The announcement by the Morrison Government to appoint a royal commission into the suicides of Australian war veterans will come as a relief to those families whose members have suffered so terribly.
Whether it an answer to solve this tragic and difficult problem is another issue.
According to the Prime Minister, this new royal commission will “look at past deaths by suicide from a systemic point of view” and “shed light on the critical steps we need to take” to reduce suicide.
Bodies like royal commissions can be effective, but sometimes they are not always appropriate especially for such complex, emotional and deeply painful personal issues.
Too often governments use royal commissions which take time to report to avoid taking responsibility for issues or to cover up their previous lack of action
This will be Australia’s 138th national royal commission since federation.
It is the eighth royal commission delivered by a Coalition government in as many years. The Howard government appointed only four, Fraser 8, Hawke 12 and Whitlam 13 – and Menzies just five over 16 years.
The new one will be held jointly with the states and territories as has occurred with other royal commissions in the past and recently, though it is not exactly explained why this is needed in this case.
More importantly, it is not clear exactly what this royal commission will do and whether this most expensive form of public inquiry — with its coercive statutory powers of investigation and its often over-legalistic, adversarial style — is needed or appropriate to investigate this sensitive issue. Who is being investigated and who is to be held responsible?
Moreover, the issue of the untimely death of veterans is one that requires ongoing assessment. It is not an episodic event but will continue as Australian soldiers go to war and return home after terrible experiences in combat.
That is why the government’s original decision to appoint a permanent National Commissioner for Defence and Veteran Suicide to monitor this issue was a good one — which is going to continue alongside this royal commission.
Is the government simply appointing this royal commission to ‘kick the can’ down the road; to avoid making a decision and to show concern — as governments often do?
But appointing any royal commission is not without risks. They often cost more than expected, take longer than scheduled, and (as seen with the Royal Commission into Aged Care) make recommendations that are not even unanimous but take government into unchartered and costly areas.
Also, royal commissions just make recommendations, not findings. They are not in any way ‘judicial’ regardless of who chairs them. Governments must still decide what to accept or reject.
Let us not forget the fate of similar previous royal commissions. The Hawke government’s 1983 Royal Commission into Agent Orange and its 1987 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody ran into problems about their methodologies, costs, findings, and the implementation of their recommendations.
Indeed, after denigrating Justice Phillip Evatt who chaired the Agent Orange Royal Commission, denying his request for extra resources, and rejecting his findings, the Hawke government three years later had to apologise in parliament to Evatt and accept his report’s findings.
Controversy still surrounds what the four-year, $30 million Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody found and whether its recommendations were even implemented. This is despite the $400 million assistance package announced on its release, subsequent multiple reporting arrangements, and a recent evaluation that 78 per cent of its 339 recommendations were fully or mostly implemented.
Politically, this decision reflects badly on the prime minister’s judgement and ultimately could be disastrous for his government. Like the Turnbull government concerning the Royal Commission into Banking, the appointment of this royal commission could be seen as another ‘cave-in’ that is made worse because it comes after six weeks of appeasement by the Morrison government on almost every issue that it has had to confront.
Lastly, the appointment of yet another royal commission brings a different danger — that the value of this often valuable instrument may be debased by overuse, for purposes for which it is not suitable and is seen to be motivated overwhelmingly for politically expedient reasons.
Dr Scott Prasser is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies. The second edition of his book, Royal Commission and Public Inquiries in Australia, will be released this year.
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