The Canberra witch trials

Occasionally a royal commission will define an era, so appalling are its findings or of such import. The Fitzgerald inquiry into Queensland’s bent police force was one such commission, disgracing a former premier and jailing three of his ministers and one police commissioner. Another was the royal commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody.

The royal commission into institutional responses to child sexual abuse will likely be another. Its establishment was in itself an act of enormous political courage. It was a commission obvious in its need for decades but staved off by various interests groups, notably the Catholic Church. It will likely be Julia Gillard’s most defining legacy.

Then there are royal commissions established as witch trials, a means of settling scores in the Salem of Canberra. Tony Abbott has announced two: one into the “pink batts” home insulation scheme and, to a lesser extent, another into union corruption and the AWU affair.

There are virtues to each, of course, but they are coloured by vendetta. The Abbott government’s willingness to unseal cabinet documents is one sign of this. Another is the fact that neither has uncovered much that is not already known.

There appears to be no smoking gun in the AWU affair that contributed to Gillard’s political demise. Although providing further detail of dysfunction inside Kevin Rudd’s government, the royal commission into the home insulation program has unearthed little that was not previously established in two coronial inquests and a scathing report by the auditor-general.

But they have produced front pages and uncomfortable questioning. And so, as witch trials, they could happily be called successes. Expensive successes, to be sure, but successes nonetheless.

Expense is important here. The inquiry into pink batts could cost $20 million alone, to restate what is known and to produce a few pictures of Rudd looking like a criminal under cross-examination.

Especially galling is the news this week that the inquiry is being paid for with funds diverted from the royal commission into child sexual abuse. Documents made available through the senate show $6.7 million has been funnelled from the child abuse inquiry into the pink batts inquiry, $2.7 million of which had initially been earmarked for “legal costs and related expenses for witnesses”.

The attorney-general’s department has defended the redirection of monies, saying the saving was there as the funds were not being drawn on. But the bigger question – the real worry – is whether there can be any savings in a commission that will almost certainly go beyond term and beyond budget. The question is whether the royal commission into child sexual abuse will be adequately funded to its conclusion or whether it will be penny-shaved to fund the government’s other hobbies.

The Fitzgerald inquiry and its staggering achievement was, after all, initially budgeted to run only six weeks. Its hearings lasted more like two years. All but Joh Bjelke-Petersen and his cronies were glad that they did, and all but the most rotten will hope Gillard’s royal commission is not trimmed or weakened to serve those whose support for it was only slightly more than grudging in the first place.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 31, 2014 as "The Canberra witch trials".

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