Premier Andrews of Victoria announced last week a “judicial inquiry” into the hotel quarantine program which has apparently caused the latest outbreak of the COVID 19 resulting in the lockdown of the Melbourne metropolitan area and further damage to the national economy.
There are several problems with his announcement.
First, there is no such thing in Westminster democracies like Australia, which still includes Victoria, as a “judicial inquiry.”
Public inquiries whether they are royal commissions, special commissions of inquiry, boards of inquiry or any other inquiry are arms of executive government. In Victoria these bodies are now appointed under the Inquiries Act 2014which confers on them particular powers and also protection for their members and witnesses.
They are appointed by executive government, their membership is selected by executive government, their terms of reference are decided by executive government and they report only to executive government.
They are not courts of law, even if they are presided over for former judges or current legal counsel. Inquiries do not make judgements. They only make recommendations and it is up to executive governments to accept or reject those recommendations.
Governments often appoint public inquiries when there is a calamity, like a natural catastrophe, major accident, or some alleged wrongdoing and there is the need for an independent review at arm’s length from executive government to clarify the facts and to allocate responsibility.
But such inquiries can also be appointed for partisan reasons of showing concern about an issue, delaying decision making, being seen to be ‘doing something’, and to get a government or a minister out of an embarrassing situation, to get it ‘off the hook’ so to speak.
The Andrews Government’s appointment of this inquiry has all the hallmarks of an inquiry appointed for politically expedient reasons of blame minimisation, of taking the focus away from the government’s possible mistakes, of transferring attention away from any of the ministers who under our Westminster system of government are responsible for this issue.
Indeed, if as the Premier said the hotel quarantine issue was “completely unacceptable” then he could had shown some leadership and stood down or even sacked the ministers concerned with this apparent debacle.
Last, the Andrews Government could not even get the previous role or the designation of the appointed chair, the Honourable Jennifer Coate, right. She is repeatedly referred in Andrews’ media statement as “Justice Coate.”
The Honourable Jennifer Coate, now retired, was not a member of the Federal Court, as Andrews incorrectly states in his media release, but rather was a member of the Family Court. As a retired Justice, she is not entitled to the designation of “Justice” in any formal role. The Victorian Law Foundation’s guidelines on referring to Judges makes this clear. This is not a mere technicality because the Andrews Government keeps claiming they have established a “judicial inquiry”.
One assumes that the Honourable Jennifer Coate would clarify the description and nomenclature of the inquiry she is now chairing and her own designation as soon as the inquiry begins.
Couldn’t the Andrews’ Government even get these basic facts and legal protocols right?
Dr Scott Prasser is Senior Fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies and editor of Royal Commissions and Public Inquiries in Australia.
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