The gargantuan Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has come to a close. Its scale is almost impossible to comprehend: more than 1.2 million documents; testimony from over 8,000 people; a 21-volume final report; more than 400 recommendations. By all accounts, the commitment, professionalism and thoroughness of its processes were impeccable. And it would have surely taken a huge toll on survivors, counsel, journalists and lower-profile staff as well.
It is important to keep this Royal Commission in our sights, and in the headlines. Sexual predators thrive in secrecy, and catholic leaders have vowed to keep the secrets of its criminals, if they confess their crimes behind the confessional wall. Bearing bad news is never fun, but it must be said: the hopes and dreams of Australians desperately yearning for change in the wake of this Commission are already stymied.
The two most powerful actors on this stage are the federal government and the catholic church, and both have already signalled limits to – even rejection of – meaningful change.
The authority and efficacy of Royal Commissions
Many examples could be cited to demonstrate how governments stymie and side-track and otherwise render ineffective the work of Royal Commissions. It is tempting to re-visit the failure to secure justice for Anangu people at Maralinga, and the fact of a subsequent Royal Commission into the Nuclear Fuel Cycle; or remind everyone again that the Cole Royal Commission was supposed to clean up corrupt kickbacks paid by the Australian Wheat Board to the Iraqi government under Saddam Hussein in breach of United Nations sanctions yet in the real world we followed the USA into an illegal war in Iraq and the responsible minister at the time is now our High Commissioner in London.
But for this post I confine myself to the one historical example, the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, and the four RCs called during the Abbott-Turnbull administration, to make some general observations about the institution of the RC as a constitutive part of Westminster systems of government.
There is a general public perception that Royal Commissions are a solution in themselves, but the ultimate efficacy of any Royal Commission rests with government and other institutions in its purview. This is not to overlook that public trust in institutional processes is a democratic good; or that bearing witness carries an intrinsic value. As Alice Walker eloquently writes here, it does. Over these five years, people who struggled for decades to be heard were finally heard. People who were ignored, stonewalled, manipulated, and re-traumatised were honoured, respected and believed.
But governments consistently lag behind community expectations, leaving recommendations unimplemented, underfunding monitoring and compliance bodies, and allocating resources to appearances over action. Another failure is at the coal face, where officers of the state, such as police officers, ignore reforms.
Since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, no police or prison officer has ever been successfully prosecuted for killing an Aboriginal person on their watch. The police officers Nunn and Matier, on duty when Ms Dhu died in a Western Australian police cell, were later promoted. So was Chris Hurley, the officer who Magistrate Brian Hine found caused the death of Mr Doomadgee on Palm Island.
When police failed to notify the Aboriginal Legal Service that Wiradjuri woman Ms Maher was in their custody, in breach of Aboriginal Deaths in Custody Royal Commission recommendations, they failed to prevent her death. Ms Maher was 36 years old. She was taken into custody ‘because police had concerns for her welfare’. Her death was the first in the 16-year history of the Custody Notification Service.
Properly considered reforms in response to thoroughly investigated structural circumstances save lives. It follows that those who resist such reform wish to preserve their own positional power over the actual lives of others. Obviously this is a disgusting position to take, whether by a man of the church, an officer of the state, or a representative of the people.
So Royal Commissions, the most powerful investigative process in the Commonwealth, are not enforcement bodies. And in recent years, the official authority and community respect commanded by Royal Commissions has been diluted. Unsurprisingly, the politicisation of Royal Commissions, which were never entirely free of political influence, accelerated during the short and ugly prime ministership of Tony Abbott. Both Royal Commissions he called were established for no better reason than partisan vengeance, thereby cheapening the institution itself (my comment on the Trade Union Commissioner here).
It is worth noting that many political reporters continue to view the aggressively hyper-partisan Abbott as ‘effective’ and ‘successful’ rather than as nasty and destructive.
Malcolm Turnbull has also called two Royal Commissions in two years. He is more desperate than aggressive, because his prime ministership is driven more by internal disunity. The first was called the morning after a television program (my take here). Like most Turnbull initiatives, it was designed for him to be seen to be doing something. The show screened footage of state employees viciously assaulting and otherwise abusing black children in detention.
These criminal practices were well-known, as this 2014 report makes clear. Yet Turnbull invested so little in its brief – the literal torture of black children by the state – that his first choice of Commissioner had to be stood aside immediately due to dubious differential treatment of black and white offenders. Turnbull also resisted calls to extend the inquiry to other jurisdictions, as though the states do not also employ prison guards who routinely violate black children (they do). That Commission has finalised its reports. The political speeches have been made. The work on the ground, which is largely done by Aboriginal community and organisations, and Aboriginal staff at NFPs like Amnesty International, will continue.
Turnbull, a former merchant banker, had also resisted calls for an inquiry into banks which ‘literally stitch up widows and orphans’ and breach anti-terror and money laundering laws. He was eventually forced to choose between a self-orchestrated backflip, or humiliating defeat in the chamber, because his numbers were weakened by two by-elections and perennially fickle Nationals MPs. He chose the backflip.
The likelihood of reform to ‘keep children safe’
The response to the Child Abuse Royal Commission recommendations lie with Turnbull and three others in particular: Christian Porter, Anthony Fisher, and Denis Hart. Keen-eyed observers will spot the immediate problem with this line-up. These men are not anointed as a result of actual effectiveness in institutional reform. In fact, all four have presided over colossal damage to substantial sections of the population, from children in institutions to welfare recipients sent fictional debt notices, driven to suicide, and forced onto a cashless regime which does not work.
What have these men had to say?
The Child Abuse Royal Commission “is an outstanding exercise in love” blathered the Prime Minister, presumably creeping out everyone who knows anything about sexual abuse. Christian Porter is the minister responsible for the government implementation (or otherwise) of its recommendations. This rhetoric is as repetitive as it is obtuse. “This card is an act of love,” said Turnbull when launching cashless welfare in Kalgoorlie, on the first anniversary since 14 year old Elijah Doughty was killed by a white vigilante. Christian Porter is the senior minister responsible for that program too.
Turnbull also announced limiting and capping costs of compensation, for the crimes of rapists in institutions, which are to be borne by the Australian public. He ruled out redress for victims with a conviction for a serious crime. Given that police routinely escalate charges against Aboriginal suspects, this will disproportionately disenfranchise Aboriginal survivors. Even without the embedded racism, the policy is arbitrary, populist, and unjust.
Then the most senior catholics in Australia, archbishops Fisher and Hart, shared their thoughts on celibacy and the seal of the confessional. This, too, would creep out everyone who knows anything about sexual abuse. In her book Cardinal (temporarily removed from Victorian book stores) Louise Milligan describes Hart as ‘Pell’s best mate in the church’ (2017, p. 66).
Hart and Fisher also unilaterally rejected any change to their confessional practices, supported by the scholarship of Fr Frank Brennan. They want to keep their culture of secrecy immune from scrutiny by secular society and the law. This tells us that despite what Geoffrey Robertson has argued amounts to crimes against humanity, the church does not want to change, ergo they do not want to stop rapists, and do not want to save lives.
Finally, there are growing community demands that the churches pay tax on their obscene wealth. This will not happen, despite the fact that religious organisations are handed multimillion dollar government contracts to deliver ‘charitable’ services, when provision of charitable services is the indefensible rationalisation for tax free status in the first place.
How do I know this will not happen? Because of the disproportionate, unrepresentative power that the catholic church wields as a political lobbyist. Recall that the lawful authority for religious organisations to discriminate against service users or staff with impunity was recently reaffirmed in amendments to the Marriage Act 1961 (Cth). The lawful authority to impose hateful doctrine – referred to as ‘religious freedom’ by their parliamentary allies – includes the freedom to refuse abortion advice to women or sack gay staff, in places like hospitals, schools, homelessness services, and drug and alcohol counselling.
So while the Commission has done its work, all the evidence suggests that the federal government and the catholic church will not do theirs, although there is one recommendation we will see implemented. A national memorial to survivors will provide an opportunity for politicians to appear to be doing something. That one will get done.