Question Time – Covid-19 Response

Senator BABET (Victoria—United Australia Party Whip) (14:48): My question is to the Minister representing
the Minister for Health and Ageing, Minister Gallagher. Earlier this week I moved a motion asking the government to establish a royal commission to investigate the pandemic response, which unfortunately the government opposed.

The Department of Health’s website states that a draft WHO pandemic treaty instrument is in the works which is ‘informed by lessons learned from the pandemic’. Minister, can you tell us how these lessons learned have been determined, because I have no idea, and why that approach is better than just having a royal commission?

Senator GALLAGHER (Australian Capital Territory—Minister for the Public Service, Minister for Finance,
Minister for Women, Manager of Government Business in the Senate and Vice-President of the Executive Council) (14:49):
I thank Senator Babet for the question, and also for the heads-up on his question about an inquiry into the COVID-19 pandemic. We’ve been clear that there should be an inquiry into the pandemic. We believe it had such massive implications across the economy, across the community that an inquiry would need to be undertaken at the right time. Our position at the moment is that we are still progressing through the pandemic. People are still becoming unwell and management plans are still in place, so that remains the government’s focus to ensure that we are responding to that appropriately, but we also do believe there needs to be an inquiry. There have also been a number of inquiries conducted or that are in the process of being conducted across the states and territories. That should feed into information that we would use at the federal level.

In relation to the pandemic treaty, as related by Senator Babet, this was discussed at Senate estimates in pretty great length. There has been a lot of work done and it is useful to be part of those international discussions about how countries responded to the pandemic and to understand the lessons learned through that. Obviously, there is still the need for local lessons to be learned as well, which the department of health and others would do routinely to prepare the country in the event that there is another pandemic.

So there are pieces of work underway. We are informed by the work being done across the international
community, but we don’t walk away from the need for a local inquiry at the right time.

The PRESIDENT: Senator Babet, first supplementary?

Senator BABET (14:51): ‘At the right time’—that is an interesting one. We saw during the pandemic a one-size-fits-all approach to public health where restrictions were forced upon us with regard to healthcare movement, business closures, school closures et cetera. Minister, how are we going to know which of these approaches benefited us and which didn’t without a royal commission? Could you tell us when
you think it might potentially be the right time for this royal commission?

Senator GALLAGHER (14:52): That is to be determined by the government. But I am being clear that we do believe that there needs to be an inquiry, when that is determined by the government. The government made an election commitment to create a Centre for Disease Control as well, which has been funded in the budget. We didn’t have one, we believed it was a gap in our pandemic response. The Australian Centre for Disease Control is being created to ensure that we are prepared and undertake the necessary planning and other work with a focus on preventing or managing pandemic risks, but also providing that advice to government.

The PRESIDENT: Senator Babet, second supplementary?

Senator BABET (14:53): We talked in brief there about the WHO
pandemic treaty. I would like to elaborate on that a little bit if we can. Will the WHO potentially take the reins if we have another pandemic? I’m very concerned about this treaty, Minister. If you could shed some light on that,that would be great. Thank you.

Senator GALLAGHER (14:53): This was raised at Senate estimates. A number of questions were asked to the department of health. It was made clear that Australia would retain sovereignty regarding public health policies, and that the WHO has no legal authority to force countries to accept any of its recommendations and is only really there to provide aid and assistance at members request.

Australia would retain our powers to make decisions on our own borders and on our own public health and social measures, so I think that should give people the assurance that it’s Australia and Australia’s response that will guide future planning and future responses to disease outbreaks. But there is a use and a purpose behind being able to access information and learnings from the international community which is represented through that World Health Organization.