(Image: AAP/Mick Tsikas)

Throughout his time in politics, Scott Morrison has made an art form of exploiting fear for political gain. His surprise election victory last year was achieved in the basis of relentless fear campaigns — mostly entirely fictional — about Labor policies, and represented a recent high point of a fear-based political business model, one unseen since Paul Keating brilliantly exploited concerns about John Hewson’s GST and other policies in 1993.

Now fear is his political enemy, not an ally, and the stakes are much higher than who gets to govern for three years. His broad task is to calm rampant community fear and emerging panic about the virus and its economic impacts. And the pointy end of that task has emerged around schools.

Morrison and state and territory leaders are absolutely right to keep schools open for as long as possible. The costs of school closures will be colossal in terms of impacts on health workforces. Health workforces are three-quarters female, and unless Australian men dramatically and uncharacteristically step up on the domestic front, school closures will disproportionately affect women.

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And they’ll be colossal in terms of economic impact as workers have to stay home to look after kids. All for limited public health benefits, given coronavirus has minimal impact on the young.

But that means little in the face of a widespread wave of fear from parents, media commentators, public health figures — who have the luxury of not having to worry about economic impacts — and thousands on social media keeping hashtags like #australialockdown and #ShutTheSchools going. The closure of British schools overnight by the Johnson government is only going to ramp up the pressure on the government to succumb.

And there’s no doubt that a lot of criticism of Morrison and the government, particularly on social media, is motivated not by evidence and logic but by partisanship or dislike of Morrison himself. That’s become baked into the school closure issued as well.

Yesterday he delivered a clear, detailed, effective explanation of why schools had to remain open, emphasising he was speaking as a father as well as prime minister. His words bear repeating, because so many people are unwilling to listen.

Whatever we do, we’ve got to do for at least six months. Six months. So that means the disruption that would occur from the closure of schools around this country, make no mistake, would be severe. What do I mean by severe? Tens of thousands of jobs could be lost, if not more. The impact on the availability of health workers? A 30 per cent impact on the availability of health workers is our advice. That will put people’s lives at risk. So let’s keep our heads as parents when it comes to this.

He repeated the message to far-right mouthpiece Paul Murray on Sky last night, adding “you shut them down, they won’t open again. And that means your children will miss what is effectively a whole year of their education”.

The school closure debate involves some complexity, and a degree of counterintuitiveness. What appears obviously best for children in fact may not be actually what’s best for them, and would not be best for the country as a whole, because of the indirect consequences of a policy response. It requires the input of experts and scientists who understand the way complex systems work in response to changes.

One reason so many people are incapable of grasping this complexity is that, for years now, our politicians have eschewed complexity in favour of simplicity in public debate. Tony Abbott was a good example of that, tearing down worthwhile Labor policies with simplistic negativity that mocked and ignored nuance. Morrison proved even more effective at that. Labor itself hasn’t been too shabby either — remember its cynical Mediscare campaign and attacks on the Turnbull government over “cuts” to the funding of private schools?

Now, Morrison has to explain nuance and complexity, to justify counterintuitive policies, to overcome fear rather than pander to it, to rely on, not ignore, experts. Much is riding on his ability to resist the tide of stupidity and panic and minimise what is likely to be a severe recession. Who knows, perhaps if he learns how to do it, when this is over he can deploy those newfound skills to other policy areas.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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