Minister for Health and Aged Care – interview on ABC Afternoon Briefing – 22 September 2023

Read the transcript of Minister Butler's interview with Matthew Doran about the COVID-19 Inquiry.

The Hon Mark Butler MP
Minister for Health and Aged Care

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HOST, MATTHEW DORAN: The Federal Health Minister is Mark Butler and he joins us live this afternoon from Adelaide. Taking out the title for most appropriate location on a Friday afternoon. Mark Butler there at Grange Beach, thanks for joining us.
DORAN: I want to get to the bottom of this in the terms of reference in this inquiry. It explicitly says the following areas are not in scope for the inquiry “actions taken unilaterally by state and territory governments.” If you're going to have a wide-ranging inquiry into how Australia dealt with the pandemic, don't those decisions need to be included?
BUTLER: This is going to be an incredibly important inquiry for the nation, Matthew, and I'll come back to that point in just a second. What we haven't decided to do is set up a quasi-judicial Royal Commission that will go through every one of the literally thousands and thousands of decisions taken by different levels of government at the height of the pandemic to deal with their response that we don't think is going to take us forward.
What we are going to do is have an expert led inquiry into the way in which our system operated. That’s very clear in the terms of reference. I'm not sure everyone has read these, very clearly in these terms of reference. The inquiry will look at the role of the Commonwealth, the responsibilities of states, the responsibilities of state government, because that has been an issue of debate over the last few years and the way in which national governance bodies operated and the degree to which they operated effectively. National Cabinet is one, the Health Protection Committee, which is all of the Chief Health Officers from states, territories and the Commonwealth is another very important national governance body.
It's also clear in the terms of reference that the inquiry will look at the health response measures. A very important part of that is what we described through the pandemic as the public health and social measures, so: distancing, contact tracing, border closures, lockdowns, all of those things are in scope. They're utterly in scope of the inquiry. It would be extraordinary for them not to be.
But look, if there are people out there who are hoping for a round of political point scoring another round of the blame game, which frankly we saw a little bit too much of during the pandemic, they're going to be disappointed. What we've decided to do instead is to set up an independent, sober, evidence-based Inquiry by eminently qualified experts to prepare us for the next pandemic, to learn the lessons, the good lessons and the not so good lessons of our response over the last few years, and make sure that, as a nation, we are in the best possible position when the next pandemic strikes.
Now, I've also seen Matthew in some of the coverage over the last 24 hours, some sense that states are going to escape any sort of scrutiny or examination here. What you've seen from state Premiers is a very, very different response as the Prime Minister said, he discussed this inquiry with state Premiers and Chief Ministers at the National Cabinet meeting recently. I've discussed it with my Health Minister colleagues very closely as well. Over the course of the last 24 hours, you've seen former Premier Perrottet say he'll participate and appear. Premier Andrews say he'll participate and appear if requested and Premier Palaszczuk from Queensland indicate she is going to participate and appear if requested, as will Deputy Premier Miles, who was Health Minister at the time, an indication along similar lines from Tasmania, South Australia and Western Australia.
Everyone here, everyone in our country has a shared commitment for us to do as well as we possibly can the next time this strikes. That means having an honest conversation about what went well and about what didn't go so well. I think everyone is on that same page, except perhaps those who just want another round of the blame game, political point scoring that could go on for years and years if there were some judicial process of examining every single of the thousands of decisions that were taken over the last four years.
Of course, for illustrative purposes, they'll be looking at all of those decisions and the way in which they were made coherently across the country. The degree to which there was a consistent system of public health and social measures, a decision making matrix for states to apply consistently. But really, I mean, this is about looking forward. This is about being constructive, not some divisive, destructive political point scoring process.
DORAN: Okay, you've outlined a pretty lengthy shopping list there of what this inquiry will look at. What is the point of including that in the terms of reference if it isn't to carve out some of those very contentious issues which were unilateral decisions of state and territory governments? We know that states closed their borders against the advice of national health authorities. They went their own way on various issues like school closures. Are you promising that those things are going to get proper scrutiny here?
BUTLER: As I've just outlined, the terms of reference are very clear. What are the responsibilities of state governments? What was the effectiveness of national governance, the responsibilities of state governments?
DORAN: But we're talking about the decisions that they made, not just what falls into their remit by virtue of how the Constitution and various other powers are afforded to them.
BUTLER: What was the effectiveness of those national governance bodies, which were intended to try and put together a coherent framework of response for states and territories to apply? Obviously different states were in very different positions through this pandemic, so there was not going to be some uniform application across the country. Western Australia had next to no COVID, in the eastern seaboard there were substantial amounts of COVID. So of course, there was a different response at particular times during the pandemic. The inquiry will look at the effectiveness of those national coordinating bodies and also look at the effectiveness of the health response measures that set out expressly in the terms of reference and as I said, will include importantly, not just health measures like vaccination and so on and therapeutics, but also those public health and social measures that I talked about: social distancing, contact tracing, lockdowns, school closures, border closures, all of those sorts of things had to be put into some sort of coherent decision making matrix. Now, much of that happened towards the end of the emergency phase rather than the beginning, and I make no criticism of governments for that, because literally we were building a response as we were flying the plane, as a country - like every country around the world was. We don't want to do that next time. We don't want to do that in the next pandemic. And all of the health advice is there will be a next pandemic. We want to use those lessons to be able to build a system using these experts that we've put together on this panel, using all of the feedback they get, the appearances from premiers, but all of the members of the community and other experts who want to participate in this to build the best possible pandemic preparedness system we can possibly have here in Australia.
DORAN: Noting that this is not a full-fledged Royal Commission do you expect that the members of this panel would hold public hearings so some of those discussions and some of those debates can be held in a public forum?
BUTLER: Well that ultimately is a matter for them. I think it would be unusual not to. We've made it very clear in the terms of reference that we want broad consultation with the public, not just with state governments, members of the Commonwealth government, not just with experts and stakeholders who obviously will have an important role in this. We want the Inquiry to consult broadly with the public and to do so across the country. Now how they do that is a matter for them and that's appropriate. They'll be taking advice from the taskforce that has been set up in the Prime Minister's department to support them. But look, not everyone will be in a position to make a written submission. I'm sure they will take account of the fact that many members of the public would prefer to be able to make their views known through some in-person capacity. But look, that ultimately will be a decision they take.
DORAN: The Prime Minister was at pains to stress yesterday that he went to the election promising one Royal Commission and that was into the Robodebt scandal. That was a very significant moment in Australian public policy history, but it did affect, you know, a comparatively small cross section of the population compared to the COVID-19 response, which has its impact on every single Australian who was in the country at the time. Why not call a Royal Commission for this? Why have you gone down this model that you've chosen, particularly when your own then Labor-led Senate Inquiry during the pandemic, chaired by Katy Gallagher, said that was the approach.
BUTLER: We considered that report closely and we considered it advice from different parts of the public service. We took the view that Royal Commissions are very important, given their evidence gathering powers, where they are examining potential maladministration, where they were examining, you know, very serious, including sometimes criminal wrongdoing. For instance, the Royal Commission into Institutional Child Abuse. Those powers are necessary to get to the heart of this but I think what you've seen from the response over the last 24 hours is that everyone wants to participate freely in this inquiry. We're not going to have to summons people to this Inquiry because people want to build the best possible response into the future. That's why you've seen the response from Premiers and former Premiers who frankly were in the hot seat at the time. They were making terrifically difficult decisions at the time. A very frightening time for our country, but they want to participate freely.
We took the view that the overriding objective, the really important thing for us was to put together the right experts. We've got Robyn Kruk, a very esteemed public servant who understands government at a federal and at a state level, particularly health systems. We've got Catherine Bennett, one of our outstanding epidemiologists who'll be known, well known to your viewers. She appeared very regular on your programme I'm sure, and many others. And we've got Angela Jackson, a widely esteemed health economist. So we took the view we needed experts there. This is a very complex area. There are going to be a very broad range of submissions. We didn't need the sort of evidence gathering powers that you will need when you're potentially examining misconduct, maladministration or even criminal action.
DORAN: Mark Butler, we're out of time. Thanks for joining us
BUTLER: Thanks, Matthew.



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