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ACT government will resist royal commission calls

By Scott Prasser - posted Tuesday, 23 May 2023

The Liberal opposition has called for a royal commission into the ACT's health system following a litany of long running complaints from a wide variety of sources - patients, doctors, related associations, and even some ACT government reviews and reports.

In addition, other independent sources have highlighted the ACT's poor performance in relation to waiting times for surgery, emergency visits and spending levels. And there are other complaints about the high costs of visiting a doctor, workplace culture and even loss of accreditation by some key territory health bodies.

A royal commission is a statutory inquiry which under the ACT's Royal Commission Act 1991 and as in other jurisdictions, has coercive powers of investigation to call witnesses including ministers and health officials, procure files, hold public hearings and make recommendations.


These are not enforceable but are potent in forcing a government to adopt them often lock, stock and barrel.

And let's be clear - only executive government can appoint a royal commission.

They are not established by parliament, as Kevin Rudd found in 2020 when his petition with thousands of signatures to the Commonwealth Parliament for a royal commission into the Murdoch press was immediately and appropriately dismissed by the then government. Royal commissions are instruments of executive government, though independent by virtue of their statutory powers, external membership, and open processes.

As the ACT government would be the target of such a royal commission it is understandably not enthusiastic about appointing one. It would be an inquiry into its competence and performance in health, potentially exposing its failures, releasing files and giving public air to a wide range of critics.

Exacerbating this reluctance is that the ACT government has in effect been in office for 21 years. It is therefore responsible for all that is both right and wrong with the current health system. It can hardly blame the previous administration.

A further factor is that ACT elections are set for October next year and so a royal commission which could easily last twelve months and would report, with all its potentially damaging findings, in the lead up to the polls.


In other words, appointing a royal commission is a risky business for any government, as many others have previously found. Indeed, even with narrow terms of reference, careful selection of members, and tight deadlines, royal commissions often probe deeper and discover more than expected, causing governments to fall.

In such circumstances the ACT government argues that a royal commission is unnecessary as they already have strategies and new priority areas in place, it would be costly and that a royal commission is an inquisitorial instrument more attuned to seeking the "truth" about some allegation, and thus unsuitable to review a complex health system and to make policy recommendations.

Such a view ignores how royal commissions across Australia have reviewed, with some effect, not just scandals, but broad areas of policy ranging from old age pensions, postal services, health, taxation, national insurance, television, public service, Aboriginal land rights, and human relationships.

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This article was originally published in the Canberra Times on 20 May 2023.

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About the Author

Dr Scott Prasser has worked on senior policy and research roles in federal and state governments. His recent publications include:Royal Commissions and Public Inquiries in Australia (2021); The Whitlam Era with David Clune (2022) and the edited New directions in royal commission and public inquiries: Do we need them?. His forthcoming publication is The Art of Opposition reviewing oppositions across Australia and internationally. .

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