State Governments are setting the (park) bench too high

A week or two back, during one of his now-regular-COVID-19-related addresses to the nation, ScoMo went to great lengths to assure the public that children were still going to be able to go to school and that maintaining their education was of paramount importance. In The Australian just last week, this information was confirmed: ‘The government is advising parents to keep any child even slightly unwell at home. Otherwise, they should be at school.”

However, the message from state governments has been quite different: keep your children at home unless you absolutely cannot (eg health care workers and single parents). Advice from my children’s school, based on the ACT Government’s directive, was definitely ‘please keep them at home’. Despite Scott Morrison’s assurances, almost none of us were given the choice to continue sending our kids to school.

The ACT Government seems to have no doubt about the fact that schools will be maintaining their pupil-free status well into Term 2, but I wonder if it has considered the families with students at non-government schools. These parents who, probably in the face of increasing personal economic hardship, are still paying substantial school fees for what is now a very scaled-back product, may have no choice but to stop paying the fees and transfer their children’s enrolment to a public school. Could this result in a similar situation to the Goulburn school strike of 1962, where the public system was unable to cope with the sudden influx of children moving from Catholic to public schools? Or will non-government schools need to consider reducing their fees for the online learning period? Perhaps the state governments, including ACT, didn’t consider this when they chose to implement more draconian measures than what Scott Morrison was recommending at the time.

Looking more generally, it seems that the state governments’ powers in relation to coronavirus management are growing by the day. Why, for example, is the Queensland government so easily allowed to threaten a shut-down of the markets? They wouldn’t consider closing Coles or Woolworths so casually. My worry is that other states will follow this precedent, should it come to pass in Queensland. Wouldn’t it be better to instead implement a queueing/admittance system, such as the supermarkets have? Surely it is not fair to give the giant supermarkets more of a monopoly on the market and the public even fewer places to get food, not to mention more small businesses being ruined. And now in Queensland, I hear that people are also being fined for “blatantly going for a drive” – are cars no longer safe?

In Western Australia, I was shocked to hear that the government is closing the state borders for six months, including to WA residents who are currently out-of-state. Why are we, as fellow Australians, no longer allowed to leave our state and move into or return to another? Seems like another case of one state following the precedent set by another – in this case, Tasmania. As for NSW and Victoria, people who are dutifully following the social distancing rules while sensibly deciding to take a necessary break from home isolation, are being fined for sitting on a park bench or a beach.

In any of these public places, from markets to beaches to the inside of our cars, as soon as a member of the public is deemed to be doing the wrong thing, the state governments are there to mete out their heavy-handed punishment, closing the offensive sites, and letting us know in no uncertain terms that ‘this is why we can’t have nice things.’

Peter Collignon, a professor of infectious disease at the ANU, says “Some states have now put in overzealous rules and ones that give very mixed messages or have little biological plausibility. Not only will this cause unwarranted and increased social, mental and economic harm, we run the bigger risk that a substantial part of our society in a few months’ time (our winter) might increasingly rebel against many restrictions.” I concur with Collignon.

About Sonia Bowditch

Writer on society and culture in Australia. And short stories.

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