Uninquiring minds

The rub is hidden in a line only slightly longer than a haiku. The inquiry will look at all aspects of the pandemic except: “actions taken unilaterally by state and territory governments”.

In those eight words are 3000 people locked in commission flats and an entire city under curfew. That line is the distance between people in a park and the choices made by people living alone. Likely, it hides a cruise ship docked at Circular Quay and the decisions to open or close schools.

The advice given to premiers about snap lockdowns and other measure will probably be excluded. So, too, draconian police powers and the established human rights abuses that followed them. There will be no scrutiny of whether these measures were effective or necessary.

“One of the things that I want to do from the lessons as well is to ensure that we’re positive, that the process of learning from the pandemic is constructive, rather than destructive,” Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said when announcing the inquiry.

“We need to make sure that this is forward focused and consider all of the Commonwealth responses to the pandemic.”

The inquiry will not be a royal commission, although one was promised. It will have only a year to make its findings. The decision to limit its scope may seem tricky, because it is. The Australian Medical Association has already called it a half-inquiry.

Sceptics suggest Albanese is deliberately shielding Labor premiers from scrutiny. This is a foolish choice. More pandemics are an inevitability of climate change, and the country would benefit from a frank and pointed assessment of this one.

The response to the pandemic was inescapably tied up in the relationship between the states and the Commonwealth. Throughout, federal powers went unused. The Morrison government preferred to leave the difficult decisions to premiers.

The Commonwealth oversight possible for hotel quarantine was never utilised, only because it entailed responsibility. Border rules were federal, but the Rydges on Swanston was Victoria’s problem.

The Commonwealth obligation to aged-care homes, places where people were most vulnerable to death, was never acted on. Again, the choices were piecemeal and belonged to the states.

Presumably, Albanese hopes this inquiry will be a relitigation of Scott Morrison’s incompetence. On that, he might as well have given the independent panel a barrel and a gun each with which to shoot fish.

The inquiry will deal with the inability to negotiate vaccine supply, with the missed emails and fumbled opportunities, the slapstick approach to public health. It will remind us that the vaccine plan was never updated.

Probably it will look at the perverse incentives for testing companies and the inconsistencies of rapid antigen kits, until the government gave up all together. It will underline the back-of-a-napkin planning for JobKeeper and possibly call the businesspeople who advised on the scheme’s generosity. Hopefully, it will probe the arbitrary exclusions that left entire sectors adrift.

Each of these points warrants attention. The federal government has significant responsibilities in a pandemic. Yet the states remain responsible for public health and hospitals, for schools and policing. To exclude unilateral decisions in these areas is purely political – the same politics that have frustrated the pandemic response from the very beginning. It’s possible Albanese’s not all that different from Morrison, he’s just a little smarter.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 23, 2023 as "Uninquiring minds".

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