Abuse inquiry doomed to fail
16th July 2012
Updated 16th July 2012
A royal commission is what is needed to look at allegations of child abuse.
QUESTIONS persist about what sort of inquiry into allegations of child abuse would be best. The state government seems adamant that a parliamentary committee is good enough. Others want a royal commission or a formal type of inquiry, perhaps conducted by a retired judge or QC.
This discussion is occurring in a vacuum, without any mention of what actually takes place in a parliamentary committee, on the one hand, or a royal commission on the other and which is better. Considering both, the merits clearly are on the side of the royal commission. A parliamentary committee inquiry emerges as the last and worst option.
Having observed the work of parliamentary committees over many years, I can tell you now what the result will be. I used to like committee hearings since you could be as uppity as you liked and you were paid an extra allowance. But they had no real teeth and achieved little.
In this case, I could write the committee's report before it has heard any evidence and my report would be just as worthless as the real one when it comes. The committee will conclude that the abuse of children has been despicable and that it must never happen again. It will go on to say that the institutions under whose roof these crimes were perpetrated also did much charitable work that was well motivated. Moreover, it will be said, nothing would be achieved in looking backwards; however, "protocols" should be "put in place" to prevent a recurrence. All concerned will be as disappointed, on the one hand, or relieved, on the other, as they are now.
So a parliamentary committee will fail because parliamentary committees are unsuited to investigate such serious matters which are, in reality, crimes. They were never intended to do so and are not equipped to do it.
It must be remembered that parliamentary committees are made up of honest and decent toilers who have not been appointed as ministers. Appointments are usually made to committees simply to find a part-time job for the individuals concerned.
In contrast, with a royal commission or judicial inquiry, it is possible to appoint the very best from the ranks of those who know a lying witness when they see one and who will, with merciless persistence, unearth the details of the subject of their inquiry. Moreover, being a royal commissioner is a full-time job, not a cushy pastime to fit in between opening bazaars and making speeches. So, if you want a second-rate investigation, appoint a parliamentary committee. If you want a real inquiry, appoint a royal commission.
It is the nature of politics that MPs have to make friends and keep them. A royal commissioner, having already had a successful career and with the special skills needed to nail the perpetrators of crimes, has no need to curry favour or to pull punches.
Of course parliamentary committees have nominal powers, but they have no tradition of using them, no familiarity with uncovering crimes and no proven ability to ensnare those responsible. The power of the committee in the present case is merely "to send for persons, documents and other things." It is a power so vague it is virtually worthless. In contrast, a royal commission under Victorian law has real inquisitorial powers to search for and seize documents, enter premises, compel witnesses to tell the truth, prosecute them if they refuse and pursue the evidence trail until the perpetrators are cornered and nailed. This sounds severe. It is, and it is exactly what is required.
Already the committee has announced it is "required by law'' to complete its two unfinished inquiries before it can commence its new inquiry. Such a leisurely start to an inquiry without teeth is not the way to approach a subject with a potential for horrendous findings. It is not too late to set up a real inquiry with real power and one that is enthusiastic about getting on with the job.
Neil Brown, QC, was deputy leader of the Liberal Party from 1985 to 1987.