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What is a Royal Commission?

Today marks the 30 year anniversary of the final report from the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. This inquiry was called by the government at the time to look into the underlying social, cultural and legal issues of Aboriginal deaths in custody. From this Royal Commission, 339 recommendations were made.  

But what exactly is a Royal Commission? We’ve laid it out below: 

The brief definition: A Royal Commission is an investigation, independent of government, into a matter of great importance – it is the highest form of inquiry. Royal Commissions are not judicial, they do not hand down verdicts but can pass on matters to the police if required. Simply — they are an investigation. 

The details: A Royal Commission can be called by either a Federal or state government. Once called, it’s formally established by the Governor-General on behalf of the Crown and on the advice of government ministers. The government then provides funding, commissioners (who are not politicians, but independent), and terms of reference. 

The idea is that at the end of the inquiry, the Royal Commission will make recommendations to the government on what needs to change. It is up to the government if they want to make the recommended changes. 

Royal Commissions are ad-hoc and temporary, but also very costly. Due to their expensive nature, they are used sparingly, and are often ‘last resorts’. 

Many other countries have Royal Commission or something similar including:

  • United Kingdom 
  • Canada
  • New Zealand
  • Malaysia
  • Mauritius 
  • Saudi Arabia

In Australia, once a commission has commenced, it cannot be stopped, and it is typical for commissions to last for years. 

Other well-known and recent royal commissions in Australia you might have heard of: 

  • Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse
  • Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services Industry
  • Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety
  • Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability

A Royal Commission has a specialised focus (like the examples we gave above), and commissioners have vast powers to undertake thorough research, consult with experts, and fly around all over the nation when necessary to speak to witnesses. The information gathered from these mechanisms is then used to formulate the recommendations that are then passed on to the government. 

After the recommendations are made, there is generally public pressure to commit to implementing the recommendations, however, it is up to the government to decide which recommendations are chosen, if any at all. In the case of the Aboriginal Deaths in Custody Royal Commission, handed down 30 years ago, a report in 2018 found 64 per cent of the recommendations had been implemented in full, while 36 percent of recommendations had been implemented partially or not at all.

Calling a Royal Commission is a big deal, but as per the above, it sometimes takes successive governments many years to implement the recommendations.

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