FPL Advisory’s Policy Analyst Emily Clifford outlines five things you need to know about royal commissions in Australia.
Royal commissions are significant formal inquiries, often called to explore complex, controversial or wicked problems that current political and bureaucratic systems are unable to remedy.
Below are the five things you need to know about the purpose of royal commissions and why they are called for by State or Federal Government.
1. What is a royal commission?
Royal commissions are independent, public inquiries governed by an act of Parliament and create for a specific purpose. They can be called on any matter "connected with the peace, order and good government of the Commonwealth or any public purpose or any power of the Commonwealth". 
In Australia, royal commissions are formally established by the Governor-General on behalf of the Crown. In most cases, this will be based upon the advice of government, usually led by the Prime Minister. Commissioners are formally appointed by letters patent – a legal, written order which outline the scope and specific issues to be addressed. Royal Commissions can also be called by the federal government and a state government (in coordination with each other) or just by a state government. In Victoria, since his appointment as Premier in 2014, Daniel Andrews has called for three royal commissions, covering matters such as family violence, mental health and the management of police informants – which has attracted significant media attention.
2. Why is a royal commission called?
Royal commissions are often called to investigate matters of public significance and controversy, particularly where there is heightened scrutiny and/or where there are significant political implications such as potential blame for ineffective policy or oversight by current or former governments. It is the highest form of inquiry into issues of major concern and have historically investigated complex issues of wrongdoing such as police and government corruption, sector negligence and misconduct, child sexual abuse, organised crime and major disasters, hence the recently announced National Royal Commission into Black Summer bushfires (2020).
3. Who is involved in a royal commission?
Royal commissions are chaired by one or more Commissioners, usually prominent figures and often someone of legal standing such as retired or serving judges. They are never chaired by serving politicians and are selected on their independence and qualifications. Commissioners must always remain external from government. The legislation to establish a royal commission gives the commission its authority and is usually broad reaching. The appointed commissioners wield significant, information-gathering powers often referred to as ‘the power to compel’. These powers can include the ability to cross examine witnesses, obtain evidence, grant rights-of-entry and warrants and give access to phone tapping.
4. Are there different types of royal commissions?
Royal commissions are often called on sparingly by governments due to their expense, severity and the inability for governments to control them once they are called. However, in recent years they have been used more frequently, leading to concern that the burden of effective investigation, policy and due diligence is being offloaded from government through this mechanism.
There are two forms of royal commissions in Australia, those that are investigatory in nature, often known as inquisitorial inquiries, and those that deal with policy. The most common are inquisitorial inquiries that investigate controversial issues, natural disasters and major accidents and focus on ‘truth finding’. The second type is aimed at providing information and research to government about a specified policy issue such as the Royal Commission into Victoria’s Mental Health System.
5. What happens once a royal commission is complete?
Unless otherwise specified once complete, the results of a royal commission are published in a report detailing the commission’s findings and presented to the Governor General. The report will usually provide policy recommendations and advice to government and departments arising from what has been uncovered. The report is customarily tabled in Parliament and made available for the public to access. While not binding, the findings and recommendations of such significant public inquiries, often serve as a catalyst for reform and policy change largely as a result of public expectations.
Emily Clifford is a Policy Analyst at FPL Advisory.
FPL Advisory is a team of specialists resolving risks and creating opportunities with respect to government. We work with public sector and corporate clients to execute strategies for owning and managing change