Shortcuts / 11 June 2020

Royal Commissions

Whenever a scandal is uncovered or a tragic event happens, calls for the government to establish a Royal Commission aren’t far behind. But what exactly is a Royal Commission? In this Shortcut we’ll look at what a Royal Commission is, the power and effectiveness of Royal Commissions, and a quick look at the ones currently running.

What is a Royal Commission?
In Australia, a Royal Commission is the highest form of inquiry into matters of public importance. Royal Commissions can investigate allegations of wrongdoing, or just provide advice and information to governments on a particular policy issue, though the former is more common these days. They are “connected with the peace, order and good government of the Commonwealth, or any public purpose or any power of the Commonwealth” according to the Royal Commissions Act 1902.

What are the powers of a Royal Commission?
A Royal Commission is different to a Commission of Inquiry which is launched by the parliament and reports to them. Royal Commissions are not judicial, so they can’t actually decide or determine anything, but commissioners are given quasi-judicial powers within the terms of reference of that Commission. The findings in a Royal Commission can then be referred to the police. A Royal Commission offers a number of broad powers to commissioners during investigation, including the ability to call and cross-examine witnesses under oath, obtain evidence (sometimes including classified information), rights of entry and phone-tapping, while also providing protection to witnesses and inquiry members from legal action such as defamation.

How many Royal Commissions have there been in Australia?
Royal Commissions have been part of our system of keeping governments accountable for more than 100 years. There have been more than 130 royal commissions conducted in our history focusing on issues as disparate as television and how it might be introduced in Australia, to the quality and safety of aged care facilities. To some people, that might seem like a lot and to others, not many. But ultimately an inquiry of this type can be commissioned when it’s approved by the Governor General.

How is a Royal Commission launched?
In Australia, a Royal Commission is called by the federal government, the state government, or both. The government is responsible for establishing the terms of reference (or limitations) of a Royal Commission. They provide funding and appoint commissioners, who are usually retired or serving judges and are never serving politicians. Within the terms of reference, governments usually include a date by which the commission must finish (or else it could drag on forever). A Royal commission has the power to hear witnesses under oath, collect evidence and offer protection to people who co-operate. And while there is a general framework by which a Royal Commission is carried out, what powers it is given in the investigation process can differ vastly, depending on the terms of reference for the commission, which are established by the government. While some commissions see very broad terms of reference – such as the ability to use electronic surveillance, as seen in the Royal Commission into the New South Wales Police Service in the 90s – others are not given as much power.

What is the aim of a Royal Commission?
The ultimate aim for a Royal Commission is to hold people accountable for doing the wrong thing, and create a plan – or recommendations – to prevent future wrong-doings. But it doesn’t always work out that way. That can be because the findings and recommendations are not then being implemented by the government of the day. But there have been Royal Commissions that have changed things significantly.

What are some examples of Royal Commissions in Australia that have made significant changes?
Probably the most recent example is the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse which was established in 2013 and concluded in 2017. The Commission uncovered a massive scale of abuse across institutions ranging from churches, to charities, to children in state care. It covered abuses from way back and also in recent times. In 2018, PM Scott Morrison delivered a national apology to victims of institutional child sexual abuse and their families, and launched a National Redress Scheme for victims, as well as the National Office of Child Safety within the Department of Social Services and a National Centre of Excellence to raise awareness of child sexual abuse and how to support victims.

And of course the Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services Industry got a lot of airtime in recent times. It found examples of misconduct and recommend widespread changes to the way the sector works. And of course a number of senior executives and directors have moved on from the jobs at the top banks in the wake of the inquiry.

Does the government have to implement all the recommendations made in a Royal Commission?
No they’re not compelled to. An example of that would be the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. It was launched in 1987 and finished in 1991. It’s now been 30 years since that royal commission, and a recent report from Deloitte found that only two thirds of the recommendations have been fully implemented. Some of those recommendations were aimed at reducing the rate at which Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are jailed, such as non-custodial sentencing and diversionary programs. That’s right. And thirty years on the rate of incarceration for Indigenous Australians has actually doubled.

What are some Royal Commissions that are currently running?
The Morrison Government has three Royal Commissions on its plate at the moment – let’s just run through each of their scopes and due dates quickly Claire. The most recently announced is the one into bushfires. And that’s come out of the Black Summer of 2019/2020, this will look into Australia’s preparedness, response and recovery efforts, as well as looking at how the levels of government coordinate when responding to national emergencies. The report is due on 31 August 2020.

The Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety was launched in 2018 after a damning report by ABC TV Four Corners in 2016 that showed video evidence of the mistreatment of a resident in an Adelaide aged care facility. The report is due on 30 April 2020.

A Royal Commission into disabilities was established in 2019 after prolonged calls from disability advocates, as well as a Senate inquiry. It’s called the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability, and the report is due on 29 April, 2022.

And the Victorian Government has its hands full with the Royal Commission into the Management of Police Informants. It was established by the Victorian government in 2018 following revelations that barrister Nicola Gobbo, or Lawyer X, who represented underworld figures like Carl Williams, was recruited by Victorian police as an informant between 1995 and 2009. That report is due in July 2020.

Squiz Recommends:
The ABC – Black Summer
ABC’s interview with Nicola Gobbo (Lawyer X)

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