Having suggested a Royal Commission investigation into the COVID-19 pandemic, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has now abandoned a pre-election commitment.
Instead of a Royal Commission, the government has announced a three-member panel comprising a retired New South Wales (NSW) public servant, a health economist, and an epidemiologist.
While their expertise will be useful to the 12-month inquiry, the panel falls far short of the promised Royal Commission.
While Health Minister Mark Butler said the inquiry would be “deep and thorough,” it is clear that its ability to probe widely is heavily restricted.
The decisions of the National Cabinet—comprising the prime minister and state leaders—are subject to the inquiry, although it has not been spelled out how cabinet confidentiality will be addressed by the panel.
Will the material presented to the National Cabinet and the deliberations of the body be subject to public scrutiny?
Cooperation From the Premiers? UnlikelySignificantly, the actions taken by individual states and territories will not be subject to the inquiry.
Given the fact that many of the interventions during COVID-19 were the result of state and territory government decisions, this is a major shortcoming of the inquiry.
Some of the most egregious decisions were taken by the states and territories.
These include the closing of state borders, the detention of people in quarantine, and the lockdowns generally.
Hence the decisions of the Victorian government which resulted in hundreds of deaths are not likely to be scrutinised.
One of the panel members, Angela Jackson, was a former deputy chief-of-staff to a Labor minister. She is on record as having supported hard lockdowns in Victoria.
Ms. Jackson has already said that the panel will not be looking at lockdowns!
She is also on record criticising people for not wearing masks in an open space playground.
The prime minister has expressed hope that everyone would want to contribute to the inquiry.
This sentiment is, at best, naïve.
Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews is unlikely to fully cooperate if the actions of his government are scrutinised. Nor are his public servants, given the exposure to probable criticism.
The premier’s repeated obfuscation on a range of issues engenders little hope that the actions of his government will face any tough examination.
Nor will the inquiry examine “international programs and activities assisting foreign countries.”
Overall the inquiry is a "toothless tiger" when it comes to extracting the required information to arrive at a full picture of the decision-making that took place about a range of issues.
Opposition Leader Peter Dutton is correct to criticise this announcement and to suggest it is a “protection racket” for the Labor state premiers.
“The significant issue of Covid needs to be properly investigated’” said Mr. Dutton. “That period of our history needs to be properly understood.”
“The prime minister owes it to the Australian people to have a proper understanding of what happened at a state and federal level in relation to COVID, the policies, the decisions that were being made,” he said.
“If we don’t learn the lessons of what happened during the course of COVID, good and bad, by every level of government, how do we expect to go into the next pandemic not understanding what had happened in the previous one? It doesn’t make any sense.”
Mr. Dutton added that “it’s clear that either the prime minister’s been rolled here by Daniel Andrews and the premier of Queensland, or the prime minister is just happy to make a mockery of his own words before the election.”
Further, Prime Minister Albanese has been resisting the establishment of an inquiry for months.
Yet he has established numerous inquiries into a range of other issues in the 16 months his government has been in office.
None of the other issues have involved the loss of life, the ongoing physical and mental issues, or the deprivation of livelihoods that resulted from decisions about COVID-19.
Facing ongoing criticism, he has instead, decided to establish a watered-down process, hoping that the Australian people will be satisfied.
Yet this is nothing short of an insult to the Australian people.