Tuesday, 17 October 2023
Legal and Constitutional Affairs References Committee; Reference
I'm actually pleased that I had to give way to the minister and hear her statement in relation to this matter. As Senator Cadell said, I do come to this matter with a particular perspective. The previous government went through the process of a royal commission that looked at part of the way in which this country handled the COVID pandemic. Specifically, that was the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety, which looked at aged care as part of its process. That commission has reported, and the previous government has obviously responded. And, might I say, it had dealt with the recommendations of the royal commission pretty much by the time they were handed down.
As to what the government is proposing in relation to this current inquiry, even though I come at this from a very different perspective to that of Senator Roberts and others in this chamber, I can say unequivocally, having been in the middle of a lot of what occurred, that it is simply impossible to properly investigate any one of the terms of reference proposed by the government without the involvement of the states. The response to the pandemic was so intertwined between the states and the Commonwealth that, without the capacity to properly investigate the roles of the states, it is simply impossible to properly review what happened during the pandemic. You cannot do it. You cannot properly look at any one—not one—of the terms of reference proposed by the government. So many things occurred during the process. It is impossible to consider, for example, how the national hospitals guarantee put the resources of the private hospital system at the disposal of the states to support their public health response to the pandemic.
The public health response was always, constitutionally, the responsibility of the states, and it continues to be the responsibility of the states. A stunning realisation came to all of us who were asking for COVID data out of Victoria—which was being provided by every other state—that it couldn't be provided because it didn't exist. There was no data available out of Victoria because the Victorian system had completely melted down.
The inquiry proposed by the government doesn't have the power to require the provision of documents. It cannot possibly do its job. And—as was so eloquently put by my colleague Senator Scarr—it doesn't look at the roles of the states. In aged care there were different rules in every state, adding to the significant load on the administration of aged-care providers at a time of extreme stress. As Senator Hanson said, families were locked out of aged care homes. Families were locked out by state decisions, not by Commonwealth decisions. It was the public health orders of the states that did that, not the Commonwealth. This review proposed by the government can't look at that. It's impossible.
The inquiry can't even look properly at the vaccine rollout because of the intrinsic involvement of the states in that process—they were integrally involved. It can't look at how Victoria proposed the concept of hotel quarantine. How did that go? It failed its own management, to the detriment of the country. It can't look at the maintenance of supply chains because it can't look at the restrictions on borders that were applied by the states. It can't look at financial support provided by the government because it can't look at state programs—the states already had programs. It can't look comprehensively at the provision of PPE because it can't look at state based procurement processes. The whole thing can only be seen as a half-baked exercise designed to have a crack at the previous federal government and leave the states out regarding their roles. It can't do all those things.
If the government are genuine about their promise to the Australian people to properly review the pandemic, they should do it properly. They shouldn't do something in a half-baked manner, like they're doing. The review simply cannot properly respond to any of its terms of reference because it doesn't look at the role of the states and it doesn't have the power to go into those states and secure documents and look at the issues that need to be resolved.
So, even though I come at this from a very different perspective to Senator Roberts and Senator Hanson, I think it's incumbent on the government to do something that is comprehensive in the context of looking at the pandemic. I think we deserve that. We went through a lot.
I have to say, though, we came out of the pandemic probably better than nearly every country in the world, and I think the review will show that. I know that, in the context of my portfolio, we were one of the two or three best performing countries on the planet—not that you would've known that from what the now government said during the pandemic itself. I'm happy to stand on my record in that sense, and I think the government should stand up and support this project.