A Royal Commission is the highest form of public inquiry or investigation in Britain, Australia and other Commonwealth nations. Royal Commissions can serve as an avenue to law reform, as their findings or recommendations usually result in changes to legislation. Royal Commissions in Australia can be ordered by executive governments at either Federal and State level. As the name suggests, a Royal Commission is conducted in the name of the monarch. They are overseen by an individual, usually a former judge, who carries the title Royal Commissioner. The Royal Commission is given wide-ranging powers to seize documents or other evidence, organise hearings, summon and cross-examine experts and witnesses. The Royal Commission then deliberates and hands down a detailed list of findings. Because Royal Commissions are complex and thorough they can run for several months or even years before handing down findings.
There have been 129 Royal Commissions since Federation, the first in 1902 and the most recent on the Victorian bushfires, which is still ongoing as of late 2009 (see picture). Royal Commissions are generally convened to consider issues that are controversial or require an intense level of investigation, beyond what can be conducted by the police, other inquiries or even the government itself. Sometimes a Royal Commission might be called to investigate the operation and conduct of government and its agencies. There have been several Royal Commissions into corruption in State police and prison services, for example. Some of Australia’s best-known Royal Commissions have investigated:
- The collision between HMAS Melbourne and HMAS Voyager, an incident that resulted in the loss of 82 lives (1964-1968).
- The collapse of sections of the Westgate Bridge, resulting in the death of 35 workers (1970-71).
- Drug trafficking into and within Australia (1980-1983).
- British nuclear testing in Australia (1984-1985).
- The alarmingly high rate of indigenous deaths in custody (1987-1991).
- Allegations of corruption in the New South Wales police service (1994-1997).
- The explosion and fire at Esso’s Longford gas plant in Melbourne (1998-99).
Once a Royal Commission has concluded it will submit a comprehensive report and a set of recommendations to the government. The ‘Deaths in Custody’ report, for example, consisted of eleven volumes and 339 recommendations for legislative or procedural change. This information is also made available to the public (most recent Royal Commissions have published it online) and widely reported in the media. Governments often find themselves under pressure to act upon the recommendations of a Royal Commission – and they generally do, though not always entirely. In 1984 the Hawke government set up the National Crime Authority, following recommendations from the Costigan Royal Commission into links between unions and organised crime. In the wake of the 1991 ‘Deaths in Custody’ Royal Commission, most states implemented its recommendations for changes to arrest procedures, better supervision of prisoners and a commitment to a rigorous and independent investigation into every future death in police custody.