Interview with Greg Jennett, ABC Afternoon Briefing
21 September 2023
Subjects: The Prime Minister’s COVID inquiry announcement
GREG JENNETT: We talked to former Cabinet Minister, now Shadow Health Minister, Anne Ruston, who joined us a short time ago. Anne Ruston, welcome back to the program. I know the Coalition's been critical of the COVID inquiry outlined by the Prime Minister today, but can you point to a specific promise made by Anthony Albanese of an actual royal commission with full royal commission powers? Was that promise ever in fact made?
ANNE RUSTON: Well, the Prime Minister's made a number of announcements that would let any sensible person believe that he was going to have an inquiry with the kind of powers of a royal commission. I mean, he has said on occasion a royal commission or similar-powered inquiry. He's also made comments that he definitely believed that the states and territories should be required to front any inquiry into COVID. And today, we find that he has not only reneged on the royal commission, but he's reneged on putting anything in place that would compel the states and territories to come and explain their role in the COVID response. So, we believe on any measure that's a broken promise to the Australian public.
JENNETT: All right. I'll explore some of the scope of the inquiry we have before us in just a moment. But from the Coalition's point of view, are you in fact demanding a royal commission?
RUSTON: Well, we certainly ask for a royal commission or the powers that go with the royal commission, because any COVID inquiry that doesn't take into account the role that the states and territories played in the COVID response is half an inquiry. So, you know, to come out today and say explicitly that the states and territories are excluded from this inquiry just brings into question the motivation behind the inquiry in the first place.
JENNETT: So are they completely excluded though, or only actions that they unilaterally took? We're talking here about the states and territories unilaterally took using their own state-based legislation. I mean, there will be overlap here, won't there, between the states and the Commonwealth in this inquiry?
RUSTON: Well, anybody who believes that a decision of a state or territory unilaterally doesn't have impacts across the whole nation is failing to see how COVID played out. We know that decisions to shut borders, for instance, stop loved ones from one side of the border being able to visit dying relatives on the other side of the border. We know that lockdowns have had major impacts across the mental health of Australians, which have impacts for mental health going forward across the whole nation. So, this idea that a decision by a state government doesn't have broader implications is ridiculous. But also when you have a look at the terms of reference, you know, they are not compelling in terms of many of the decisions that we know that the states and territories made that had such a major impact on the populations of their state and people outside of their borders as well.
JENNETT: Alright, well you were in the room at the time as a then Cabinet Minister, Anne Ruston, and you were privy to decisions made and documentation that was produced. How much of the National Security Committee of Cabinet documents generated at that time or even National Cabinet documents generated at that time, do you believe will be accessible by this inquiry established today?
RUSTON: Well, obviously, the process of Cabinet confidentiality and Cabinet- in-confidence are there for a reason. But, in the instance of this inquiry, it would be really valuable for information that is not going to jeopardise national security or the other reasons for Cabinet-in-confidence was made available because we need to be as prepared as we possibly can, should we ever be confronted by another pandemic like the one that we've just seen. So I think, you know, if we are going to be really serious about making sure that we benefit from this inquiry, every piece of information that is reasonably available should be made available. But as I said, you know, in the absence of us having the states and territories at the table, in the absence of the Albanese Government being prepared to actually shine light on its time in government – Because for the last 16 months COVID hasn't gone away. It didn't stop on the 22nd of May 2022. We've seen escalating rates of deaths in aged care. We've seen vaccination rates plummet. I mean, if you're going to be real about this Prime Minister, you have to have everything on the table.
JENNETT: Alright, what about public health emergency powers, and particularly those that relate to the Federal Government, Anne Ruston? Do you believe they should fall within the scope of this inquiry? Do you even believe that they need updating in light of all we went through there in 20 and 21?
RUSTON: I don't think anything should be off the table because if you think about this, this was the most significant event to impact just about any Australian alive today, probably the most impactful event since the Second World War. So for us to suggest that this isn't the most important thing for us to make sure that we learn from the mistakes, we learn from the things that went well. I mean, we can certainly be proud as a country. We were recognised as some of the, you know, the one of the best responses in the world in terms of saving lives and livelihoods. There's a lot to be learned that is good, but we also need to be prepared to understand things that we could have done better. So, I think we should be making sure that full scope here is investigated because that is the only way that we can be assured that we are best prepared for our capability should we ever be faced with this situation again.
JENNETT: All right. Well, I hear you putting the onus on the states, I guess, and other bodies to cooperate on this inquiry. Would you be prepared to front as a witness if called to account for decisions made by the Morrison government?
RUSTON: Absolutely. I believe that any learnings that I might be able to put on the table that would make us better prepared is a responsibility that I would be absolutely happy to take. But I certainly would call out the motivation of this inquiry, given that it only appears to be focussed entirely on the Coalition Government in government at the time of the pandemic. If the Prime Minister is not prepared to broaden the scope of it, we can only call it out for what it is. It appears to be a political witch hunt.
JENNETT: I've even heard a description from your side of politics that this is seeking to weaponize the pandemic against the Coalition. Is that your belief?
RUSTON: Well, certainly you'd have to ask Mr. Albanese - if he's not prepared to make the states and territories cooperate. If he's not prepared to put his own Government's actions over the pandemic under the microscope, he's only prepared to put the Coalition Government's response to it at a federal level under the microscope, you would actually have to question whether that is the case.
JENNETT: All right, Anne. I might take you to another developing story of the day concerning the Liberal Party, of which you are a senior member these days. Josh Frydenberg, after his promotion at Goldman Sachs, has let the voters and members, I should say, of Kooyong know that he will not seek preselection at the next election there. Is this a major blow to the Liberal Federal Party Room's succession planning for leadership?
RUSTON: Look, not at all. But what I would say is that, you know, I say to Josh, all the best for where you're going into the future. I mean, Josh has made a significant contribution to public life and I'm sure that his contribution to public life isn't over. But his decision to pursue a corporate career into the future and not recontest Kooyong is obviously something that, you know, is a decision for Josh, and we wish him all the best in what he's doing. It's tough being in politics with a young family, and we know that Josh has a young family and we certainly respect the fact that this particular role he's taking on is probably going to allow him more time with his family.
JENNETT: Okay. So that future involvement in public life, is that elected politics, do you think, at a later time?
RUSTON: Well, I think he's such a great political performer, it would be very disappointing to think that this was the end of his public life. But obviously, they're decisions for Josh and his family going forward. But, you know, all I can say to Josh is it was an absolute honour to work with you and all the best mate for whatever you're doing into the future.
JENNETT: All right. Anne Ruston, thanks so much for your time on a busy day at the airport. We'll let you go and talk again soon. Thanks so much for joining us.
RUSTON: Thanks Greg.