ALRC recommends ‘two-tier’ plan for flexible, cost-effective public inquiries

Costs associated with expensive Royal Commissions could be reduced by establishing an alternative, second tier of public inquiry with proper investigatory powers and appropriate levels of transparency and protections for those involved, Australia’s leading law reform agency said today.The review of Royal Commissions and other federal inquiries by the Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC) has culminated in the release of its final report, Making Inquiries: A New Statutory Framework (ALRC Report 111), tabled today in federal Parliament.

The report—the product of a nine-month inquiry—makes 82 recommendations for reform.

ALRC President Professor Rosalind Croucher said the former ALRC Commissioner in charge of the Inquiry, Professor Les McCrimmon, former ALRC President, Emeritus Professor David Weisbrot, and the inquiry team should be commended for developing a suite of recommendations that balanced the competing interests expressed in the ALRC’s extensive community consultation.

Prof Croucher said the report recommends the Royal Commissions Act 1902 (Cth) be amended—and renamed the Inquiries Act—to provide for the establishment of two tiers of public inquiry—Royal Commissions and Official Inquiries—each with defined coercive and investigatory powers.

“Whenever there are controversial issues that cannot be satisfactorily dealt with by the courts or the political process, there are inevitably calls for a Royal Commission, although not all such issues warrant such an elaborate inquiry. Royal Commissions should be reserved for the highest form of inquiry dealing with matters of substantial public importance, which may warrant the abrogation of certain privileges and protections, such as the right against self-incrimination. Official Inquiries would provide a more streamlined, cost-effective and flexible alternative to resolve matters of public importance, but which do not require extraordinary powers, such as those abrogating fundamental protections available to inquiry participants.”

Professor Croucher said other ALRC recommendations were directed at openness and accountability, including the publication of inquiry reports and monitoring the resulting activity.

“While accepting or rejecting recommendations made by an inquiry will always be a matter for the Australian Government, it should be required to publish an update on the implementation of recommendations of an inquiry that it accepts. This should happen one year after the tabling of a final report of a Royal Commission or Official Inquiry, and periodically thereafter, to reflect any ongoing implementation activity.”

The ALRC also recommends that the new legislation include requirements for:

  • the prompt tabling of Royal Commission and Official Inquiry reports in Parliament
  • publishing a summary of the cost of each Royal Commission and Official Inquiry; and
  • a framework for the protection of protected national security information utilised in the proceedings of Royal Commissions or Official Inquiries.