August 16

Royal Commissions – an Australian tradition


Royal Commissions are an Australian tradition, the latest examples being into the bushfires in Victoria and the floods in Brisbane. In many ways a Royal Commission is vastly superior to lesser inquiries, such as the recent Corgill Inquiry into the Building the Education Revolution.

In my youth every so often a Royal Commission would inform, educate and entertain the country about some recent scandal, crime, or example of government mismanagement.


…the census…


 Henry Ergas is one of the nation’s leading commentators on matters economic. His column appears regularly in The Australian.

In one on the census (5/8), he says that “the race issue, on which Labor campaigned strongly, framed the debates leading to the first commonwealth census in 1911. The first commonwealth statistician was an ardent eugenicist…”

“When Griffith Taylor, the explorer and eminent geographer, questioned the claimed mental inferiority of Asians, he was hounded out of the country for denying the "science" of racial eugenics.

The then consensus  expressed by the nation's leading scientists, was that Australia was falling behind Germany, which since 1933 had ‘introduced measures to improve the eugenic quality of the nation’"

…tradition of Royal Commissions…

 In the same piece Professor Ergas says that although freedom of information laws were unheard of then, there was an “Australian tradition of delegating fact-finding to royal commissions and statutory bodies that comprehensively disclosed their reasons…”

“That governments could hide from independent scrutiny the evidentiary basis for the National Broadband Network, or the modelling for the carbon tax, would have seemed profoundly offensive.”

….Queensland, Victorian Royal Commissions,  but not in Canberra…


( Continued below)

Royal Commissions have long enjoyed an important place in Australia, casting light into issues shrouded in darkness. Invariably presided over by a distinguished lawyer, unhindered by the rules of evidence which seem at times to be designed to keep a jury in the dark, a Royal Commission can compel testimony and the production of documents.

As we have mentioned here the Law Reform Commission gave two reasons for retaining Royal Commissions. First, the term ‘Royal Commission’ is very well-known, which means that it is a clear way to communicate to the public the extraordinary nature of such an inquiry. 

Secondly, the title ‘Royal Commission’ is helpful in that it indicates how the highest form of public inquiry is established—namely by the Governor-General of Australia or the Governor of a state. The Law Reform Commission says that it is appropriate that "the Australian head of state should continue to be responsible for establishing the highest form of public inquiry in Australia".

… Royal Commission: Brisbane floods…

To their credit, both the Brumby government in Victoria with respect to the  bush fires and the Queensland Bligh government with respect to the Brisbane  floods appointed royal commissions.

The interim report shows that the government was slow in releasing water when common sense and predictions suggested it should do so.

But according to Michael McKenna in The Australian (6/8), the opposition LNP spokesman on water infrastructure, Jeff Seeney, was among the most vocal opponents  of draining Wivenhoe Dam.

…Royal Commission: Victorian bushfires…

The advantage of Royal Commissions is not only in the findings but in the evidence given. In a letter to The Australian (3/8) Neil James, the Executive Director, Australia Defence Association, laments correspondents ignoring “…. the particularly damning expert testimony to the royal commission into the Black Saturday bushfires from Major General Jim Molan and Dr Nick Jans concerning high-level leadership and how to command and run an operational (as opposed to a bureaucratic) headquarters.

“Christine Nixon's failure in command was not just her absences at critical times on the day, her lack of effective deputisation, her lack of contactability, or indeed her unwillingness to subsequently accept responsibility by trying to attribute criticism of her performance to perceptions of politics, gender and obesity.

“As the expert testimony spelled out in detail, her disastrous record before, during and after the crisis encompassed failures to ensure the staff systems of her emergency headquarters were capable of coping with a crisis, failures in exercising and testing them adequately, and failures as the overall commander in not setting an example to her staff, and later the people of Victoria, by necessarily making command decisions and accepting absolute responsibility for everything.

…BER inquiry…

But the federal government did not appoint a Royal Commission to investigate the losses under the $ 16.5 billion Building the Education Revolution BER.

Instead the government appointed an inquiry with no power to call for the production of documents, and the testimony and protection of witnesses.

 Where losses due to mismanagement and various unnecessary costs was reported in the media to have been in the vicinity of $5-$7 billion, the Corgill inquiry concluded that the losses in the Eastern states were “only” in the vicinity of $1.5 billion.   

 What would a Royal Commission reveal?  


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