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Federal pandemic inquiry shuts door on state responses

Australia can’t prepare for the next health emergency without properly examining state government policies for COVID-19, argues Michelle Grattan.

Nearly a year ago, a privately financed inquiry led by Peter Shergold, a former head of the prime minister’s department, finished a review of Australia’s handling of the COVID pandemic.

The report, Fault Lines, was a solid piece of work, delving into the commendable and poor aspects of the response to what was such a massive health and economic crisis.

Among its findings were that lockdowns and border closures should have been used less and schools in the main should have been kept open. Both internal borders and schools were state responsibilities.

Australia always needed a federal government-commissioned inquiry into the management of the pandemic. Anthony Albanese recognised this and before the election he indicated Labor would have one. But he was vague about its form.

Now we have seen that form, and it’s clearly inadequate.

The terms of reference, issued on Thursday, say the inquiry will take a “whole-of-government” view. A whole of Commonwealth government, that is.

They are very detailed. But Albanese and Health Minister Mark Butler summed up the inquiry’s remit when they said in a statement it would consider Commonwealth responses, including “the provision of vaccinations, treatments and key medical supplies to Australians, mental health support for those impacted by COVID-19 and lockdowns, financial support for individuals and business, and assistance for Australians abroad”.

While looking at these areas will inevitably lead the inquiry into the various interfaces with the states, the terms of reference specifically say it will not extend to “actions taken unilaterally by state and territory governments”.

The inquiry will be done by a three-member panel, comprising Robyn Kruk, who has formerly headed departments at state and federal level; Catherine Bennett, an eminent epidemiologist, and Angela Jackson, a health economist.

There was immediate criticism that the inquiry is not a royal commission. Albanese dismissed this line of attack, suggesting royal commissions took a long time, and judges weren’t necessarily the best people for this job. These arguments sounded somewhat strange, however the fact it isn’t a royal commission is not the central problem here.

That problem is its failure to include the decisions of the states and territories – and notably that line emphasising their specific exclusion.

The COVID response was as much at state as federal level – in fact, on many aspects the states were the drivers. For example the Morrison government did not favour schools being closed, but state governments took a different view and did it.

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So why exclude the states’ decisions? There is no logic about that, but it looked like some obvious politics was at play.

Facing criticism that he was protecting Labor states, Albanese pointed to the political mix of these governments at the time, when half of them were non-Labor. He also said there had been changes of government and leadership in some states.

One, more credible, reason for excluding state decisions is to avoid giving ammunition for a possible future change of government. The Palaszczuk government goes to an election in late October next year. That government came under much criticism over its uncompromising border closure during COVID, with damaging publicity about a lack of compassion. It is already facing an uphill fight to hang onto power. The last thing it would want would be an inquiry – which reports by September 30 next year – revisiting earlier decisions.

(Victoria’s Dan Andrews, who ran the harshest lockdowns, has his election behind him, but likely wouldn’t appreciate any potentially tough findings either.)

After what the government must have found an unexpectedly fierce attack over its inquiry, Butler on Friday argued it could get into state matters.

It would examine the health response – which included the public health and social measures. And they covered “distancing, contact tracing, border closures, lockdowns, all of those things are in scope. They’re utterly in scope of the inquiry. It would be extraordinary for them not to be,” he told the ABC.

That leaves the whole thing as clear as mud. On Butler’s words, it would seem up to the panel how far it wants to push the probing of state areas.

But broadly, it appears the Morrison government will have the blowtorch applied, while the state administrations of the time will at most only get some indirect heat.

Albanese says the inquiry is aimed at looking forward to how we can be better prepared for the future.

But without a forensic eye on what was good and bad in the decisions taken by all governments, we will only receive partial advice on how to put Australia in the best position to deal with another such crisis. And by limiting the inquiry, the government has invited a cynical response from the public, who got to know quite a lot about how various governments performed in those hard times.

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.The Conversation

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