Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has announced a Royal Commission into allegations of the abuse of minors held in detention. The announcement follows the broadcast of a program on ABC’s Four Corners depicting teenagers in a youth detention centre in the Northern Territory being mentally and physically abused, shackled to chairs, stripped naked, locked in isolation, and even subjected to tear gas.
As the national reels following these horrifying revelations, it is a disturbingly familiar feeling of shock and surprise. How could this type of thing be happening in a modern age right under our noses?
A similar furore surrounded the recent and ongoing Royal Commission into institutional responses to child sexual abuse, which in a large part focussed on Churches and abusive members of the clergy.
So what is a Royal Commission, and why has the Prime Minister taken this action?
A Royal Commission is similar to a Court case, but takes a form of a Public Inquiry whereby a Commissioner is appointed to thoroughly investigate and report on the issue at hand. For example, the child abuse Royal Commission set up in 2013 was armed with the task of investigating allegations of child sexual abuse in schools, Churches and other institutions, including organisations like the Salvation Army, YMCA NSW, Scouts Australia and other institutions.
A Royal Commission has the power to force a person to appear before the Commission at a hearing to give evidence or to produce documents, and the Commissioner and his or her legal representatives can question and examine such people like what would occur during cross examination in a Court case. The Commission can also issue search warrants via the AFP, and invite members of the public to give evidence of their experiences in relation to the issue in question.
Following the conclusion of the Commission, a report is provided to the government. Whilst the recommendations of the Commission are not necessarily binding, it is quite common that a government will enact most of these recommendations into law.
Such a Commission can also result in criminal charges being brought against parties who are found to have committed crimes such as child sexual abuse, or in the case of this most recent Royal Commission to come, physical and mental abuse of children in detention that may be outside the scope of the discipline allowed in such youth detention centres.
In summary, a Royal Commission is a means by which the government can publically shine the spotlight on every deep dark corner of an organisation, entity or people who may be involved in conduct that is contrary to the public interest.