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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.


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.


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.

The recommendations of the Royal Commission were entirely predictable and included the closure of the Don Dale Centre. An indirect outcome arguably also was the payment of compensation (rumoured to be about $70,000 each) to two detainees, who had behaved abominably while in custody and who had significant criminal histories. (There is no evidence that these newly enriched offenders will be asked to pay anything either to their victims or towards their detention costs.)

The $70 million odd spent on the Royal Commission arguably could have gone a long way towards building up-graded detention facilities. In my view the whole NT Royal Commission was a huge waste of money.

Now we come to the big one.

The recently concluded Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse was set up by the Gillard Government in January 2013. The final reporting date had initially been set for the end of 2015 but a two year extension was subsequently granted. The Commission ended up taking evidence for more than five years, heard more than 8000 personal stories and received more than 1000 written accounts from survivors. The overall cost has been estimated at a whopping $477.986 million in direct costs, plus $70.5 million for victim support services.

It is obvious that an investigation of some sort into child sex abuse in Australia needed to occur. This is because the abuse had been subject to a systematic cover-up, and those responsible needed to account to victims and the public for their actions.

That said, the Royal Commission is still open to criticism on a range of fronts.

It was too late and had some overtones of a (deserved) "free kick" at the Christian Churches from the political left. The Royal Commission also largely ignored some well publicised abuses (e.g. issues of forced child marriage and of female genital mutilation) within Islamic institutions. Several leading national and international researchers also say that it adopted a misguided victim-advocacy role and published misleading, inaccurate research.

In terms of timing, the Royal Commission came far too late to be a game changer. Most of the offences dated back 30 to 50 and more years, and almost all the offenders are now either dead or very elderly.

In reality, changes in societal attitudes forced the problem into the open decades ago, so that victims and their families ceased being silent, and attempted cover-ups became untenable. Many victims have negotiated and have already received compensation, though its adequacy can be debated in some cases. By and large, in Australia and across the world, society, including the Churches, eventually cleaned up its act, and known perpetrators that are still alive have been prosecuted and jailed.

The key issue, however, is that the Royal Commission was far too costly, and its recommendations, if adopted, would be massively expensive to the taxpayer for little obvious benefit.

While major reports into child sex abuse were published in the US in 2004, and in Ireland in May and December 2009, Australia has taken up the rear. Our Royal Commission only recently completed its Report. Britain has also been late, though it had more of an excuse for being dilatory. (For example, it had to deal with the aftermath of the Jimmy Savile and other scandals involving public figures, which only came to light comparatively recently.)

Have there been any real winners from our child sex abuse Royal Commission bar the lawyers?

In my view there has been little tangible to show for the $550 million spent on the Royal Commission, and only governments would spend so much for such little benefit. (By comparison, for example, the vast Kidman empire was bought for less than $400 million, and Gina Reinhart and her Chinese partners will gain indefinite economic returns.)

In addition, a $4 billion national redress scheme has been proposed for victims but only minimal evidence would apparently be required to secure individual payouts of up to $200,000.

$4 billion is an astonishing amount. It is more than the Commonwealth's entire foreign aid budget and a bit under half of what it spends on universities. The sum seems incredible, especially given that most of the perpetrators are now either dead or very aged, and of no means. Any evidence is many decades old. The suggestion is that much of the burden for compensation (especially in respect of institutions that have closed down) could ultimately fall on taxpayers, especially at State level, as so-called "funders of last resort".

There seems to be very limited willingness to participate in the redress scheme and this is hardly surprising. Under the scheme, all Commonwealth institutions are automatic participants. For state institutions (numerically much more important) to participate, the state must have "opted in" to the scheme. Most of the States are equivocating about opting in, and are at best lukewarm about participation. South Australia announced in October that it was definitely not taking part. Non-government organisations, such as a church-operated orphanages, can only participate if the relevant state, and then their organisation, have "opted in".

Of all the major institutions, the Catholic Church reportedly is the only one to have given the scheme its unequivocal support from the time the Commission recommended it. The Church estimates it will be required to pay out $1 billion to survivors under the scheme.

The proposed redress scheme is reminiscent of various (modest by comparison) proposals to compensate the "Stolen Generations" despite a general lack of evidence of forced unwarranted removals to back up such claims. (The latest of these is a NSW Government scheme announced in December last year to "address the trauma and harm from forced removal of Aboriginal children by providing a reparations package worth more than $73 million to survivors". The scheme will not require "lengthy and arduous legal process".)

While victims of proven breaches of the law are entitled to fair compensation, schemes that dole out "compensation" in the absence of proof, risk becoming politically-motivated rorts of taxpayer money, that encourage ill-founded claims.

A final issue is that the Royal Commission also recommended that the Catholic Church overhaul its requirements for priestly celibacy and secrecy of the confessional. In both cases the Royal Commission seems to be over-stepping its bounds by veering from State law into Canon law and religious practice.

My personal view is that there is a link between celibacy and the extent of abuse perpetrated by Catholic priests and brothers. It, however, seems more appropriate to leave celibacy as an issue for the Catholic Church, which may in the fullness of time change the rules for other reasons (eg their effects on priestly vocations). Archbishop Fisher pointed out that child sex abuse had been a problem for religious institutions with and without celibate clergy.

The Royal Commission also recommended the mandatory reporting of child sex abuse disclosed in the confessional. Catholic Archbishops Hart and Fisher noted (validly it seems) that it was rare for perpetrators to use confession to admit to child abuse.

My view is that, even if it was less than rare for abusers to own up to their abuse in confession, mandatory reporting of such confessions to Police would be impossible to enforce. The sanctity of the religious confessional would be tossed aside for little benefit. In any case, regular confession seems to have largely disappeared from common practice among Catholics.

In all this, an under-discussed issue is that most sexual abuse of children occurs within the home. The Government is blamed if it does not intervene, and vulnerable children are left in dysfunctional homes. If it does remove children, the Government gets blamed for any ill-treatment that occurs in the institutional environment. It is a case of "damned if you do, damned if you don't". In such a context, will anyone be keen to put their hand up to look after vulnerable children?

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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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