News Paul Bongiorno: Time to commission transformative change

Paul Bongiorno: Time to commission transformative change

The latest Royal Commission is the inquiry into the treatment of people with disabilities. Photo: AAP
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Yet another major royal commission is now under way in Australia, in itself testimony to the complete lack of trust the country has in its politicians to deliver for the national interest.

The latest high-powered probe is into violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation of people with disability.

Its first public hearing began on Monday in Townsville, Queensland, looking specifically at the right to inclusive education.

Its chairman Ronald Sackville QC has high hopes his commission will have the impact of other recent inquiries like the one into institutional child sexual abuse and even the ongoing aged care royal commission, whose interim report last week hit like a bombshell.

Justice Sackville on ABC radio said “we’ve already seen that royal commissions have the capacity to be transformational.”

He cited the child abuse royal commission, “which has fundamentally changed attitudes towards abuse of children and more particularly the response of institutions to that abuse”.

Commissioner Kenneth Hayne and Treasurer Josh Frydenberg (right) are seen with the final report from the Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services Industry, at Parliament House in Canberra, Friday, February 1, 2019.
Kenneth Hayne (with Treasurer Josh Frydenberg) was scathing of the banks. Photo: AAP

Key to this transformation is the public hearings, where well-briefed counsel engages in forensic cross examination armed with the powers of compulsion of witnesses and their legal obligation to tell the truth.

It is only after shameful behaviour or failure has been brought out into the stark light of day that remedies can be demanded and implemented.

But even here powerful vested interest can be an insurmountable obstacle and is more often than not the explanation for the failure of political will in the first place.

The government is reeling from the interim report of the aged care royal commission, written in great part by 71-year-old Richard Tracey QC before he lost his battle with cancer.

Clearly Mr Tracey felt the time for mincing words had passed.

Entitled “Neglect”, it said it is a “sad and shocking system that diminishes Australia as a nation”.

The chair of the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety Richard Tracey QC died before the report’s release. Photo: AAP

And that, despite the $20.5 billion the Commonwealth pumps into the system annually.

While more funding is needed, hundreds of millions more, the model is flawed.

Will the Morrison government have the political will to not only stump up the cash but just as importantly to challenge the culture of profits before people?

Some of the biggest for-profit providers registered on the stock exchange owe their first responsibility to their shareholders; the patients are a distant second.

The commission found there is no transparency as to where the billions they receive from the taxpayers actually ends up, except their profitability demonstrates much goes to their bottom line.

In the recent past, some of the biggest private providers were also generous donors to one or both of the major political parties.

Surely the time has also come for the “transformational” power of a properly constituted royal commission-like anti-corruption body at the federal level.

This would go a long way to restoring trust in our politicians whereby they could no longer hide behind their numbers in Parliament to avoid scrutiny and be held to account.

In the last sitting fortnight, we have seen the government refuse to even allow a debate over the palpably questionable conduct of Energy Minister Angus Taylor.

Some on the Liberal backbench cannot believe that the Leader of the House, Christian Porter gags the Opposition rather than to come to Taylor’s defence.

The beleaguered Taylor has now issued an “unreserved apology” to Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore for using a fake document to accuse her of profligacy and hypocrisy.

But we don’t know who produced that document.

Just like we still haven’t got the full story over Taylor’s apparent conflict of interest regarding his family’s farming business.

The fact that a federal integrity commission doesn’t exist is as good an indication as any that neither of the major parties at the national level has been much interested in one.

That is no longer a credible position.

Paul Bongiorno AM is a veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery, with 40 years’ experience covering Australian politics