The BER: A West Australian Royal Commission?
Written by Professor David Flint AM   
Thursday, 01 July 2010

The republicans tried to get rid of them, or at least change their name.  But Royal Commissions have long enjoyed an important place in Australia, casting light into issues shrouded in darkness.

The link to the Crown stresses the Royal Commission is above politics and independent. The
Australian Law Reform Commission recently recommended that Royal Commissions be retained, and their name not be changed.

Image
[ Mme Evdokia Petrova at Mascot Airport, Sydney, being 'escorted' across the tarmac to a waiting plane by two armed Russian diplomatic couriers. The defection of Soviet diplomat Vladimir Petrov was followed by a Royal Commission into Soviet espionage in Australia ]



The Law Reform Commission gave two reasons for retaining Royal Commissions.

First, the term ‘Royal Commission’ is very well-known, which means that it is a clear way to communicate to the public the extraordinary nature of such an inquiry.

 Secondly, the title ‘Royal Commission’ is helpful in that it indicates how the highest form of public inquiry is established—namely by the Governor-General of Australia.

 The Law Reform Commission says that it  is appropriate that "the Australian head of state should continue to be responsible for establishing the highest form of public inquiry in Australia".

In response to those whose agenda is creeping republicanism, it said that if changes to Australia’s system of government were to result in a change to the way the head of state is chosen—for example, through the election or the appointment of a President—it would make sense, at that stage, for the nomenclature to be amended to reflect that position.

That of course is the correct principle.




...the BER allegations....




Royal Commissions are now in the news because of the allegations that up to $5 billion have been lost in the $16.2 billion “Building the Education Revolution” stimulus package.  Reacting to claims that the public schools sytem had not obtained value for money and had been seriously overcharged, the then minister, now the Prime Minister Julia Gillard established an inquiry under business man Brad Orgill. 

ACM of course takes no position on these matters, apart from arguing for the retention of and use of  Royal Commissions.

Mr Brad Orgill has been criticised for expounding views close to the government when appearing before a NSW Legislative Council inquiry. (An extract of that evidence was  broadcast by Ray Hadley on Sydney radio station 2GB)

It is also said that Mr. Orgill  cannot protect witnesses and for this reason has declined to hear some witnesses because of this: Anthony Klan “BER principals silenced by culture of fear,” The Australian 30 June.

Cheryl McBride of the Public Schools Principals Forum, who compiled the complaints as part of a survey, said many principals were reluctant to go public with their complaints for fear of reprisals from the NSW Education Department.

"There is a culture of fear, intimidation and bullying in the NSW Department of Education, particularly towards principals who speak out," Ms McBride said.



...PM responds....




When Alan Jones raised this with the Prime Minister on 2GB (30/6), she denied this was happening and gave a guarantee that Mr. Orgill’s inquiry protects witnesses.

But  Mr. Orgill cannot: he is not conducting a Royal Commission, which is normally headed by a judge.

When Cheryl McBride spoke to Alan Jones on the following day, 1 July, she insisted that Mr. Orgill had declined to hear the witnesses because he could not protect them. 




...call for a Royal Commission...





In its leader on 30 June, The Australian  (“The school building review cannot even protect witnesses”)  called on the Prime Minister to set up  a Royal Commission into the alleged BER rorts claimed to be in the vicinity of $5 billion.

 The editorial suggested that if the Prime Minister did not, the West Australian Premier could do this.

The advantages of a Royal Commission are that it is normally headed by a judge, it normally sits in public, it has the power to compel the production of documents and the giving of evidence, and it canprotect witnesses who appear before it. 

That is why the media usually insist that such matters be considered by a Royal Commission. When the Howard government established the Cole Royal Commission into the AWB affair, the media were highly critical of the terms of reference.
 The government undertook to amend the terms if the judge recommended this.  

Apart from its openness, the Law Reform Commission points out that  the  public is more likely to accept inquiry processes and decisions when the inquiry is perceived to be at arm’s length from the executive arm of government and other influential stakeholders. This is best seen in a Royal Commission.

It says that to promote the perception of an inquiry’s independence, its membership is usually drawn from outside the executive arm of government—often from the judiciary. Again a Royal Commission best exemplifies this.