Politicians including the treasurer have defended the government’s inquiry into the COVID-19 pandemic response, insisting it is a worthwhile exercise despite widespread condemnation it has been excluded from scrutinising the unilateral decisions made by each state.
Treasurer Jim Chalmers doubled down on the merit of the government’s long-awaited inquiry, maintaining that despite the criticism, the inquiry would ascertain all information that is required to inform future pandemic responses.
“I’m confident when people see the way that this review proceeds over the next 12 months or so that it will give people the answers that they’re seeking,” Dr Chalmers told Sky News’ Sunday Agenda.
“The primary focus will be on those Commonwealth responsibilities, and we take responsibility for those things that are in our areas, and that’s what this is about.”
Dr Chalmers claimed the probe was free to look at issues outside its terms of reference, adding that states weren’t precluded from giving evidence if they wished.
“It won’t prevent the states from taking part,” he said.
But most controversially, the inquiry’s terms of reference explicitly exclude “actions taken unilaterally by state and territory governments”.
This means the most contentious decisions including lockdowns, school closures, vaccination mandates, internal border closures and contract tracing will be exempt from investigation unless state and territory witnesses volunteer to appear.
Emergency Management Minister Murray Watt also defended the decision to exempt states and territories, saying the probe should look into border and school closures.
He told ABC’s Insiders the inquiry “would never end” if it were to investigate every decision made by each state and territory governments.
“For starters, there was never a commitment to have a royal commission,” he said.
“The commitment was to have an independent inquiry. That‘s what we’ve established. The government is about trying to understand lessons from the past, rather than trying to engage in political point-scoring.
“Typically royal commissions have been used for areas where you’re had maladministration, potential corruption, potentially referrals such as the Robodebt.”
The inquiry is neither a judicial inquiry nor a royal commission, and therefore will not have the power to compel witnesses and is not required to hold hearings in public.
Instead, it will predominantly focus on the Commonwealth response to the pandemic – principally that of the former Morrison government – including the closure of international borders, vaccine procurement, and government handouts like JobKeeper and JobSeeker.
The appointment of health economist and former Labor staffer Angela Jackson to the panel of the inquiry has also come under fire after it was revealed she had staunchly defended lockdowns imposed by Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews.
Public administration expert Robyn Kruk and epidemiologist Catherine Bennett will also serve on the panel.
Before the May 2022 election, the prime minister stated that there would need to be a “royal commission or some form of inquiry” into the pandemic response.
But in announcing the inquiry, Mr Albanese said that given a royal commission would take too long to conduct and that a judge would not have the requisite expertise, he had opted for an inquiry instead.
During the pandemic, a Senate committee led by current Finance Minister Katy Gallagher that probed the government’s response recommended the establishment of a royal commission.
The inquiry is expected to last 12 months.