Interview with Stephen Cenatiempo, 2CC
26 September 2023
Subjects: The Prime Minister’s COVID inquiry announcement
STEPHEN CENATIEMPO: Senator Anne Ruston is the Shadow Minister for Health and Aged Care and joins us now. Anne, good morning.
ANNE RUSTON: Good morning.
CENATIEMPO: Look, the thing I have a problem with this is that, yes, we need an inquiry into the health response and we need to know if we can do things better next time, but there's surely more to handling a pandemic than just the frontline healthcare aspect of it.
RUSTON: Look, absolutely. There was no doubt that there were significant impacts on Australians – lasting impacts on Australians – that were not as a result of the health response. They were a result of what the states and territories did in relation to whether it be, you know, lockdowns, border closures, school closures. I mean, in the case of Victoria, the most locked down city in the world was Melbourne, and the mental health implications of those lockdowns. So I think, you know, any inquiry that doesn't look at the full scope of what occurred, what decisions were made and the impact of those decisions, is just a fake inquiry.
CENATIEMPO: You know, I've spoken to – and it was a rather heated discussion last week - with Terry Slevin from the Public Health Association, and I know that their view is that we need to have a Centre for Disease Control and I don't necessarily have a problem with that. But again, that is not going to look at the economic impacts. And whilst, you know, when I first thought about this I thought hang on a sec, there needs to be accountability for what went on. But I thought more about that and I thought okay, well, blaming people for what already happened isn't necessarily going to achieve anything. But the flip side of that is, is that we need to take into account those economic impacts. But I think what some of these public health officials are missing is, as you say, those mental health impacts rather than just the respiratory impact, so to speak.
RUSTON: Look, the point here is that this was probably – well it was – the biggest event in terms of impacting this country certainly since the Second World War. So there wouldn't be very many alive today who would have ever lived through anything as extreme as the COVID pandemic. And to suggest that the only response that needs to be considered was the health response completely and utterly fails to understand that there was so much more to this. And as well, I think we were just so surprised and so angry that the Prime Minister sought to have some sort of little quasi-inquiry that only looks at certain components, only looks at federal jurisdiction when, you know, people's lives got completely turned upside down. You know, he's holding royal commissions in all sorts of things. We would have thought that the most impactful event in Australia's recent history would warrant a more serious inquiry than the one he's put forward.
CENATIEMPO: The argument from the Government is that the states and territories have already held their own inquiries and they'll be able to - this inquiry will be able to look at the results of those. Does that hold any weight? But I guess more importantly, the terms of reference are always the devil in the detail. But can the commissioners, for lack of a better way to put it, work around the terms of reference to actually get better answers?
RUSTON: Well, they can't compel the states and territories to, you know, to provide evidence. And so, if there is a particular question that needs to be asked, if it hasn't been answered in other inquiries, then there is no power whatsoever for this particular inquiry to compel the states and territories to be involved. And the thing that was really telling was last week – after the announcement of this particular inquiry – was when Premier Andrews stood up in Victoria and started listing of all the things that the inquiry should look into. Every single one of them was something that was in the domain of the Federal Government. Not one comment from Daniel Andrews last week about the issues that impacted his state, and Victoria was by far the worst impacted state. And yet here we have a premier – nothing to see here, nothing to see here, we'll just go and have a look at what the Federal government did during the pandemic, we'll completely ignore what I've done. So I think what's happened here is the Prime Minister has tried to get the states and territories to agree and they've basically given him the finger and said, no, we're not. You know, Queensland's got an election coming up, they don't want a whole heap of stuff around what they did – having their dirty laundry aired. And Daniel Andrews is a classic, he never wants anything aired.
CENATIEMPO: The Prime Minister's right in one regard, that royal commissions do tend to drag on a bit, whereas this is going to be a finite 12-month inquiry. Is 12 months enough?
RUSTON: Well, obviously it is a pretty significant inquiry, but the reality is that that's bunkum from the Prime Minister. He managed to stand up and conclude a Royal Commission into the Robodebt inquiry in the same space of time. So, you know, he cannot just pick and choose when it's convenient for him to say we can't do it for this reason this time, but next time we can. I mean, the Prime Minister's credibility has been hung out to dry over this. He was all talk about the fact that he was going to have a royal commission, got rolled by his Labor premiers in the states in terms of having one and then comes out with this absolute rubbish about why it's too expensive or will take too long. A royal commission can take as long as it needs to or be as short as it needs to. And I would say the Australian public would expect a royal commission into something that's as serious and as impactful as the COVID pandemic.
CENATIEMPO: So where do we go from here? I mean, the reality is that this government, after announcing this inquiry, is not going to change its mind now. If you happen to be successful at the next election, do we then go back and revisit it again? A lot of people would be saying that, okay, well, we wanted a royal commission. We didn't get it, but we now need to double down on it.
RUSTON: Well, first of all, I think when we get back to Parliament, I think I need to be – well I am speaking to the Greens and the crossbench – because I think we should put more pressure on the Government to actually change its decision here. And also, I think we should be calling on the states and territories to say that it is absolutely shameful that they would seek to hide from their public, the people of their states, from actually finding out the truth behind what decisions were made so we can learn for the future. So I think there's a lot more pressure that we can put on both the Federal Government and the state and territory governments to say, you know, this really does not pass muster – Refusing to provide information about something as important as this. But obviously, you know, we all need to see what happens over the next little while to try and determine whether we really do have this information to make sure that if we ever have another pandemic, we are in a position to respond to it the absolute best possible way. Because that's what this inquiry should have been all about – It should have been preparedness, should we ever have another pandemic. We can't be prepared if we've got one hand tied behind our back.
CENATIEMPO: When it comes to that, the concept of an establishment of a Centre for Disease Control, is there bilateral support for that? Because when I look at the United States who have had one of these for for a long, long time, it seems to fail at every turn.
RUSTON: Well, certainly, we were never great supporters for the Centre for Disease Control, but we certainly understand that was something that the Government took to the election. And you know, there's probably - Done properly, it can probably provide some good and, you know, provide advice going forward. But it is just one thing in a myriad of responses and a myriad of things that need to be investigated for a pandemic. It's not just about a Centre of Disease Control. And also, you've got to learn the lessons of the past, because if we don't learn the lessons of the past, you're prone to making them again into the future, and that's all we've been calling for.
CENATIEMPO: That's certainly guaranteed, isn't it? Senator, I appreciate your time this morning.
RUSTON: My pleasure. Thanks for having me, Stephen.