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Western Australia pandemic inquiry – but where’s Australia’s?

By Scott Prasser - posted Monday, 27 February 2023

While the Albanese Government dithers in keeping its reported promises to appoint a national inquiry or royal commission into Australia’s response to the pandemic, the Western Australian government has recently announced, an “independent” inquiry to “review the State's COVID-19 pandemic management and response”.

Despite the emerging criticisms of our national and state responses to the pandemic, Western Australia is the only Australian jurisdiction to date that has established an external public inquiry to evaluate its pandemic policies.

While this inquiry is welcomed it is highly flawed given its membership, lack of statutory powers of investigation to call witnesses, take evidence under oath, or to procure documents, and narrow terms of reference.  


Although the government says it has appointed “three independent experts to conduct the review” none has any health qualifications. Moreover, their previous roles as ministers, public servants leading arts departments or federal regulatory bodies and current roles serving on state government advisory boards covering gaming, energy, and the arts, hardly makes the inquiry appear to be independent from government.

Given the absence of health qualifications it is unclear how the committee is to assess the “effectiveness of public health levers on health outcomes” or the “government’s programs and processes to support the health response” including “COVID-19 testing …vaccine rollout”.

Lacking any statutory coercive powers of investigation, unlike a royal commission, the inquiry will have to rely on the goodwill of the Western Australian government for access to departmental files, health department records and information from the pivotal State Emergency Management Committee.

Indeed, in announcing the inquiry Premier McGowan could not confirm exactly what documents the inquiry would have access to admitting he hadn’t “really considered that”. So how is this inquiry going to “assess the best evidence”?   

While the inquiry is expected to consult with “public sector agencies and other stakeholders” it lacks the power to call witnesses or to offer legal protections for those wanting to make  critical submissions.

That Premier McGowan has stated that there’s nothing he would change about his government’s management of the pandemic, seems to have slready  pre-empted the inquiry’s findings making it appear as nothing more than a ‘whitewash’.


Meanwhile, the Albanese Government, although quick to appoint a royal commission into its predecessor’s robodebt program, has failed to implement recommendations of the Senate COVID inquiry chaired by Senator Katy Gallagher, now federal Finance Minister, that a “royal commission be established to examine Australia’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic to inform preparedness for future COVID-19 and future pandemics”.

Perhaps the Albanese Government is concerned what an independent scrutiny might find about the five Labor states and territories given some of their controversial actions during the pandemic.

Although Australia had one of the lowest pandemic death rates in the world, and its economy has bounced back, many concerns remain about our responses to the pandemic including: the rollout of the vaccines; contradictory state policy responses; the constitutionality and impacts of state border closures and lockdowns; suspension of parliamentary sittings and civil liberties; impacts of schools closures; and the role of the National Cabinet.

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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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