The government’s development of the royal commission terms of reference takes an unprecedented approach. But will it be an Abbott government doing most of the work on it?
The government’s discussion paper on the terms of reference for the royal commission into institutional child s-x abuse carefully picks its way through a number of difficult issues, all without offering a settled view. It is, after all, a discussion paper.
One commissioner or more? Probably more, it suggests. That’s about as definite as it gets. It proposes several possible mechanisms for establishing information-sharing and appropriate powers vis-à-vis the states. It flags the commission will take years, but suggests a timeline (extendable on the recommendation of the commissioners) for interim reports and recommendations. It suggests the commission might want to make sure that its processes don’t clash with current or looming criminal prosecutions. It should look at previous work, particularly if it means people don’t have to recount their abuse again.
There’s been some criticism about the short timetable for responses, but the paper explicitly says the government might continue to consider submissions made after next Monday’s deadline. The government is somewhat of a victim of the calendar here: the end of the year is looming and it wants the commission up and running by early next year. But consultation on the terms of reference for a royal commission is unprecedented; in initiating a parliamentary inquiry into national security proposals before legislation is developed, and consulting on TORs for a major royal commission, Attorney-General Nicola Roxon has hopefully established a precedent for greater public input into significant government processes normally kept in-house.
There are those who insist on seeing the commission as a sectarian exercise in political cynicism by the government. In a remarkable rant on the weekend, Paul Kelly attacked the commission — before the TORs were even released — as “a multi-jurisdictional, multi-institutional, state-church, high-cost shambles”, a decision that was “pure politics”, reflecting the “dismal, populist and doomed” state of Australian governance.
Kelly even made the remarkable accusation, with no substantiation, that Labor itself had presided over child s-x abuse. “Will Labor exclude its own institutions?” he demanded. Kelly evidently felt let down — by the embarrassing George Pell, by Tony Abbott, who by implication had taken fright at his religion being referred to in the press, and, well, by all of us. After all, this was about “the quest for popular approval”.
Various other diatribes against the royal commission had also oozed from the same outlet, including from Gary Johns, who seems on an ideological trajectory that will see him in Martian orbit by 2015.
The penny has clearly dropped in some outlets that chances are this will be Abbott’s royal commission. If, as seems likely, he leads the Coalition into the 2013 election, and if, as seems likely, they defeat Labor, the bulk of this commission will be conducted on the watch of a political leader defined, unfairly or not, by his ardent Catholicism, that at least the first term of his period in office (assuming he doesn’t call a blood oath carbon price double dissolution election and promptly loses — maybe that’s your way back to power, Kevin) will be marked by what is likely to be a sickening series of revelations about s-x abuse in institutional care, within the Catholic Church and without.
But criticism of the royal commission may spring from motivations more personal than ideological. If the Catholic Church can be humbled, and humiliated in this way, what hope is there for any older white male conservative institution?
This year has been a litany of humbling moments for such figures. Barack Obama turning out women and minority voters to defeat Mitt Romney (with the old white alpha male, Clint Eastwood, yelling at an empty chair). Rupert Murdoch’s increasing senescence on display. (Anti-semitism, Rupert? How very 20th century). Alan Jones publicly mocked and forced to apologise. Abbott forced to defend himself against remorseless accusations of misogyny. Older male public figures forced to apologise for s-xist comments that once would have passed without note. And the ultimate old white male institution, the Catholic Church, which for centuries has rejected scrutiny and asserted its complete authority in defiance of the state, forced to open itself up to a royal commission.
Whatever glee that list might bring progressives, it’s important to understand that this is something systemic, not just a series of coincidences, a belated shifting of political focus onto issues other than those on which traditional authority figures — powerful white males — have relied for so long.
Political discourses never shift permanently and there’s always a battle over meaning — recall the pile-in on the press gallery for concentrating on the Slipperesque context of Gillard’s misogyny speech, not the speech itself — but the ground has shifted on what is considered important in politics. And those disadvantaged by the shift won’t go quietly.