A useful excuse

The iconic image is of Kenneth Hayne in an office with Josh Frydenberg. The former High Court justice is presenting the treasurer with the final report of his royal commission into banking.

Hayne has the long, tired face of a basset hound who has been betrayed. His nose is the same colour as his tie. A photographer asks if the two men might shake hands. Hayne does not break eye contact with the table. He says, simply: “Nope.”

Two years on, this grim photo opportunity is perhaps the most lasting outcome of the banking royal commission. An analysis by Guardian Australia shows that more than half of Hayne’s recommendations are yet to be implemented. Some have been abandoned entirely. A photographer tried again, asking if Hayne could push the report across the desk towards Frydenberg. Hayne shook his head and began to stand up from his seat. “It’s alright,” the treasurer said. “It’s just… It’s done.”

The old joke goes that inquiries are for having, not doing. It’s not the strongest punchline but this is not the strongest government. For Scott Morrison, difficult issues are the preserve of royal commissions. They happen in a future he has not yet imagined. For as long as the inquiries run, they are a useful excuse for inaction.

Morrison has held royal commissions into aged care and natural disasters, the latter of which he chose instead of climate change. He has another running into the abuse and neglect of people living with disabilities. Some findings are already tabled and some will be delivered in the coming months.

What is being amassed is a catalogue of responsibilities. The prime minister’s unimaginable future will arrive this year, no longer obscured by the pandemic or shaded by the influence of the banks. The government owes it to those who gave evidence to act on the recommendations.

For a government that won the last election without a platform, and which has been loath to develop policy since, these royal commissions provide a limited but necessary agenda. Of course, that requires a government willing to lead. It requires a prime minister who established the inquiries with the intent of acting rather than avoiding.

It is possible this will be an election year. If it is, and if between now and then the government does not find its purpose, it will be the fourth time the Coalition has gone to the polls without an agenda. Until now, the electorate has accepted this. Surely at some point, like Kenneth Hayne, unsmiling and rigid and misled, it will ask for more.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on January 23, 2021 as "A useful excuse".

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