One of the experts tasked with probing Australia’s response to Covid-19 has sought to allay fears states will escape scrutiny, after a new inquiry fell short of putting them under the microscope.
The inquiry, announced by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and Health Minister Mark Butler on Thursday, will seek to ensure Australia is prepared for the next pandemic.
It was the confirmation in the terms of reference that the “unilateral” actions of the states and territories – who were responsible for lockdowns, border closures and vaccine mandates – would not be put under the microscope that has attracted criticism.
The opposition have been leading the charge in slamming the government for setting up a “toothless tiger” inquiry, saying any probe that did not compel the states to front up would be weak.
They have also accused the Prime Minister of “breaking a promise”. Mr Albanese had indicated multiple times before he was elected that a “royal commission or some sort of inquiry” into the nation’s response to the pandemic would be established if he won.
Meanwhile, the human rights commission has said not including the decisions of state and territory governments was concerning, because “Australia is a federation, and needs an inquiry that reflects this”.
But Catherine Bennett – one of the three women tasked with heading up the inquiry – said the panel would “absolutely” be talking to state leaders and authorities to ensure there was a full picture, and national cabinet would also form a key part of the probe.
“There will be a formal process of inviting input,” she told ABC Radio.
“People still in their roles or who were in past roles – we would be very keen to hear from them, as part of our co-ordinated look at this response.”
Defending his decision on Thursday, Mr Albanese said the inquiry would bring together the 20-odd inquiries already completed, and that a royal commission would take too long and cost too much.
He has denied accusations he is running a “protection racket” for the Labor state premiers by not compelling them to make submissions to the inquiry.
The government says there is nothing preventing states from contributing and participating, but that the focus was on the national response in the pandemic.
Deputy Opposition Leader Sussan Ley doubled down on her attack of the inquiry on Friday morning, saying the inquiry was simply Mr Albanese “looking after his Labor mates”.
“How can you possibly have an inquiry that doesn’t look at the totality of what this did, in a way that actually allows us to learn how to do better next time?” she posited to 7News.
“Unfortunately, there may well be a next time. We need … to know how we can learn the lessons.
“But I came out strongly because I was shocked, I was angry, and on behalf of people who were affected by this, we do need those answers”
Treasurer Jim Chalmers said the focus of the Covid inquiry was “what the Commonwealth can do better”.
“We need to recognise that there have been 20 different inquiries and reviews,” he said.
“We will focus on some of the big decisions that were taken by our predecessors and many with our support, we acknowledge that.
“We want to make sure that we get that right. It is not a partisan thing we are trying to do here.
“Trying to work out … what can we learn from the past to do better in the future? The states are welcome to participate in that. We anticipate states might make decisions or participate in other ways in the process that we have set up.”
Opposition Leader Peter Dutton, however, remains unconvinced, saying only a royal commission could do the job that needed to be done.
“A royal commission … has powers that a normal inquiry doesn’t have, it also has objectivity, it is not biased, it will present the facts,” he told 9News.
“People sort of forget now but a lot of people are scarred, still, from Covid.
“We should look at both the state decisions and the commonwealth decisions.”
Mr Dutton said, in his opinion, it appeared as though Victorian Premier Dan Andrews or Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk had said to Mr Albanese “we’re not going to allow you to look at the decisions we’ve made”.
“I think the Prime Minister should have exerted his authority and stepped up,” he said.