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Royal Commissions bite back

By Scott Prasser - posted Tuesday, 21 February 2006

Establish a royal commission and someone will drop the cliché that governments only appoint commissions when they know what the answer is going to be. This is nonsense as the present Royal Commission into the Australian Wheat Board appointed by the Howard Government is starting to show.

For several reasons royal commissions are an unpredictable and risky business and have a habit of biting the very governments that appoint them.

First, Australian royal commissions, unlike their United Kingdom namestakes, are established under the Royal Commissions Act 1902 that confers on royal commissions coercive powers of investigation to collect and procure information, make witnesses attend hearings and to give evidence even if self-incriminating. Royal commissions can make citizens and governments give up confidential information, private letters and official files. Nothing is sacred. Royal commissions, because of these powers to probe can, even with the tightest terms of reference, find out unexpected and embarrassing information which governments themselves sometimes did not know.


In addition, royal commissions unlike parliamentary committees and other forms of inquiry have considerable status. This is partly because of their powers of investigation and because they are usually chaired by judges, ex-judges or senior legal professionals. Such members imbue royal commissions with status and independence making it difficult for governments to interfere in their processes or to refuse demands for extra time, resources or to ignore their reports.

The open process of royal commissions also generates considerable public interest so that governments can rarely resist, as the Howard Government is now finding out, a royal commission’s demands for more powers or wider terms of reference.

Also, royal commissions rarely meet their deadlines. On average, a federal royal commission can take twice as long as other public inquiries. Most ask and get extensions. For federal governments with three-year terms and facing elections every 2.4 years, this is a big timeout. The unpredictability of when royal commissions will report can upset a government’s electoral plans. Attempts to put time limits on royal commissions will be seen as obstructive.

Governments often appear redundant while they wait for a royal commission to report. Just look how the royal commission into Queensland health subdued the usually hyperactive Beattie Government - it was a government on Prozac.

Royal commissions also consume valuable government time and energy as they respond to a commission’s demands and react to the political fallout. The Fraser Government was so embroiled in managing the Royal Commission into the Australian Meat Industry that it lost the political plot and hence the 1983 election.

Royal commissions because of their open processes, length, membership, powers and status are also unpredictable in terms of their costs. Indeed, commissions are the most expensive form of public inquiry. The 1987 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Death in Custody was to cost only a couple of million dollars and take less than a year to report. In the end, it cost $30 million and took nearly three years to finish.


Last, royal commissions often boomerang back on the appointing government in other ways. The Fraser Coalition Government’s Costigan Royal Commission into the Federated Ship Painters’ and Dockers’ Union, was appointed as much in the hope of embarrassing the Labor Party as it was in tackling criminal union behaviour. In the end, the Costigan Commission exposed tax evasion schemes involving Liberal Party members and government incompetence and corruption.

John Howard understands the unpredictability of appointing royal commissions. It explains why the Howard Government has appointed only four royal commissions in ten years, the smallest number for all the federal governments since 1972. The Whitlam Labor Government appointed 12 royal commissions, the Fraser Government eight and the Hawke-Keating Labor Government established 12 royal commissions.

With the wheat board royal commission beginning to expose serious problems in the administration and suggestions that the government should have been more vigilant, we can understand Howard’s caution in using the royal commission instrument. They are anything but predictable, but are a unique institution to find out what governments often do not want the public to know. Time will tell whether the present royal commission will cause irreparable damage to one of Australia’s usually most astute governments. One thing is sure. Appointing a royal commission remains a very risky business.

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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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