Costs associated with expensive Royal Commissions could be reduced by establishing another, alternative tier of public inquiry, Australia's leading law reform agency said yesterday.
The new level of public inquiry would have proper investigatory powers and appropriate levels of transparency and protections for those involved.
A new report by the Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC), ‘Making Inquiries: A New Statutory Framework’, tabled in federal parliament yesterday, comes after a nine-month inquiry and makes 82 recommendations of reform.
ALRC president Professor Rosalind Croucher said the former ALRC Commissioner in charge of the Inquiry, Professor Les McCrimmon, former ALRC President, Emeritus Professor David Weisbrot, and the inquiry team should be commended for developing a suite of recommendations that balanced the competing interests expressed in the ALRC’s extensive community consultation.
Prof Croucher said the report recommends the Royal Commissions Act 1902 (Cth) be amended—and renamed the Inquiries Act—to provide for the establishment of two tiers of public inquiry—Royal Commissions and Official Inquiries—each with defined coercive and investigatory powers.
“Whenever there are controversial issues that cannot be satisfactorily dealt with by the courts or the political process, there are inevitably calls for a Royal Commission, although not all such issues warrant such an elaborate inquiry," she said.
"Royal Commissions should be reserved for the highest form of inquiry dealing with matters of substantial public importance, which may warrant the abrogation of certain privileges and protections, such as the right against self-incrimination. Official inquiries would provide a more streamlined, cost-effective and flexible alternative to resolve matters of public importance, but which do not require extraordinary powers, such as those abrogating fundamental protections available to inquiry participants.”
Professor Croucher said other ALRC recommendations were directed at openness and accountability, including the publication of inquiry reports and monitoring the resulting activity.
“While accepting or rejecting recommendations made by an inquiry will always be a matter for the Australian Government, it should be required to publish an update on the implementation of recommendations of an inquiry that it accepts. This should happen one year after the tabling of a final report of a Royal Commission or Official Inquiry, and periodically thereafter, to reflect any ongoing implementation activity.”
In January 2009, the Government asked the ALRC to examine the operation and provisions of the Royal Commissions Act 1902 and inquire as to whether an alternative form of Commonwealth executive inquiry should be established.
The inquiry was designed to explore in greater detail issues identified by the Clarke Inquiry in the ‘Report of the Inquiry into the Case of Dr Mohamed Haneef’.
The report recommends amending the Act to provide for the establishment of two tiers of inquiry, Royal Commissions and official inquiries.
The recommendations raise a number of important policy issues, the implications of which will now be carefully considered by the Government, Attorney General Robert McClelland said.
The report is available on the ALRC’s website www.alrc.gov.au