Nov 20, 2012

Royal commission a step closer, but will it be on Abbott’s watch?

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?

Bernard Keane — Politics editor

Bernard Keane

Politics editor

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.

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5 thoughts on “Royal commission a step closer, but will it be on Abbott’s watch?

  1. Edward James

    This Royal Commission is answerable to no one political party, it will be in place to do what the victims have been calling for for decades. Once set in motion it can’t be stopped. The terms of reference are the next important part in moving forward. we do not want what happened with the inquiry expected to look again at the Heiner Affair in Queensland among other issues. Having its terms of reference restricted on a point of law. Restricting what the meaning of the word “government” meant as the scope was deemed too broad a field for investigation. Edward James

  2. Mark from Melbourne

    Couldn’t believe Paul Kelly was actually still in this dimension when he wrote his rave. Quite unbelievably detached from reality and swinging wildly at anything he was upset with.

    I tried to resist but couldn’t help wondering: Kelly-Irish-Catholic??? Seemed quite out of character I must say.

  3. AR

    Polonius just gets wronger by the day, don’t he? Shorley time he was put out to grass or sent to the glue factory.

  4. Steve777

    Bipartisanship in calling setting up a Royal Commission is a very rare indeed. This RC is to address issues that concern pretty much everyone regardless of their politics. There is a desire on the part of all involved to both get it right and, for the most part, not play politics with it. The old saw that you don’t call an enquiry unless you know the result (and it is one which will embarrass the opposition) doesn’t apply here. For example, expect Royal Commissions into alleged misdeeds of unions and unionists when Tony Abbott takes power. In this case, while we know that it’s going to find some pretty appalling stuff, there seem to be no obvious political implications for either side. However, the full outworkings of what this commission will find can only be guessed at at this stage.

    P.S. I haven’t read the Australian recently. I stopped buying it when it started openly campaigning for regime change like its tabloid stablemates and pushing voodoo climate science. It does seem from this article that Paul Kelly’s output has deteriorated in the last couple of years.

  5. Carl Peterson

    This Royal Commission under Tony Abbot’s watch would be the ultimate “Fox in charge of the hen’s house” cliche. Abbot would do anything to protect his Church and derail any efforts that could deliver justice to the victims.

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