Royal commission into pandemic response has much to recommend it

A royal commission into Australia's performance during the coronavirus pandemic would have plenty of issues to inquire into: the efficiency of the financial response; the adequacy of our public health advice; the disruption to schools and hospitals; the reasons behind outbreaks in aged care facilities and the breakouts from hotel quarantine; and whether the damage to businesses and livelihoods could have been mitigated. And that is just for starters.

With on-again, off-again border closures, arguments over who is responsible for aged care and quarantine, and the formation in double-quick time of a national cabinet, this crisis has stretched and tested Australia's constitutional foundations.

Former Victorian Premier, Jeff Kennett has called for a royal commission into the pandemic. Credit:AFR

The hastily devised response has also tested our social fabric as we have pulled together and complied with onerous restrictions on our freedoms for the greater good. Meanwhile, it has seemed in some respects to renew our faith in the power of politics and the role of governments.

While there have been various inquiries into specific aspects of the country's response to the pandemic, including NSW’s investigation of the Ruby Princess cruise ship debacle, Victoria's inquiry into the failures of its hotel quarantine system, and various reports about aged care outbreaks, there has been no independent overarching examination of the policies put in place and their effects on the broader community.

One of the advocates for a royal commission, Jeff Kennett, who led Victoria for seven years, said an "educative" inquiry was needed because there would be another crisis in the future and lessons needed to be learnt. Also in support was Peter Beattie, a former Queensland Labor premier, who said mistakes had been made and a royal commission exercising its full powers provided a way to ensure future generations did not make the same ones.

It's a strong argument, and one The Age believes should be taken seriously.

Since Federation, Australia has undertaken more than 120 royal commissions on everything from the butter and sugar industries to the nation's constitution. While a fair share may have been of little use or used for political purposes, in recent times some have provided a worthwhile cathartic platform for those who have suffered abuse or wrongdoing at the hands of, for example, banks and religious institutions.

When carried out competently and with the right intention – recent royal commissions following bushfires are an example – they also can provide a thorough appraisal of the issue under scrutiny and deliver constructive recommendations on how to tackle some of society's most entrenched problems.

A royal commission into the pandemic response could offer an extremely valuable blueprint for planning for and managing future crises and the social and constitutional issues they can throw up.

Not everyone is on board. Former Victorian premier Steve Bracks said he believed the idea "nonsensical". State governments had already learnt much through the past 12 months and had put in place "world's best practice" actions to resolve difficult issues, he said: "You don't have a royal commission in the middle of a bushfire, you wait until it's over."

The Age would agree that such an inquiry is probably best left to when the virus is contained. But we believe the idea is sound as long as it follows, as Mr Beattie said, the assumption that it would not turn into a "blame game inquiry" but one focused on the best way to respond to future pandemics.

Outbreaks, errors and fractiousness notwithstanding, Australia, relative to most nations, has responded extremely well to the pandemic. In dealing with the health and economic crises, most governments have got more right than wrong, so far at least. But while the national cabinet has done well to provide a framework for collective decision making, it would be naive to believe it was perfect.

A royal commission would offer the opportunity to ensure that whatever lessons have been learnt in whatever sector or level of government, whether they be successes or failures, could be aired publicly, considered, and encapsulated into one report. Sensible recommendations could lead to changes that improve the functioning of our federation. At its best, a royal commission could improve the functioning of our society and politics, and that would be invaluable to anyone asked to manage the next such crisis.

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