Transcript: Interview, ABC News Breakfast - 21 September 2023


Interview with Lisa Millar, ABC News Breakfast

21 September 2023

Subjects: Albanese Government’s COVID inquiry announcement


LISA MILLAR: Joining us now from Sydney is Shadow Health Minister Anne Ruston. Good morning to you. Welcome to News Breakfast.

SENATOR ANNE RUSTON: Good morning. Thanks for having me.

MILLAR: What do you know about this inquiry? Got any details for us?

SENATOR RUSTON: Well, nothing more than you know, nothing more than we read in the paper last night, which is sort of somewhat concerning that we hear that there's going to be an inquiry, but there's absolutely no detail out there. So, Australians are left wondering this morning what this inquiry really is all about, as am I.

MILLAR: Yes, well, we are of course seeking confirmation from the Government that it is going to be announced, but the reporting is that it will be an inquiry and not a royal commission. That's got the opposition agitated.

SENATOR RUSTON: Well, we are concerned that any inquiry that has not got the powers to compel the states and territories to participate has to be called out for exactly what it is. It's a protection racket for the states and territories and potentially a witch hunt on the previous Coalition Government. Because so many of the decisions that impacted Australians so significantly during the pandemic were decisions of the states and territories. So, we are calling on the Albanese Government – when they make the announcement of the details of this – We are going to be very, very critical if it does not have the power to compel states and territories to participate in this inquiry in a really significant way.

MILLAR: You've said previously, and I've seen reports suggesting that the Prime Minister promised a royal commission. He didn't promise a royal commission. You accept that?

SENATOR RUSTON: Well, certainly when you listen to the words of the Prime minister, he said a royal commission or inquiry, so one can only assume [interrupted]

MILLAR: Or some form of inquiry like that.

SENATOR RUSTON: But one would assume that if you're saying a royal commission or inquiry, that any inquiry would also have the kind of powers of a royal commission to make sure that all of the details that need to be prosecuted here, so that we can learn from the pandemic, would be given to it. So, if they're coming out with an inquiry this morning, let's make sure that it has the powers to compel the kinds of witnesses it needs to so that we can get all of the details of the pandemic, so that we can learn the lessons. I do not want this to just be a witch hunt because that serves no purpose for supporting Australia into the future for its preparedness, should we be in a place with another pandemic.

MILLAR: Why would you be so worried about what you're calling already a witch hunt? Given that when you were in government, the Coalition – I know you just said that the responses you considered to be some of the best in the world, but there were certainly Federal Government responses to the COVID pandemic that would deserve some inquiry.

SENATOR RUSTON: Look, absolutely. You know, with the value of hindsight, I'm sure there are going to be many things that we will learn that we could have done better. And we're more than happy to have some light shone on those, because we do need to make sure Australia is as prepared as it can be, should there be a future pandemic. But we also need to make sure that all aspects of the pandemic are covered. The other thing that we also need to remember is the pandemic did not end on the 22nd of May 2022, and the Albanese Government's ongoing response to the pandemic also needs to be investigated, including why we're seeing increased numbers of older Australians dying in aged care [from COVID], way more than ever died during the actual pandemic. So, what we're saying is if you want to be genuine about this, make sure that the powers and the scope of the terms of reference are sufficient so that we really can get something out of this that's going to be genuinely beneficial and not just cherry pick the bits and pieces that the Government might like to have investigated.

MILLAR: Look, one of the points that's been made earlier on this program is that royal commissions can be lengthy and expensive. And do you think the Australian community are up for something like that at the moment when they're facing the cost-of-living barriers that they are? Would they actually want something along the lines of what you're suggesting?

SENATOR RUSTON: Well, I'll reiterate - Any inquiry that does not have the power to compel the states and territories will be a complete waste of time. So I think that is very important. There is nothing that Australia has been through in the last hundred years that has been more significant, more serious and more impacting than COVID. So, I think that it warrants the kind of, sort of strong behaviour to try and make sure that we are in the best possible position to be able to respond into the future. We do recognise Australians are doing it tough with cost-of-living pressures. I mean, I can't remember a time when people were impacted so much by rising mortgages, rising energy bills, rising costs at the supermarket till. So, we don't underestimate that Australians are suffering from cost-of-living pressures. But this was a once in a hundred-year incidence in this country and it deserves to be absolutely and properly prosecuted if we are going to have an inquiry.

MILLAR: Alright, Anne Ruston, thanks for joining us this morning.

SENATOR RUSTON: My pleasure. Thank you.


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