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Education Minister Dan Tehan (Image: AAP/Mick Tsikas) and Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews (Image: AAP/James Ross)

The official line on Dan Tehan’s Sunday morning attack on Daniel Andrews, and his subsequent humiliating withdrawal of it, is that the education minister spoke out of turn and was told to pull his head in by an anguished Scott Morrison. That story was quickly briefed out to journalists in the wake of Tehan using Insiders to attack Andrews for a “failure of leadership” and taking a sledgehammer to education.

The alternative version is that Morrison and his office put Tehan up to it, but the ensuing backlash forced them to throw Tehan under a bus — especially with news of a school infection in Victoria emerging, with immaculate timing, shortly after Tehan delivered his spray.

It’s perfectly possible both versions are correct, though — Tehan was encouraged to give the Victorians a touch-up, but went too far, especially when he got personal and attacked Andrews, who remains popular with Victorians despite his ludicrously draconian lockdown measures.

Either way, it’s clear that politicians are chafing under the political equivalent of the lockdown. For two months, politicians have had to suspend normal partisanship. First ministers have had to work together with their counterparts from different parties in the rolling COAG meeting that is “national cabinet”.

The lack of parliamentary sittings has removed a key forum for political dispute. Opposition frontbenchers have had to walk a fine line between holding the government to account and needless whingeing; in any event, the spotlight is on those making decisions, not on alternative leaders.

The success of Australia in suppressing infection rates has further muted criticism. There’s been more hostility coming from op-ed columns than from political opposite numbers.

Like the rest of us, some politicians have evidently been itching to get back to business as usual, and end this enforced and unnatural period of bipartisanship and good will. But there’s been a dearth of contested issues over which to argue. Schools have thus been shoehorned into other ideological issues: the role of unions, and the perceived need to get the economy moving again versus total risk-aversion toward infection.

Gladys Berejiklian couldn’t resist the urge to criticise education unions, suggesting the NSW Teachers Federation wanted to keep children at home indefinitely. The attack was straight from the Liberals’ anti-union playbook, but there was also an element of truth in her accusation.

If politicians have struggled with refraining from normal politicking, so have teacher unions. The NSW Teachers Federation has constantly criticised Berejiklian throughout the crisis, and attacked proposals for a return of students; other state unions have campaigned for parents to keep their children at home in defiance of advice from health experts.

The Victorian teachers’ union used the crisis to, predictably, demand more funding. Scott Morrison was attacked by teachers for “devaluing” them, for noting that people were going to work in supermarkets, where the risks of infection are much greater.

The continued lockdown-versus-economic-growth debate has also settled into a traditional ideological divide: by and large — though not without exceptions — the right wants an end to lockdown because of the economic impact (and Freedom!) while the left wants continued lockdown because every life is important (and Science!).

Meantime the science behind the open schools debate has become increasingly murky, with the key study on which the government and open-schools advocates relying on increasingly disputed both by other studies and evidence of classroom infections and repeated instances of school closures.

But that’s also countered by evidence of the impacts on children, especially those from more disadvantaged backgrounds, from missing school or online learning for an extended period. And hundreds of thousands of kids across the country actually want to go back to school.

Tehan’s brain snap suggests that careful consideration of the merits of competing studies is likely to give way to politicking and traditional ideological positioning on all sides, and just as soon as participants think they can get away with it. We’re still a few weeks shy of that point.

Peter Fray

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