Political will could see Australia avoid learning lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The Senate's legal and constitutional affairs committee has called for the establishment of a royal commission to investigate Australia's handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The group’s report proposed a royal commission to examine the processes and decisions made during the pandemic's emergency phase, with an emphasis on reviewing policies including lockdowns, quarantine measures, and vaccination strategies.

The committee said there is a strong need for a detailed inquiry into the preparedness and responsiveness of health systems, educational institutions, aged care, and domestic violence services.

Key focus areas identified for the royal commission include the methodologies of virus testing, contact tracing systems, the execution and impact of quarantine protocols, and the effectiveness and fairness of lockdowns. 

It would also scrutinise the procurement and distribution strategies of vaccines and assess the overall coordination among federal, state, and territorial governments.

“When an extraordinary event of the scale of the COVID-19 pandemic occurs, it would be foolish not to reflect on how society responded to it, to learn valuable lessons that can be applied in the future,” Greens Senator David Shoebridge said.

He said the commission could play a valuable role in ensuring thorough, independent scrutiny capable of compelling answers from often unwilling government sectors.

However, the recommendation for a royal commission has been resisted by Labor-aligned members of the committee. 

Deputy Chair and Labor Senator Nita Green and her colleague Senator Varun Ghosh argued against the necessity of a new inquiry, pointing instead to an ongoing 12-month federal COVID-19 response inquiry led by Robyn Kruk AO. 

They noted that this existing inquiry is set to report by the end of September and includes a broad scope of review, albeit not covering state and territory decision-making regarding lockdowns and other public health measures.

Green and Ghosh say the current inquiry would deliver its findings much sooner than a royal commission, which could take several years to complete.
Additionally, because Commonwealth royal commissions can only be conducted on matters of Commonwealth power, a joint commission with the states would require state support.

Despite these objections, the committee concluded that the public interest and the need for an exhaustive evaluation of the pandemic response justify the call for a royal commission.