Coalition senators join growing calls for inquiry into Australia’s Covid response

·5 min read
<span>Photograph: Mick Tsikas/AAP</span>
Photograph: Mick Tsikas/AAP

Nationals Matt Canavan and Sam McMahon and Liberal Gerard Rennick back push from the crossbench and Labor

Three Coalition senators have joined growing calls from the crossbench and Labor to hold a royal commission or similar inquiry into Australia’s Covid pandemic response.

Nationals Matt Canavan and Sam McMahon and Liberal Gerard Rennick – three of the five Coalition senators who crossed the floor to vote against vaccination mandates – have backed the idea, which also received in-principle support from the Labor leader, Anthony Albanese.

Last week the independent senator Rex Patrick wrote to the prime minister asking him to consider establishing a commission before he calls the 2022 election and to set aside money for it in the budget. The independent MP Zali Steggall is already working on draft terms of reference.

Related: Dylan Alcott: Australian of the Year calls for people with disability to be given free rapid antigen tests

Patrick and Steggall’s call for the work to begin pre-election puts them ahead of the curve, but support across the political spectrum is broad, including Labor, Coalition dissidents, independents and One Nation.

Canavan told Guardian Australia “we need a full and comprehensive inquiry but I think that needs to wait until the pandemic is over”.

Canavan said he was “not fussed” about the form of inquiry “providing it has the appropriate power to take evidence from all levels of government, not just the commonwealth, given how involved the states have been with the coronavirus response”.

Rennick, who has vowed to continue to withhold support for government legislation over the pandemic response, told Guardian Australia there “definitely needs to be a review into the way everything happened”.

He cited his concerns about the compensation scheme for vaccine injuries and the approval process for children’s vaccines, which health authorities have said are both safe and effective.

“It needs to look at the roles and responsibilities of state and federal government as well – the blame game needs to end,” Rennick said.

A spokesman for McMahon, who lost her preselection to Liberal Jacinta Price and has been approached to defect to the Liberal Democrats, confirmed she also backed a royal commission.

On Tuesday Albanese said “an assessment” of the Covid response would be appropriate after “the heat of the pandemic” had passed.

“Whether that be a royal commission or some form of inquiry, that will need to happen,” he told the National Press Club.

Labor’s Katy Gallagher, who chairs the Senate’s Covid committee and has accused the government of obstructing its access to information, said on Wednesday “at the right point in time … there will have to be some assessment of all of the decisions taken”, including $337bn in spending.

On 19 January, Patrick wrote to Scott Morrison arguing it would be “extraordinary” if a royal commission weren’t called, asking him to consult Labor, the states and territories on terms of reference.

He noted that despite the successes of the pandemic response, there had been extensive criticism of the “implementation of border controls and quarantine measures, the procurement and distribution of vaccines, the extent and duration of economic support measures, implementation of support for the aged care sector, and the acquisition and availability of rapid antigen tests”.

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Steggall told Guardian Australia she “strongly supports” calls for a royal commission and was working with healthcare experts on proposed terms of reference to include medical research, assessment of critical supplies and health system risk assessments.

“[We] need an interim report within 12 months to ensure we are better prepared for future variations,” Steggall said.

Independent MP Helen Haines said the next parliament should “ensure an independent and thorough inquiry”. She noted that in 2020 she and other crossbenchers had pushed for a joint select committee which, unlike the Senate committee, would have been able to compel ministers from the lower house to appear.

Pauline Hanson voiced her support for a royal commission at the Prayer and Pushback event earlier in January, claiming without evidence that Australians had been “lied to with the number of deaths” caused by Covid-19.

The Labor MPs Julian Hill, Anika Wells, Patrick Gorman and Anne Aly went public with their support for a royal commission in August.

Hill told Guardian Australia “clearly there will need to be a properly constituted thoughtful inquiry – not as a political witch-hunt – but to learn the lessons of this pandemic for future generations”.

Related: A letter to New Zealand, from Covid-ravaged Australia | Brigid Delaney

“It could start to be thought about over the next few months but it’s still premature still to kick it off – it can be dealt with after the election.”

The independent senator Jacqui Lambie was open to the idea but agreed it was too soon. “You don’t read the entrails while the chicken’s still clucking,” she said.

Patrick said the date of the election had “no relevance” to when a royal commission was called and that some elements of the pandemic response had “by and large concluded” and can be studied now – such as business support, and the international border controls.

“We don’t know when the pandemic will end,” he said, suggesting that there were lessons that could be learned now that “may be useful moving forward”, such as how to handle outbreaks in aged care.

In August when asked about the former Liberal prime minister Tony Abbott’s call for a Covid royal commission, Morrison said he would not be “drawn into those things” because “we’re managing the pandemic right now, and this pandemic still has quite a long way to go”.

“So I’m sure at some time in the future there’ll be a time to talk about those reviews or whatever form they might take,” he said.

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