The Canberra Liberals’ bid to open up a local front in the Prime Minister’s offensive to get teachers and students back into the classroom blew up in their faces after the Barr Government’s so-called ”secret deal” with the teachers union was released to media outlets today (30 April).
Opposition Leader Alistair Coe had alleged the government had negotiated a deal in secret with the Australian Education Union on the introduction of remote learning for ACT public school students in Term 2 as part of the COVID-19 response.
Last week the Opposition called for the ACT Government to keep all schools open. They said the evidence showed that children were unlikely to contract the virus or be strong transmitters of the disease, in line with Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s stance.
But today Mr Coe claimed that the government had a political motivation for keeping the union on side. He demanded the government publish the details of its agreement with the AEU and the health advice on which the decision to close all but nine hub schools was based.
“It should be scientific evidence that is guiding the decisions but, unfortunately, due to a lack of transparency with the ACT Government, there is a growing suspicion that it is the union that is dictating the government’s response,” he said.
Last night Liberal Senator Zed Seselja robo-called Canberrans, polling them on the schools issue, which Mr Coe said he was unaware of.
The ACT Government duly sent journalists a letter dated 8 April from Acting Deputy Director-General of the Education Directorate David Matthews to AEU ACT branch secretary Glenn Fowler outlining plans for remote learning. It also proposed temporary changes to the enterprise agreement during this period.
Education Minister Yvette Berry said in a statement that there was no secret deal.
“The ACT Government has worked with teachers to support them to continue to facilitate learning in this unprecedented time. We will continue to work with them, their union, parents and schools on how and when face-to-face learning can restart,” she said.
”I have already committed to methodically do this work over the next four weeks, and unlike the Canberra Liberals won’t be jumping to changes that teachers know are unworkable.”
Ms Berry said she was disappointed by the Canberra Liberals’ behaviour.
“This isn’t a time for scoring political points,” she said.
Chief Minister Andrew Barr said the Liberals’ claim was another one of their mad conspiracy theories that tend to have an element of anti-union hysteria.
“I’m not sure if the Opposition Leader has taken off his tin foil hat or put it back on again,” Mr Barr said.
He rejected the assertion that the government had raised the union’s needs above the medical advice, saying the government had a responsibility as an employer to ensure the safety of staff.
He said all jurisdictions were making their own decisions and no school system on the eastern seaboard was operating normally yet.
NSW’s one day a week trial for some students was still two weeks away, and Queensland and Victoria were making their decisions in the middle of their Term 2, he said.
”Even the Federal Government bribes to the Catholic and Independent systems talk about a return of 50 per cent of students by June,” Mr Barr said.
But he suggested the broader loosening of restrictions expected in coming weeks would flow through to schools.
”People are rightly asking why is a general playground OK but not a school playground,” he said.
He urged Canberrans to continue to work together, which was how the ACT had got to where it is with COVID-19 – the first Australian jurisdiction with no active COVID-19 cases.
”Let’s not make this a divisive party political issue or an issue that’s going to pit parents against teachers,” Mr Barr said.
“We are living through an unprecedented public health emergency, what we need now is encouragement, support and collaboration, and we take steps forward together.”