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We need a Royal Commission into bungled vaccine rollout

Opinion

Only a top-level inquiry can uncover the detail of the Federal Government’s pandemic vaccination response so Australia can learn the lessons, argues Rex Patrick.

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It’s an old saying that those who do not learn from the past are doomed to repeat it. But to learn from the Covid-19 pandemic we need to inquire, investigate and analyse.

Covid-19 has unquestionably presented Australia with some of the biggest public policy challenges Australia has faced since the end of the Second World War. It has cost the Federal Government well over $300 billion. The impacts on State and Territory budgets have also been huge and won’t diminish for a long while yet.

A Royal Commission of inquiry is absolutely essential so that we learn all the lessons of the Australian Government’s Covid-19 response. Any such an inquiry needs to hold our top decision makers to account. Prime Minister Scott Morrison should be prepared to front up to explain and justify his Government’s policies and actions.

 Only a Royal Commission can cut through government spin and secrecy to get at the truth of Australia’s national pandemic response.

The Australian Government’s response to Covid-19 has been characterised by both success and innovation, especially in the initial response to the pandemic, and by embarrassing and highly damaging failures, notably the false promise of the CovidSafe app, abuse of the JobKeeper program by company directors, quarantine mismanagement, avoidable deaths in aged care facilities and failure to ensure the timely procurement and distribution of vaccines.

Last year Australia was the envy of many other nations with our success in flattening the Covid-19 curve. However, the sad fact is that Australia has now fallen from being a world leader to being hopelessly at the back of the pack in terms of vaccinations.

Australian people have been left vulnerable to the new, highly infectious strains of Covid-19 with consequent great economic and social costs from lockdowns, border closures and the devastation of industries including hospitality, tourism and international education.

A Royal Commission inquiry is essential to establish precisely why Australia is now in the mess we find ourselves in.

Only a Royal Commission can cut through government spin and secrecy to get at the truth of Australia’s national pandemic response.

There have already been several inquiries into aspects of Australia’s Covid-19 response including the New South Wales Special Commission of inquiry into the Ruby Princess incident and the Victorian Covid-19 hotel quarantine inquiry. The Federal Senate Select Committee on Covid-19 has also examined many aspects of our national response to the pandemic.

However, the NSW and Victorian inquiries were narrowly focussed on specific issues and Australian Government officials were shielded from scrutiny. The Senate Committee inquiry has also often encountered Australian Government obstruction and obfuscation.

The Departments of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, the Department of Health and other agencies have frequently claimed Cabinet secrecy and commercial-in-confidence arrangements to deny the Committee access to vital information. The Health Department has even claimed national security as a reason to withhold information on vaccine policy, procurement, and distribution.

At the highest levels of policy making, the Prime Minister has extended Cabinet secrecy across Federal-State relations by claiming that his so-called “National Cabinet” is part of the Australian Cabinet. The only explanation for this extraordinary departure from the conventions of responsible ministerial government is a clear determination to prevent scrutiny through Freedom of Information and parliamentary committee inquiries.

In these circumstances it would only compound the Australian Government’s failures if there were not a wide-ranging and independent national inquiry into the Government’s Covid-19 response.

Such an inquiry would most importantly identify lessons for Australia’s responses to future pandemics and other events that challenge our national resilience.

Such an inquiry will need the full investigatory powers available under Part 2 of the Royal Commission Act 1902 to hold public hearings and if necessary to exercise coercive powers to obtain testimony, documents and other evidence.

A Royal Commission should be able to access not only the records of the “National Cabinet”, but all the records and deliberations of the Government that are subject to claims of Cabinet secrecy.

The Victorian hotel quarantine inquiry was given access to Victorian Cabinet records, and a Federal Royal Commission should have full access to all relevant Australian Cabinet records.

A Royal Commission would have the capacity to summon witnesses and take evidence from Prime Minister Morrison, Health Minister Greg Hunt, other key Ministers as well as senior bureaucrats including the former Chief Medical Officer and now Secretary of the Department of Health, Dr Brendan Murphy.

Victorian Premier Dan Andrews and senior Victorian officials fronted up at the Victorian inquiry. One would hope that Mr Morrison, Mr Hunt and Dr Murphy would be prepared to appear before a Federal Royal Commission. However a Royal Commission would have the power to compel their attendance if there was any reluctance to do so.

In the past, two serving Prime Ministers gave evidence to Royal Commissions, Bob Hawke in 1983 before the second Hope Royal Commission on Intelligence and Security, and John Howard in 2006 before the Cole Royal Commission inquiry into the Australian Wheat Board wheat for oil scandal.

Royal Commissions are a regular and vitally important part of the public policy process in Australia, especially to deal with highly complex issues of great importance to our nation.

Australia’s national pandemic response is an issue that cries out for investigation by a Royal Commission.

Only a Royal Commission will have the authority, power and scope to cover the full breadth and depth of issues arising in Australia’s Covid-19 response.

Only a Royal Commission can extract the truth from reluctant ministers and bureaucrats.

Only a Royal Commission can pursue an fully independent investigation, and deliver authoritative findings to serve as a guide for future policy.

A Royal Commission inquiry is an essential part of our nation’s Covid-19 response.

Rex Patrick is a South Australian Senator

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