On 5 November 2022 the Prime Minister announced a Royal Commission of Inquiry to review her Government’s COVID response. Its stated purpose “is to strengthen Aotearoa New Zealand’s preparedness for, and response to, any future pandemic”. It may begin considering evidence on 1 February 2023 and is not required to be completed until June 2024 – half a year after the next election. She said a Royal Commission of Inquiry is appropriate for what has been “the most significant threat to the health of New Zealanders and our economy since World War 2”.
How much of a threat it was is still being debated by scientists around the world. What’s not being debated is that it was “the most significant impact on human rights in living memory” – in the words of the Solicitor-General after just the first lockdown.
The commissioners are Tony Blakely (chair), Hekia Parata and John Whitehead. Parata is an education policy reform advisor for the OECD, had a public service career and was Minister of Education in the National Government 2011–2017. Whitehead is a lifetime public servant as a Treasury economist and was Treasury Secretary from 2003 to 2011. He was then the World Bank Executive Director for much of the Asia-Pacific region, and most recently is Chancellor and Chair of the board of St John Ambulance NZ.
Blakely says the fact Kiwis know his views so well is an issue “to some extent, sure” but that his expertise makes him a good choice alongside the other two commissioners. Blakely says he’s happy with the terms of reference of the Inquiry – particularly its “forward looking nature”, rather than seeking to find blame. Blakely says NZ and Australia are countries with two of the best outcomes from the pandemic in the world.
Roger Partridge of the New Zealand Institute says that unlike a High Court judge, commonly used to chair inquiries and accustomed to attempting impartial judgments, Tony Blakely is unlikely to be regarded by the public as an independent expert. Blakely was one of the most-heard epidemiologists in NZ coverage of COVID, alongside Michael Baker, who he wrote with. He was an early proponent of NZ following a zero-COVID strategy, recommending “military-like procedures in your quarantine”.
Royal inquiry or royal stamp of approval?
It seems the Commission will not address the issues that the public and political opposition want addressing. Both National and Green parties say the scope excludes a necessary investigation into how the Government’s economic decisions increased inequality, and are disappointed that other parties weren’t consulted on the commissioners or the terms of reference.
The exact scope is unclear; Blakely says the Commission will decide that over the next few months, but his focus seems to be on whether the Government has sufficient “tools on the shelf” available to address possible future pandemics of all sorts. Partridge says, as written, the Inquiry is aimed at whether the Government could have improved on its zero-COVID implementation, not whether it was the best strategy, whether it was actually successful in a cost/benefit analysis, or whether it was justified in removing basic rights.
The Commission seems set up to do the opposite of what’s expected from a Royal Inquiry: to protect the Government that made the decisions, and to further increase its powers.
Scope of inquiry could be an election issue
This inquiry could galvanize voters opposed to the COVID response behind a party prepared to expand it.