Mr Beattie, a former Queensland Labor premier, said mistakes had been made and an inquiry was a way to ensure future generations did not make the same ones.
He said it should not be a “blame game inquiry” but one that focused on the best way to respond to future pandemics.
“In the years ahead, a future pandemic is likely, so we should learn from what happened in 2020 and be prepared for next time,” he said.
“I would support a federal royal commission headed by a fiercely independent judge and supported by two fiercely independent expert commissioners with full powers to subpoena witnesses and all documents and material from the events of 2020.”
Despite the avalanche of spending and the differing health outcomes between the states and between Australia and the rest of the world, there has been no independent overarching examination of the policies put in place.
There have been several inquiries into certain aspects of the country’s response to the pandemic. They include NSW’s investigation of the Ruby Princess cruise ship and Victoria’s inquiry into the failures of its hotel quarantine system.
A separate inquiry into hotel quarantine was conducted by former senior public servant Jane Halton, while there have been internal reviews by Treasury of the JobKeeper program and by the Education Department of the government’s free childcare policy.
Tony Harris, a former NSW auditor-general, said that with so many government resources thrown at the pandemic, from health to economic stimulus, an investigation was warranted.
“It’s the biggest economic and social event since the Vietnam War, so it deserves to be examined,” he said. “I think people have sought to minimise the errors that have been made. People have forgotten or have wanted to forget those mistakes, but we need to learn from them.”
But another former Victorian premier, Steve Bracks, said the suggestion of a royal commission was “nonsensical”.
He said state governments had already learnt much through the past 12 months, with states such as Victoria and NSW putting in place “world’s best practice” actions to resolve difficult issues.
“You don’t have a royal commission in the middle of a bushfire, you wait until it’s over,” he said. “When everything’s over, when the vaccine has been rolled out and when we’re able to move around and travel again, maybe that’s the time to look at [it].”
Professor Percy Allan, a former NSW Treasury secretary, said it could be cheaper to establish a multi-disciplinary investigative commission with the powers to access confidential documents and interrogate relevant witnesses.
“It could be headed by a judge to ensure procedural fairness but include other commissioners skilled in economics, management, finance, psychology, organisational behaviour, technology, governance, etc, that would bring a wide range of expertise and experience to bear on a particular review of a policy outcome,” he said.
Shane is a senior economics correspondent for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.
Katina Curtis is a political reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based at Parliament House in Canberra.