Stock image of COVID-19 testing.
People queue at a walk-in COVID-19 testing site at the Melbourne Town Hall during the pandemic. Image by Con Chronis/AAP PHOTOS
  • politics

COVID royal commission backer says things have changed

September 22, 2023

A senior Labor figure who previously called for a royal commission into the COVID-19 pandemic argues “things have changed” since the recommendation was made.

Before the 2022 election, Labor senator Katy Gallagher – who is now finance minister in the Albanese government – chaired an inquiry into the pandemic response which called for a royal commission.

But the recommendation never went to the shadow cabinet, with party leader and now Prime Minister Anthony Albanese endorsing “a measure like a royal commission”.

The federal opposition has taken aim at the government for its announcement on Thursday of an inquiry, rather than a royal commission with tougher powers to compel witnesses and evidence.

They claim federal Labor took the step to protect Labor premiers from scrutiny.

“On the issue around the royal commission, a fair bit has changed,” Senator Gallagher told reporters in Canberra on Friday.

“There have been a huge number of inquiries and reviews that have gone on since that time, which no doubt the independent team will be able to use as part of their work.”

Senator Gallagher said it was not a political exercise or a blame game but a “genuine attempt to basically ensure that we are in the best place that we can be when the next pandemic arrives”.

The inquiry panel comprises three experts: former NSW Department of Health director-general Robyn Kruk, Deakin University’s chair in epidemiology Professor Catherine Bennett, and health economist Dr Angela Jackson.

A final report will be handed down by September 30 next year.

It will not investigate state and territory decisions, which means many of the pandemic’s controversial features including lockdowns, school closures and mask mandates will not fall under the spotlight. 

Treasurer Jim Chalmers said there was nothing preventing the states from making a contribution to it.

“But our primary focus is to take responsibility for the Commonwealth powers and levers to learn from the past so that we can do things better in the future,” he said.

Opposition Leader Peter Dutton is continuing to call for a royal commission, saying Mr Albanese needed to honour the promise he made to Australians.

Victorian Premier Dan Andrews confirmed on Friday he would be willing to appear before the inquiry.

“I’m happy to participate, to be called, to appear, to provide documents to assist so that if we have another one of these events, we’re ready,” he said. 

Mr Andrews noted the lockdowns were needed because vaccines were not available.

“I was not in charge of ordering the vaccines. The people that were, well, they can speak for themselves.”

NT Chief Minister Natasha Fyles said she would be willing to front the inquiry and maintained the importance of reviewing territory-level decisions, a step taken when a report from the chief health officer was tabled in parliament in 2022. 

“I hope we don’t have another pandemic but we certainly can learn lessons from COVID-19,” she told reporters.

The inquiry could also present a chance to better integrate rural GPs and health services into disaster planning, Rural Doctors Association of Australia president Megan Belot said.

“No one was more affected by the issues of transport interruptions and supply chain difficulties, particularly in regards to accessing personal protective equipment, than rural health care providers and their patients,” Dr Belot said.