but what actually IS a royal commission?

So what actually is a royal commission?

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p style=”box-sizing:border-box;margin-right:0;margin-bottom:0;margin-left:0;padding:0 0 14px;border:0;font-stretch:inherit;line-height:inherit;font-family:LiberationSerifRegular, "font-size:19px;vertical-align:baseline;word-wrap:break-word;color:rgb(41,41,41);background-color:rgb(255,255,255);”>In short, it’s a formal independent public inquiry instigated by a state government or the federal government. Royal commissions are typically called whenever there is ongoing impropriety, illegal activity or gross administrative incompetence in any area of Australian life. There are also sometimes royal commissions in the wake of natural disasters and accidents.

Why are we having it again?
Because, as Detective Chief Inspector Peter Fox has revealed in shocking detail, there is overwhelming evidence of ongoing sexual abuse and alleged systemic cover-ups by members of institutions like the Catholic Church. A royal commission will test these allegations and seek to put the wheels of justice in motion.

How long will this Royal Commission last?

We don’t know. They usually last at least a year, and sometimes several years. For example, the Royal Commission into the Building and Construction Industry ran from August 2001 to February 2004. There have been calls today for a deadline on the child abuse royal commission amid fears it could drag out for a decade.

Who will be the royal commissioner?
We don’t know, but it is usually a retired judge or someone of similar legal standing.

When was the last royal commission?
Four years ago. Since federation, there have been 129 royal commissions. This one will be the 130th. The last one was into the equine influenza outbreak.

What’s actually royal about it?
Nothing, actually. Interestingly though, the Australian Law Reform Commission recently said that the term “royal” should continue to be used for reasons of “status and perceptions of independence”.

So what can a royal commission actually achieve?
Plenty. Royal commissions are not just passive hearings. Because their very nature is investigative, the commissioner has the power to summon witnesses under oath, seize evidence, offer indemnities to people who co-operate and so on. It is basically a government-sanctioned process with every conceivable legal power designed to weed out the truth and track down the bad guys so that they can be held to account.

Could people be prosecuted?
Absolutely, yes. The 1995 Wood Royal Commission into the NSW Police Service is in some ways regarded as a failure because so many people named in it still walked free. But seven officers received jail terms as a result of it and much more importantly, public perception changed and the police force had to change with it.

Will this royal commission go over the $10 million budget?
Almost certainly. For example, the HIH royal commission, launched in 2001, cost about $40 million, and it was focusing on just one insurance company.

Will every victim get a chance to have a say?
Some but not all, otherwise it would go on forever. Anyway, many of them won’t want to. But many of the accused will obviously have to face the royal commission whether they like it or not.

What next?

We sit back and wait for it to start. One of the most interesting things to watch will be the reaction of Catholic Archbishop George Pell, who, while officially welcoming the Royal Commission, today retained an air of defiance in the face of Peter Fox’s allegations. Pell even suggested the media had inflamed the situation. The Royal Commission will likely reveal whether he has a point or not.

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p style=”box-sizing:border-box;margin-right:0;margin-bottom:0;margin-left:0;padding:0 0 14px;border:0;font-stretch:inherit;line-height:inherit;font-family:LiberationSerifRegular, "font-size:19px;vertical-align:baseline;word-wrap:break-word;color:rgb(41,41,41);background-color:rgb(255,255,255);”>■

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p role=”note” class=”hatnote” style=”margin-right:0;margin-bottom:0;margin-left:0;padding:0 0 .6em;border:0;font-style:italic;font-stretch:inherit;line-height:inherit;font-family:"vertical-align:baseline;background:none rgb(255,255,255);color:rgb(114,119,125);”>Not to be confused with The Lords Commissioners that are collectively known as the Royal Commission in the United Kingdom.

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p style=”margin:.5em 0 1em;padding:0;border:0;font-stretch:inherit;line-height:inherit;font-family:"vertical-align:baseline;background:none rgb(255,255,255);color:rgb(34,34,34);”>A Royal Commission is a major ad-hoc formal public inquiry into a defined issue in some monarchies. They have been held in the United KingdomAustraliaCanadaNew Zealand, and Saudi Arabia. A Royal Commission is similar in function to a Commission of Enquiry (or Inquiry) found in other countries such as IrelandSouth Africa, and Hong Kong. It has considerable powers, generally greater even than those of a judge but restricted to the terms of reference of the Commission. The Commission is created by the Head of State (the Sovereign, or his/her representative in the form of a Governor-General or Governor) on the advice of the Government and formally appointed by letters patent. In practice—unlike lesser forms of inquiry—once a Commission has started the government cannot stop it. Consequently, governments are usually very careful about framing the terms of reference and generally include in them a date by which the commission must finish.

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p style=”margin:.5em 0 1em;padding:0;border:0;font-stretch:inherit;line-height:inherit;font-family:"vertical-align:baseline;background:none rgb(255,255,255);color:rgb(34,34,34);”>Royal Commissions are called to look into matters of great importance and usually controversy. These can be matters such as government structure, the treatment of minorities, events of considerable public concern or economic questions. Many Royal Commissions last many years and, often, a different government is left to respond to the findings. In Australia—and particularly New South Wales—Royal Commissions have been investigations into police and government corruption and organised crime using the very broad coercive powers of the Royal Commissioner to defeat the protective systems that powerful, but corrupt, public officials had used to shield themselves from conventional investigation.

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p style=”margin:.5em 0 1em;padding:0;border:0;font-stretch:inherit;line-height:inherit;font-family:"vertical-align:baseline;background:none rgb(255,255,255);color:rgb(34,34,34);”>Royal Commissions are usually chaired by one or more notable figures. Because of their quasi-judicial powers the Commissioners are often retired or serving judges. They usually involve research into an issue, consultations with experts both within and outside of government and public consultations as well. The Warrant may grant immense investigatory powers, including summoning witnesses under oath, offering of indemnities, seizing of documents and other evidence (sometimes including those normally protected, such as classified information), holding hearings in camera if necessary and—in a few cases—compelling all government officials to aid in the execution of the Commission. The results of Royal Commissions are published in reports, often massive, of findings containing policy recommendations. 

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