Royal Commissions have “Fundamentally Changed” Many Charities and NFPs
23 February 2018 at 5:13 pm
Royal commissions have “fundamentally changed” the way many charities and not for profits act and caused a rethink on how those organisations present themselves, a leading academic believes.
Professor Kathy Laster is the director of the Sir Zelman Cowen Centre, which is holding an event on 5 March examining how royal commissions shape public policy in Australia.
There has been a spate of royal commissions held in the last few years, including on institutional responses to child sexual abuse, youth detention systems in the Northern Territory and most recently with misconduct in the banking and financial services sector.
Laster told Pro Bono News that the popularity of royal commissions reflected a lack of trust in Australia’s political processes.
“We have to ask the question of why have they become so popular and I think it’s symptomatic of communities’ lack of confidence in political processes,” Laster said.
“Royal commissions have got much more public credibility. So when politicians say we’re going to set up a royal commission what they’re really saying is we want the community to have confidence in the outcome.”
Charities and not for profits have played a key role in providing evidence to a number of royal commissions, and Laster said this increased public scrutiny has caused these organisations to critically reflect on their own conduct and presentation.
“I think many not for profits and charities have actually fundamentally changed the way they go about their work as a result of having given evidence and having that public scrutiny on both family violence and more recently with the royal commission into institutional abuse of children,” she said.
“They’ve had to rethink even the most basic issue around how they present themselves, how they see their history and how they come to terms with their past. So I think it’s had a profound impact on practice in those areas.
“It’s not just about government, it’s all the people involved in the not-for-profit sector and the for-profit sector who are coming under greater public scrutiny and have to be seen to be changing.”
Laster said while royal commissions could be an effective model for ensuring public accountability, their ability to do so was dependent on politicians heeding their recommendations.
“They’re very effective while they are on, at restoring community confidence because their processes are largely transparent,” she said.
“Royal commissions pioneered allowing the filming of proceedings and the media covers them extensively, [allowing for] an open airing of the issues that the royal commission is concerned with.
“So to that extent they are highly transparent which is important. The issue of accountability though really depends on whether or not the politicians accept the recommendations because although it’s a very effective platform for the airing of issues, the ability to implement those recommendations is still in the hands of politicians.”
Laster does however, believe that the tide is turning and that royal commissions are becoming more effective as a tool to shape public policy.
“Recently with the Victorian Royal Commission into Family Violence, the politicians came out and said they’ve accepted every recommendation. I mean it’s almost as though they’re now in the position of thinking that…. having created it, they [feel they] have to implement it,” she said.
“That wasn’t the case in the past. Royal commissions used to be set up to, in a sense, buy time. If you set up a royal commission then you seemingly have dealt with the controversial issue and you’ve sort of palmed it off. But these days, the expectation is that government takes the findings of a royal commission really seriously and that’s the new pattern.
“We don’t know what the federal government will do about the recommendations of the royal commission into institutional child abuse but my guess is that they will almost be bound to honour the recommendations and provide some resourcing for that as well.”
The Sir Zelman Cowen Centre event on royal commissions will be moderated by Professor David Weisbrot AM, former president of the Australian Law Reform Commission.
Speakers include newspaper editor Alan Kohler, former chair of the Victorian bushfires royal commission Bernard Teague AO, and Marcia Neave AO, the former chair of the Victorian royal commission into family violence.