3.3 Commitment to widespread consultation is a hallmark of best practice law reform. As noted above, it is also contemplated in the ALRC Act, which provides that the ALRC ‘may inform itself in any way it thinks fit’ for the purposes of reviewing or considering anything that is the subject of an inquiry. At times, the Terms of Reference issued for a given inquiry may specify some of the institutions or groups to be consulted. For example, in the recently completed Family Violence inquiry, the ALRC was directed to consult
with relevant courts, the Australian Government Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, relevant State and Territory agencies, State and Territory Legal Aid Commissions, the Family Law Council, the Australian Domestic Violence Clearinghouse and similar bodies in each State and Territory.
3.4 For each inquiry, the ALRC consults broadly with relevant stakeholders, experts and the general public. This consultation occurs throughout the inquiry process—often from when the Terms of Reference are first scoped and the key issues identified, through to when the last written submissions are received and considered for the final report.
3.5 Though some persons ask not to be identified, the consultation process is otherwise transparent. The ALRC publishes a list of all the stakeholders and persons it consults for each inquiry.
3.6 Stakeholders, experts and the public are consulted using a number of strategies, tailored to each inquiry, including the following:
the release of discussion and consultation papers, inviting written submissions from all stakeholders and the general public;
face-to-face consultations with individual stakeholders, interested persons and organisations, including industry and professional groups, departments and agencies at all relevant levels of government and non-government and community organisations;
convening expert advisory committees or reference groups of honorary consultants for inquiries, comprising eminent persons in the relevant field of inquiry, to assist in policy analysis and the formulation of key recommendations;
public and online forums;
blogs, podcasts and Twitter updates;
an online submission form;
media releases and press conferences;
surveys and questionnaires;
addressing professional bodies, universities, community organisations and conferences.
3.7 Some of these consultation strategies are well-established and their benefits are self-evident, but the ALRC’s use of online tools might deserve some elaboration. The ALRC is committed to adapting its practices to take advantage of the opportunities that online tools present better and more to widely engage the community. This commitment is reflected in the ALRC’s adoption of the online tools, listed above, as part of its consultation strategy.
3.8 A further matter of specific concern is to develop appropriate strategies for consultation with Indigenous stakeholders.
3.9 E-newsletter: The ALRC now publishes regular e-newsletters for each of its inquiries. These e-newsletters keep stakeholders informed about the progress of an inquiry and can include a calendar of upcoming consultations, and accounts of recent consultations. Each e-newsletter also highlights an important issue in the inquiry, with links to an online comment form, so that subscribers to the newsletter may provide immediate feedback. The newsletters may also feature links to other inquiries of immediate relevance.
3.10 Eight e-newsletters were published during the ALRC’s recent family violence inquiry, by the end of which there were 965 subscribers.
3.11 Online forum: The ALRC has run online forums for each of its recent Secrecy (2009), Royal Commissions (2009) and Family Violence (2010) inquiries. Such forums aim to stimulate engagement with stakeholders, inform the community about the ALRC’s thinking, and provide an immediate and accessible way to contribute to the ALRC’s inquiries.
3.12 For example, the Family Violence Online Forum was conducted from November 2009 to January 2010 amongst a closed group from the women’s legal services community. The forum was assisted by a grant from the Government 2.0 Taskforce, formed in 2008 against a backdrop of increased interest by governments worldwide in the potential of online engagement. This forum facilitated frank and open discussion in a secure online environment about issues relevant to the concerns and experiences of women’s legal services.
3.13 Online submissions: The ALRC now invites stakeholders to take advantage of an online submission form that it designed to enable people to respond in a focused way, addressing the individual questions and proposals set out in consultation papers.
3.14 These external contributions, and the ALRC’s own extensive research and analysis, inform its final recommendations in each inquiry.
3.15 The ALRC is keen to build upon its successful base of online tools and to contribute pioneering consultation techniques that can provide an illustrative model for government agencies and others to emulate.
Indigenous consultation and participation
3.16 A commitment of the ALRC’s Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP) is to engage and consult widely, on all aspects of ALRC work, with Indigenous groups, individuals and organisations. The Family Violence inquiry provided a testing ground for this commitment. From the beginning of the inquiry, the ALRC sought guidance from its Indigenous Advisory Committee (established as part of the Commission’s Reconciliation Action Plan) about consultation strategies and developed an Indigenous Consultation Plan.
3.17 In endeavouring to engage with Indigenous stakeholders the Commissions were conscious of what has been referred to as ‘consultation fatigue’, expressed in consultations and submissions as a frustration by Indigenous communities about the frequency with which individuals and organisations are consulted, without meaningful outcomes or feedback for communities. In addition to recommendations made in the Family Violence Report, the release of a Summary Report, and a podcast, reflect the ALRC’s commitment to ensuring that the information and experiences shared by Indigenous people with the ALRC produce meaningful outcomes and stakeholders are aware of the use to which such information has been put.
3.18 The ALRC recognises that each inquiry will require specific consideration of strategies to ensure an appropriate way of dealing with issues affecting indigenous stakeholders in future inquiries.