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A 'privatised' review of the COVID pandemic is not the answer

By Scott Prasser - posted Monday, 11 April 2022

Despite many calls for an independent public inquiry, usually in the form of a royal commission, to review Australia's responses to the pandemic, no government, federal or state, has obliged.

The problem is any effective royal commission would have to be a joint federal-state effort given Australia's responses were shared across governments so getting agreement on the terms of reference and membership might be hard to achieve. Moreover, all governments might be concerned what a royal commission might expose given their past record.

However, the announcement this week that three philanthropic groups - Andrew "Twiggy" Forrest's Minderoo Foundation, the Paul Ramsay Foundation and the Myriam Wylie to drive a private inquiry into Australia's handling of the pandemic is not the answer.


The proposed review neither appears expert or independent, nor will it have the necessary authority or legal powers to probe deeply and procure information from governments and others about the pandemic.

Although its chair, Dr Peter Shergold, a retired head of the Department of Prime Minster and Cabinet, understands public policy and chaired some government inquiries, none of his experience indicates he has had much to do with health issues.

Indeed, only one of the committee's five members has any health expertise, but that is as a director of the Doherty Institute which provided analysis to governments about pandemic health issues and is thus compromised as any proper review must examine the value of that advice.

One other member served with distinction as head of a Commonwealth department but that was in trade and foreign affairs, not health, and the last review he conducted was into trade with India in 2017.

Exactly how another appointee, the 2021 Young Australia of the Year who although a medical student qualifies as being - according to one of the sponsoring charities - "very experienced" is unclear. And exactly what expertise is brought to the panel by another member whose career seems mostly in banking and finance?

Further undermining this review's perceived independence is that it will be supported by another think tank, the e61 Institute funded by the wealthy entrepreneur Grant Rule which until last week had as one of its key members, Andrew Charlton, now the federal Labor candidate for Parramatta and a former adviser to Kevin Rudd.


Where are the state and territory government representatives and how will this "inquiry" collect evidence from these different jurisdictions?

Also, as a private review there are no open hearings and although public submissions will be accepted - as long as they are not more than 1500 words according to chair Shergold - they will be "kept confidential".

This highlights another flaw. Proper public inquiries usually not only have public hearings, but submissions and any research conducted are usually released so we can see check the veracity of its findings.

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This article was first published by the Canberra Times.

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About the Author

Dr Scott Prasser has worked on senior policy and research roles in federal and state governments. His recent publications include:Royal Commissions and Public Inquiries in Australia (2021); The Whitlam Era with David Clune (2022) and the edited New directions in royal commission and public inquiries: Do we need them?. His forthcoming publication is The Art of Opposition reviewing oppositions across Australia and internationally. .

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