With the bushfires (temporarily) under ‘control’ (which really means not threatening homes at the moment…while Melbourne has the worst air quality in the world today…), calls for a Royal Commission are beginning. There has been a spate of Royal Commissions (RCs) recently. They have revealed startling evidence to the public. But the experts know most of this already. So why are we having so many Royal Commissions when we know the answers already? Do we really need another one?
How Common are Royal Commissions?
Australia has had 137 RCs in 120 years. But 71 of these came in the first 30 years, leaving 66 for the next 90 years. States appears to have had only a few each.
RCs seem to come in bursts. Australia has recently had or is having RCs into NT youth protection, banking, disability services and aged care, while Victoria (which had a RC into bushfires in 2009-2010) currently has RCs in mental health and managing police informers, while recently completing one into family violence.
Recent RC findings
Each recent RC has had explosive findings about major misconduct by institutions and individuals which have shocked the public. Even before RCs have completed their work, organisation practices have been changed, senior people have been sacked, organisations have been prosecuted. Another common finding is that the regulators for each industry have failed to adequately enforce regulations, allowing bad practices to continue, either through lack of inspection or through cooperating too much with the main industry players.
Insiders in any of these industries will tell you that these bad practices have generally been known to be occurring, but the organisations, regulators and the government have all failed to act on evidence supplied to them beforehand. We can already see this in the current bushfires. Fire management authorities have made recent business cases for many changes, but been rebuffed by the federal government. It should be noted though, that increased hazard reduction burns, recommended in the Victorian 2010 RC, have largely been carried out in at least Victoria and NSW, so lack of these burns is not, per se, the ‘cause’ of the current fires.
Why are there currently so many RCs?
We are clearly in a ‘burst’ of RCs in Australia. RCs of course don’t count the many major reviews conducted by the Senate, the Federal and state governments and into many other problem areas, but RCs are seen as special. Why so?
RCs have the power to compel witnesses to attend. RCs require the truth to be given, or jail may result for witnesses. Lesser level government enquiries are fobbed off by interviewee gobbledegook as they claim not to know, or not to be able to recall, or given management speak answers that cloud issues instead of clarifying. RCs get to the top people, not the bureaucrats alone. RCs use legal processes, not administrative ones, enabling lawyers to get at the truth more easily. And RCs provide an ‘out’ to government, which can ‘blame’ the RC for policy changes that aren’t in its policy platform
Yet, most of this knowledge and good solutions are already known in each industry. Whistleblowers are often responsible for starting RCs, revealing shocking information and forcing enquiries and RCs on to unwilling governments, which have denied or ignored these major problems. So RCs result in the public being made aware of shocking industry practices and lack of regulatory supervision, even when government is in denial.
Unfortunately, RC recommendations are not necessarily implemented. The banking RC made 76 recommendations, only 8 of which had been implemented a year later. Change has occurred due to public exposure, changing public behaviour and increased application of existing regulations.
What’s the Alternative: Listen to the Experts and Whistleblowers
If governments would instead, listen to expert summary and criticism, listen to whistleblowers, listen to its own public service (not the political advisers currently running ‘policy’), these problems could be addressed earlier and more cheaply. All a government would have to do is say, ‘We’re sorry this is occurring/has occurred. We will listen to the experts and fix it as soon as we can, as well as we can.’
That’s all the public wants – to know we have a responsive government that improves matters for a society. We don’t expect government to be infallible. Just acknowledge problems, and address them. Get rid of political speak, lies, deliberate delay.
Imagine if a RC into climate change – clearly the biggest problem the country faces – was proposed. A RC takes a year just to conduct the enquiry, report and release recommendations. Allowing for debate and the legal process, it’s 2 years or more before any major concerted action will occur. Yet we actually know what to do already! And individuals and small communities are increasingly doing it. So let’s not see RCs as the solution to our problems. Let’s look at evidence-based experts, inside whistleblowers and independent public service advice to get government to improve how our society runs, much more quickly. It’s not that hard.