Australia’s top bureaucrats will not be free from scrutiny as a new Senate Select Committee prepares to examine the federal government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, Labor senator Katy Gallagher has warned.
Gallagher, who will chair the committee, told Guardian Australia the inquiry would be ineffective “if ministers don’t cooperate, or public servants handle it in the way that some typical Senate hearings are conducted” by taking questions on notice.
“We need maximum cooperation and buy-in for this inquiry in the national interest – and I note this committee was established with the support of the government,” she said.
When asked if the committee would question chief medical officer Brendan Murphy and Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet secretary Phil Gaetjens, Gallagher said the “highest level of officials” would be scrutinised.
However, she noted the group would avoid “political grandstanding”.
“I’m determined that we won’t be pushed aside or patted on the head by the government – this committee has significant powers, it’s a very big job, one supported by the entire Senate, and we intend to do a very thorough job with the task we’ve been given,” she said.
The committee will hold public hearings twice a week. It will examine the health response to the crisis first, followed by the economic response.
Prior to the committee’s establishment, several Independents and Greens leader Adam Bandt had called for the establishment of separate economic and health committees — with members from both houses — to scrutinise COVID-19-related decisions.
The new committee consists of Liberal senator James Paterson as deputy chair, Murray Watt and Kristina Keneally from Labor, Rachel Siewert from the Greens, the Nationals’ Perin Davey, and Independent senator Jacqui Lambie.
Gallagher said she would chair committee meetings from Canberra. A maximum of 10 senators and witnesses would appear by video link, with others appearing by audio. She said proceedings would initially operate similarly to Senate estimates hearings.
She noted nothing would stop the committee from “asking about national cabinet decisions from the lens of the federal government”, but it would likely avoid examining state government responses to COVID-19.
Gallagher said the committee would be looking into a range of issues including the handling of the Ruby Princess incident.
As previously reported by The Mandarin, the NSW government recently appointed barrister Bret Walker to lead a special inquiry into the cruise ship catastrophe, to report back to the government in three to four months.
The committee was set up with the intention of holding the government to account in light of plans for parliament to be out of operation until August.
However, following the most recent National Cabinet meeting Scott Morrison said parliament could be operating sooner than expected, with a potential trial week to be held in May.