Brits beat us to an independent pandemic inquiry

Britain has announced Baroness Hallett, a former judge of the Court of Appeal and a non-party member of the House of Lords, will chair the inquiry, but the terms of reference have yet to be detailed.

The inquiry was promised by the Johnson administration a year ago, but delayed because of the demands of the pandemic on medical staff and government officials. However, ongoing pressure from the community, interest groups and families about the government’s management of the virus, the need to identify any mistakes, whether more lives could have been saved, and comparisons to other countries’ responses forced the government to honour its commitment.

By stark contrast, no Australian government has made a commitment to such an inquiry. This is despite many legitimate concerns about our responses to the pandemic, including the vaccine rollout, the contrary nature of different state chief health officers’ advice, border closures and lockdowns, different testing regimes, the loss of civil liberties, and the economic, social and education impacts.

Of course, Australia’s federal system and written constitution makes appointing a royal commission type of inquiry problematic, compared to the United Kingdom.

Because the pandemic response responsibility in Australia has been necessarily shared between both national and state governments across many different areas, any royal commission would need to be a joint federal-state effort.

A federal-only royal commission would have no jurisdiction to seek information or to call witnesses from state administrations – which made many of the decisions concerning health, education and borders. A royal commission by just one state, while useful for that jurisdiction, would be unable to obtain information from other states or the Commonwealth.

While joint federal-state royal commissions are not unusual in Australia, it is difficult to see how the Commonwealth and states could agree about membership, terms of reference, processes, funding and reporting deadlines in relation to this issue. There is just too much at stake politically. Blame shifting will be the order of the day. Everyone will be trying to protect each other’s backs.

Indeed, no government in Australia – federal, state or territory – wants a royal commission with its coercive powers of investigation and public processes set loose to call witnesses and experts, procure hitherto confidential briefings, or hear complaints from the public or business.

Even if such a royal commission had very restricted terms of reference and regardless of how hand-picked its membership, such inquiries have a habit of going where no one expected, and discovering facts no one wanted revealed. The swarm of royal commissions into corruption during the 1980s and 1990s that rebounded back on the appointing governments – sending many into opposition and some politicians into jail – highlights this only too well.

Interestingly, the federal Labor opposition has not advocated a wide-ranging royal commission into the pandemic, which is unusual for an opposition in the run-up to an election. While it might expose the Morrison government’s mistakes, it might also expose the overzealous reactions and the inadequacy of health systems in the Labor states of Victoria, Queensland and Western Australia – not something an incoming federal Labor administration would want.

There is no doubt Australia, like the United Kingdom, needs an independent review of our nation’s responses to the pandemic. However, our system of government makes that seemingly impossible to achieve.

Outside of a royal commission, we just do not have any other mechanism we could trust to do this properly. A parliamentary committee would just be a political party bunfight. A review by government department officials would be neither independent nor have appropriate powers.

At best all we can do is watch how the Brits run their inquiry, and maybe learn a lesson or two from its eventual findings.