy theories”.
Education Minister Yvette Berry herself had always said, perhaps not as clearly as she had wished, that the schools’ situation was being monitored during the first four weeks of term to assess whether there could be a return to face-to-face learning.
Mr Coe’s stance has been interpreted as the Liberals’ first departure from the bipartisan approach on COVID-19 but they had already done so when he and education spokesperson Elizabeth Lee fronted the media.
Perhaps not satisfied with the results and sensing rightly that many parents were uneasy with home learning, Mr Coe went for the tried, tested and, ultimately failed, strategy of making unsubstantiated claims.
Australian Education Union secretary Glenn Fowler was dismissive, saying he didn’t have time for student politics and that he made no apologies for working with the government to achieve the best health and safety outcomes for his members.
If anyone was playing politics with the complex issue of managing schools and public places during a pandemic it was Mr Coe, perhaps egged on by his federal colleagues and sensing the long shadow of Senator Zed Seselja who deployed his robocalls to discover the obvious – that home learning is tough on parents and not perfect.
Why the PM has invested so much energy into getting schools back, including his cash carrot to the Independent and Catholic sectors, when the public remains rightly nervous about COVID-19, despite the hope offered by the flattening curve, is anyone’s guess.
Perhaps the need for a positive headline and a sign that we could all go back to our normal lives overrode the National Cabinet solidarity that has been the mark of Australia’s response to COVID-19.
Unfortunately for Mr Coe, the misstep only reminds voters that the Canberra Liberals seem ill-equipped for government and all too ready to reach for the social media meme and the spurious assertion and the stunt instead of doing the work needed to win an election.
We have been through the summer from hell, hopefully dodged the coronavirus bullet, although, yes, winter is coming, and God knows what else is in store, but during these times it hasn’t been ideology or tribal politics that has seen us through.
Voters want integrity, empathy and ideas not the grandstanding of last week, and they deserve a real choice in October.