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National, state responses must be included in any COVID-19 pandemic royal commission

By Scott Prasser - posted Wednesday, 31 August 2022

It seems the Prime Minister will soon be announcing a royal commission "or similar inquiry" into Australia's response to the pandemic, though its form, scope and membership remain unclear.

Anthony Albanese is reported to have stressed although the inquiry's focus will primarily be on the federal government's responses it "would also look at state government responses" to the pandemic.

Coming after four months in office the Albanese government should have resolved by now what sort of inquiry we should be having into the pandemic that raged for over two years, caused many deaths, closed down the economy, cost billions of dollars, destroyed businesses and compromised our civil liberties.


Indeed, these inquiries along with the just announced review of former prime minster Scott Morrison's assuming ministerial responsibilities across several portfolios, have a taint of political revenge on the previous government in the same way the Abbott administration appointed a royal commission into Labor's home insulation scheme.

Nevertheless, there are important issues that warrant a proper inquiry into the Commonwealth's responses to the pandemic, like the rollout of the vaccine, federal support measures, international border and immigration issues.

However, there can be no proper review of our nation's response to the pandemic unless it also covers state reactions given their pivotal constitutional responsibilities covering health, education, border closures and law enforcement.

Nor can there be an effective review unless the inquiry has the statutory coercive investigative powers of a royal commission so witnesses can be called, files accessed, evidence heard in public and recommendations released.

And for that to happen, it must be a joint Commonwealth-state royal commission so its powers of investigation can cross all jurisdictions and boundaries.

A Commonwealth-only royal commission would have no powers to obtain information from the states where so many issues about the pandemic were decided and caused in some cases, such pain.


There are plenty of precedents for joint Commonwealth-state royal commissions.

The most recent is the Royal Commission into Violence, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability appointed in 2019 and still under way.

Whether there can be a Commonwealth-state royal commission with wide-ranging and agreed terms of references and appropriate expert and independent members will be a test for the Albanese government. Is the proposed inquiry just to signal concern, or to really improve Australia's future policy responses to such crises?

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This article was originally published on 28 August 2022 in 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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