In the wake of the recent Parliamentary news regarding a banking royal commission, one might ask what is a royal commission?
Commonwealth Royal Commissions are public inquiries that are established under Royal Commissions Act 1902 (Cth) by appointing Commissioners to conduct an inquiry in accordance with Terms of Reference approved by the Governor-General. But what does that mean? It is a federal inquiry, much like a Fjederal Court case, but the government doesn’t have to sue someone or charge someone with something under existing laws. The government can define the Terms of Reference.
Unlike a Court, while the Commission has broad powers to summon witnesses and evidence, the finding is not binding. The Australian Law Reform Commission sites some of the issues with Royal Commissions as a lack of power to investigate breaches of the Act, the adequacy of penalties for a failure to comply with the Act, and the ability (or inability) of Royal Commissions to communicate information about unlawful behaviour to law enforcement bodies. Furthermore, Royal Commissions are also often expensive, costing tens of millions of dollars.
What are the alternatives to a Royal Commission? The Liberal government wanted the banking officials brought before a Parliamentary Committee, which would have (probably) been a cheaper exercise. Depending on the subject, a Coronial Inquiry is also an option (if someone has died).
In 2003 the Victorian State Government upgraded the powers of the State Ombudsman’s office to look into police issues rather than appoint a Royal Commission. The government could also commission a report, or create a permanent advisory body. All of these options would require the government to actually do something (create legislation or commit funding for instance) as a result of the findings. Obviously all of these options won’t cost the same amount, some are cheaper.