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Recent royal commissions have been a gross extravagance

By Brendan O'Reilly - posted Wednesday, 3 January 2018


For those wanting a serious matter investigated, calling for a Royal Commission has been a cliché for as long as I can remember. Often little thought is given to the real need for this form of inquiry, or to the merits of alternatives. In my view, Australia has too many Royal Commissions, and the same can probably be said for their "poor relation", - Committees of Inquiry.

Royal Commissions are supposed to look into matters of great importance, and there have been about forty (Commonwealth) Royal Commissions and Commissions of Inquiry since the early 1970s. Royal Commissions are very expensive (witnesses may apply to recover their legal representation costs), and are often of several years duration

The very broad coercive powers of Royal Commissions are well suited to defeating serious organised corruption. In other cases, the problems with Royal Commissions nearly always exceed their benefits.

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Besides cost, a big problem affecting Royal Commissions (and also committees of inquiry) is ulterior motives on the part of politicians setting them up, leading to clear potential for bias. This can be manifested in two main ways.

Firstly, a Government can influence the outcome of a Royal Commission or formal inquiry by stacking it with people of a given viewpoint or by setting the terms of reference to only focus on selected issues. A well known political trick is to set up an investigation likely to give rise to recommendations the Government wants, so that the subsequent political decisions can be blamed, not on the Government, but on merely implementing the results of the Inquiry/Royal Commission.

Secondly, Governments often (at least partly) use an Inquiry or Royal Commission to research damaging information to be used against their political opponents or to assist groups the Government is aligned to.

It is worth canvassing some recent Royal Commissions regarding such shortcomings.

In December 2013 the Abbott Coalition Government established the Royal Commission into the Home Insulation Program. It would be hard not to view this Royal Commission as at least to some extent a politically-motivated attempt to highlight incompetence by the Rudd administration. Many of the shortcomings of this notorious program had already come to light before the Royal Commission was even called, so that many would say that the Royal Commission was unnecessary.

Similarly, the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption was in part aimed at discrediting the trade union movement and (by association) its ALP affiliates, though real problems did exist in some unions. The CFMEU and some of the other unions investigated (eg HSU) did merit the attention they got but aspects of the investigation of the AWU are another matter. Opposition Leader Bill Shorten admitted to the Commission his failure to declare tens of thousands of dollars in company and union donations to his 2007 election campaign. In the end, however, and after follow-up AFP raids, Shorten came across (in part) as a victim of politically inspired witch-hunt, and the Royal Commission gave the appearance of not having achieved much.

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The Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory was established in 2016 by the Turnbull Government in response to an ABC TV exposé of alleged ill-treatment of juvenile detainees at the Don Dale Detention Centre. This Royal Commission is controversial both because it has been very expensive, and because of its composition.

The manner in which it was set up drew accusations of apprehended bias, and virtually guaranteed that its report would be unduly sympathetic to inmates and hostile to the administrators of the detention facilities. The media had reported comments by Mick Gooda on Twitter (days before he was appointed as Commissioner) that "the Federal Government has to intervene and sack the (then) NT Government" (over abuse at juvenile detention centres).

The Royal Commission was originally set down to run for six months but was given two extensions and ended up lasting for a year. The direct cost to the NT and the Commonwealth was estimated at $54 million. In addition the Northern Territory Government's participation and provision of information cost an extra $16 million.

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About the Author

Brendan O’Reilly is a retired commonwealth public servant with a background in economics and accounting. He is currently pursuing private business interests.

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