A funny thing happened in the Senate last week.
Labor and Green senators inexplicably opposed their own long-standing and publicly stated policy to have a royal commission into the pandemic when they voted against UAP Senator Ralph Babet's matter of public importance motion that "the Labor government must honour their promises and establish a royal commission into the pandemic response immediately."
The Coalition and six members of the crossbench supported the motion which was tied and thus defeated.
Again, this reminds us that the Albanese government has still not appointed, its promised royal commission into Australia's pandemic response.
And let's not forget the 2022 Senate COVID committee dominated by Labor and Green senators and chaired by Katy Gallagher, now Finance Minister, which recommended a "royal commission be established to examine Australia's response to the COVID-19 pandemic."
Labor senator Marielle Smith claimed during the debate that a royal commission "remains the position of the Albanese Labor government ... we said that before the election, we have said it since and that remans our position".
Nevertheless, Senator Smith and other Labor and Green senators, including Senator Gallagher, still voted against the motion because "we are not yet through the COVID pandemic".
More importantly, other countries have held or are holding independent public inquiries to review their pandemic responses.
Sweden appointed a commission of inquiry at the beginning of COVID in 2020 to monitor government actions and presented its final report in 2022.
Norway, Denmark, and Brazil have also had inquiries.
In the United Kingdom, a major public inquiry chaired by Baroness Hallett, a former senior judge, is currently under way.
Last December the New Zealand Ardern government appointed a royal commission to assess what happened and to plan for future pandemics. It has yet to report.
Australia, it seems, is unable or unwilling, to appoint a national, independent inquiry despite promises from our leaders.
To date, all Australia as had was last year's privately funded Shergold review.
While it highlighted numerous problems, it lacked the powers and imprimatur of a royal commission to probe deeply or to speak authoritatively. Consequently, it was easily ignored by most governments with the Victorian Premier reportedly dismissing it as a report "written by a bunch of academics".
Surely, we can do better than the backflips we saw in the Senate last week.
Surely, we owe it to the thousands of Australians who died during the pandemic to review what happened and why.
Surely, for future generations we should learn from the mistakes that occurred to be better prepared next time.
Australia may have had one of the lowest pandemic death rates in the world, and our economy has bounced back quickly, but many concerns remain like: vaccine rollouts; inconsistent state responses; impacts of national and state border closures, lockdowns and school closures; suspension of parliamentary sittings; loss of civil liberties; lack of scientific basis of some responses; and the confused role of the national cabinet.
There are two impediments to Australia having a royal commission.
One is our federal system. Given the importance of the states during the pandemic any review needs to be a joint federal-state royal commission. There are many precedents for such joint inquiries, but the complexity of the issues and the vested interests at stake, would pose some challenges in securing agreement across nine governments about any inquiry's terms of reference, membership, and timeframes.
Second, there is, as usual, politics. The Albanese government's reluctance to appoint a royal commission might be because five Labor states and territories held office during the pandemic and they might be criticised by an independent review for some of their actions. After all, those governments are all still in office.
Also, a royal commission might even find that the now much-blamed Morrison government handled, under the circumstances, some aspects of the pandemic well.
- Scott Prasser has recently published New directions in royal commissions and public inquiries: Do we need them?