Let’s avoid more Covid disasters. The public already knows who to blameSep 26, 2023
During Australia’s Covid-19 pandemic response, some companies received billions in contracts made without tender, sometimes by ministerial intervention. It would be too much, of course, to hope that anything the inquiry into the pandemic response does to address this issue will be taken up with any enthusiasm by the Albanese government. It seems to have lost all zeal for reform.
Australia is to have a searching inquiry, but not a royal commission, into Commonwealth and state management of the Covid pandemic, including of its management of the economy during the crisis. At law, not much really turns on what the inquiry is to be called, assuming it has, as it seems to, far reaching and powerful terms of reference. But it could well matter politically because the Australian public is accustomed to seeing royal commissions as the thing we want after a major disruption, such as floods, fires, or failures by significant institutions of society, and in this sense will tend to see less expansive as some sort of cover-up. That’s a sentiment already seized on by the federal opposition – which was, of course, in government over most of the pandemic – and may well be its alibi in advance if any of its decisions end up being criticised.
But if the inquiry team has its wits about it they will waste little time in conducting public hearings designed to confront and surprise politicians, bureaucrats and other pandemic decision-makers over particular actions taken at particular times, simply so that members of the public will know who should be blamed for whatever undesirable outcome, or alleged undesirable, occurred. A ritual trial, verdict and sentence, in whatever order suits, may be deeply satisfying to a general public whose lives were fundamentally changed by the arrival of the coronavirus. But it will probably serve no particular purpose in answering questions about how the nation should prepare for the next similar natural disaster. Indeed, it may distract from it.
Likewise, the very process of blame allocation will attract defensive politics designed to discredit the inquiry, or its members in advance. It will invite suggestions alleging bias and want of natural justice, the supply of which, to people seeing themselves as victims or the unfairly accused, can never be enough. More seriously, it could undermine the more important and fundamental investigations, arguments and eventual recommendations for which the inquiry was established. That’s about coming to some conclusions about the nature and course of the epidemic, the best responses based on what we now know (as opposed to what we knew at the time), and the efficacy and appropriateness of some medical and social measures used to restrict its severity and its spread. It also involves some consideration of how government, business, community organisations and society generally adapted to the changed circumstances, and the special problems of more vulnerable groups. A careful look at this involves critical assessment of how resources were initially deployed and review of whether preparation for future pandemics might do it better. It will involve assessment of resources co-opted into the struggle, including police and the defence forces. Commonwealth, state and territory governments and the private medical sector redeployed health workers and health facilities. That process had winners and losers and, perhaps, long-term consequences. Lockdown and school closure decisions had major impacts on education, on work and on production. These were controversial and political of themselves. But the review will be, or should be, looking at making some detached judgments of how such policies work, as well as recommendations about what must be done about the consequences of decisions made.
The gallows, if at all, only as a signpost for avoiding bad or ill-informed decisions in future.
There were certainly some bad decisions made over the course of the pandemic – indeed there are very bad decisions being made even now because the pandemic has not yet run its course but has now largely slipped from the public eye, even as risk, morbidity and mortality continue to be very worrying. There were sharp criticisms made of the prime minister, who took charge of the national response, but seemed, sometimes to shrink from responsibility for what occurred. He would say that he was primarily relying on expert health advice, but some critics would say that a good deal of that advice was fashioned from experience and knowledge of what he wanted to hear, rather than what the situation required. The inquiry team will presumably also look closely at other advice being received in government, including about the economic response to sudden mass unemployment and economic disruption, the closure of international (and some state) borders, and changing models of work, including working from home. It will also cover, if retrospectively, the search for vaccines, the ordering of them, the early arrangement for rationing and distributing them, as well as other major health-decisions, including the effective restriction of hospitals to acute Covid cases, maternity and emergency work. It will presumably also look at how the Commonwealth responded in terms of its relationship and responsibilities with other levels of government, the National Cabinet model, and the issues posed as states asserted their authority and acted individually rather than in a united manner.
A great deal of the evidence can be gathered from the documents, and written by inquiry research assistants, leaving the inquiry team to focus on matters of continuing moment, especially medical judgments. Some of the instant controversies, of course, were resolved in time or circumstance and have no lasting significance. These are not matters to be omitted from the record, but nor are they matters on which to dwell. Those who lived through it all may not forget, but it will not much inform what we do next time.
Albanese has said that the inquiry will be only incidentally looking at state responses, but the team can hardly avoid examining in passing the efficacy of different responses by premiers and chief ministers, and the need for the Commonwealth to shape its policies accordingly. It can also hardly avoid looking at the equity of Commonwealth measures as between the states – particularly at charges that the Treasurer, Josh Frydenberg discriminated against his home state, Victoria, because of his party’s hostility to the Victorian Labor government and dictator Dan, the premier whose local stewardship of the pandemic seemed to have been overwhelmingly endorsed by the Victorian electorate. That re-endorsement, and similar ones in Western Australia and Queensland, might seem the more remarkable for occurring among virtual hysteria and abuse by the Murdoch press, as well as from leading Fairfax, radio and ABC commentators. All of these seemed to speak as if they were sure that they had overwhelming public support, but outcomes showed that the ones out of touch with public opinion were them.
We still don’t know if lockdowns, school closures and internal borders are correct responses when the virus is spreading.
It cannot be said that the science has settled on many of the controversies, even if we now know a lot more about how the virus works in the population. Experts remain divided on masks, aerosol spread, and contact transfer. No doubt the inquiry team, which contains health and epidemiological expertise, will attempt to reach some disinterested tentative conclusions. It will know, however, that there are many interested parties, including in government health networks and among those who put a higher emphasis on economic recovery and opening up the economy, ahead of health cautions, anxious to defend their actions and their view of appropriate responses. To their number will be added a significant array of conspiracy theorists, anti-vaxxers, and pseudo-scientists, each screaming to be treated equally with the experts, and to have “natural justice” applied to any rejection of their views. Former PM&C head Peter Shergold, who has his own sets of opinions, has commented that epidemiologists (like economists) rarely agree on anything, so that even without the nutters, the inquiry might find itself exercised.
There will be a lot to criticise with the wisdom of hindsight. No doubt, some of the critical contestable decisions were a result of imperfect knowledge of the virus with which the nation was confronted, its methods of transmission and means of avoiding infection. Even with what is theoretically known about management of an epidemic, it is worth remembering that the last Australian major pandemic posing such a danger to life and health was 100 years ago, with the Spanish flu. It is not in that sense a great surprise that the nation’s public and private health infrastructure was not so organised, resourced or equipped with the expertise as to be able to instantly spring effectively into action. It was not entirely taken by surprise, but governments and the public were. Some of the initial responses were stopgap and makeshift. In retrospect we know that the single most efficacious measure was the prompt closure of international borders, but in time the management, and ultimately the loosening of that policy caused significant political friction and errors from which we can learn. Among these were over quarantine arrangements, questions about the rights of Australians overseas (especially in India) and the shameful and disgraceful treatment of hundreds of thousands of overseas students (completely abandoned with minimal support) by the government. The early low mortality, compared with other countries, confirms that politicians and bureaucrats deserve a lot of praise as well as some criticism, as well as confirming that hypercriticism is unfair. It is by no means as clear that the continuing response, once the sense of crisis was over, was so well managed.
The dogs that didn’t bark and which are still, under Albanese, heavily muzzled.
The inquiry will have to tell the story of such matters, in the process drawing some conclusions about the rightness or wrongness of what occurred. But it will be mostly wasting its time focusing on matters of blame allocation on which the electorate anyway has made judgment. Its critical eye and concentration need to focus on learning from the mistakes so that we can mobilise better against the next disaster. The recommendations that flow from such an examination will be more than a war book of what must be done as soon as it becomes clear that the health of Australians is under threat. It is also about shifting resources in advance, and reinforcing essential public health systems, and building up capital infrastructure around the nation that can supply protective equipment, diagnostic tools, treatment, including vaccines, and which are well rehearsed in facing the logistical challenges of spreading them about the nation.
That will almost certainly include questions of whether some of the defensive resources should be under private sector control, rather than in the government or community sector. The coalition decided early that it did not want the emergency to lead to a fresh build-up of federal public servants, unable to be swiftly attrited once the pandemic ended. It determined, as a matter of principle that it should hire, or contract in staff and resources, and not only in direct health care but in logistic and ordering arrangements as well as in the provision of advice through the ubiquitous private sector consultancies, filling the vacuums caused by the deliberate winding down of expertise, experience, capacity and capability in the public sector.
It is by no means clear that the taxpayer received value for money. Indeed, accountability arrangements were among the first casualties, as well as tried and true (and legally required) processes of transparent and open tendering and evaluation. Some companies received billions in contracts made without tender, sometimes by ministerial intervention. Ministers, including the prime minister, came to see themselves as scroungers for scarce international goods, triumphing their procurements without any sort of process, even in some cases, proper documentation. Some initial sense of emergency may have provided cover for such irregularities but they went on too long. Systems in government designed to secure regularity – whether in Finance, PM&C, Treasury and Health – were far too indulgent, obsequious, short-sighted and, in some cases at least, ideologically blinded, to serve the public interest. What was preferred instead was the purely political interests of particularly partisan ministers, and the interests of private businesses using the pandemic to make a quid from the rubes. It is galling enough that the last government was imbued with a corruption of spirit coupled with naïve optimism about the good faith of the spivs who were ripping us off. It’s worse when one appreciates that the bureaucracy was usually a witting and willing enabler of the transfer of public resources involved. It would be too much, of course, to hope that anything the inquiry does to address this issue will be taken up with any enthusiasm by the Albanese government. It seems to have lost all zeal for reform, and many of its ministers, particularly those with big chequebooks, have already gone native.