(Images: AAP/Mick Tsikas; Private Media/Gorkie)

Gladys Berejiklian’s failure to contain COVID in NSW, the federal government’s errors on vaccination sourcing and distribution, and state and federal governments’ failings on quarantine have inflicted massive economic damage, cost scores of lives and the likelihood of any many more deaths and long-term illness.

Combine all that with the federal government’s debacle on aged care in 2020 and the Andrews’ government’s quarantine errors in Victoria that led to the loss of hundreds of lives, and we have the most catastrophic failure of public policy since Iraq. In direct human and economic costs for Australia, it dwarves Iraq.

Despite Labor’s promise to hold an inquiry into our participation in the Iraq disaster and the lies that got us into it, we’ve never had a proper examination of it, and the perpetrators — John Howard and Alexander Downer — have never been held responsible or even forced to publicly account for their actions that led to the greatest strategic disaster of the post-Vietnam period.

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This is one of the reasons we now have a political climate in which governments and leaders ignore accountability and don’t feel any compunction about routinely lying to voters.

Howard, Tony Blair and George W Bush lied about our security, lied about weapons of mass destruction, lied about the consequences of their reckless and criminal behaviour.

That’s why there’s a need for an independent inquiry into the major failings of our governments’ response to the pandemic. It’s also necessary to ensure that we work out what we got right and wrong over the past 18 months.

One of the key failings of the modern Australian public service is a lack of effective evaluation of programs, depriving decision-makers of crucial information about how to improve policies and programs. An independent inquiry is the only way to ensure that what should be a basic part of contemporary public policy is carried out.

Such an inquiry would be unusual in covering both federal and state governments. But it is federal and state governments that have insisted, through the national cabinet process, that they are working together.

That’s why a royal commission established by national cabinet to inquire into the pandemic response at all levels of government should be on the agenda of that body. What kind of terms of reference should it have? Here’s a first draft. The royal commission would examine:

  • The impact of COVID-19 on residential aged care facilities, the effectiveness of regulatory measures covering the aged care sector in relation to the pandemic, and the performance of Commonwealth regulatory and funding bodies in minimising the impact of COVID in aged care
  • The establishment of the hotel quarantine system over purpose-built quarantine facilities, including the establishment of the Victorian hotel quarantine system in 2020 and circumstances leading to the outbreak in Victoria in June 2020, and the regulation of quarantine transport in Sydney leading to the outbreak in NSW in June 2021
  • Each outbreak of COVID in Australia in 2021, the systemic factors that led to each outbreak and its subsequent transmission and the response of governments to each outbreak
  • The identification and sourcing of vaccines by the Commonwealth
  • The distribution of vaccines by the Commonwealth and states and systemic factors that led to delays in rollout
  • The performance of contact tracing systems in responding to outbreaks
  • The performance of state hospital systems in responding to outbreaks
  • The effectiveness of the national cabinet system.

This is an inquiry that would range widely across high-level policymaking, on-the-ground performance and the operation of governmental systems. It would need perhaps half a dozen commissioners with a variety of expertise covering health and care services, policymaking, regulation and epidemiology.

But it would avoid the economic policymaking aspects of the response, which have functioned relatively well and in relation to which the main questions are about companies receiving and keeping JobKeeper when they shouldn’t have.

It shouldn’t start while NSW is still seeing mounting case numbers — maybe it shouldn’t start until 2022. But politicians from the prime minister and premiers down should at some point next year be making their way into the witness box, where there’ll be no “I reject the premise of your question”, no “Please respect this press conference”, no “I’ll take that on notice”, but actual accountability.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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