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Responsibility for royal commissions' effectiveness lies with us

Ann Deslandes |  10 October 2016


Finally, we might think, regarding the commencement of the royal commission after the mainstream revelation of the abuses at Don Dale and other juvenile detention centres.

Don Dale detention centre signFinally, something binding, something serious, some reckoning and some consequences against the abuse and killing of young Aboriginal people in juvenile detention; something that Aboriginal people have been telling the rest of Australia about for years, with little institutional response on the horizon.

But what, as Louise Taylor and others have pointed out, can we really expect when, say, the wide-reaching and damning revelations and requirements of the royal commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody which concluded 25 years ago sit hopelessly impotent in the administrative imagination; while the figures have actually gotten worse?

Indeed, why should the authority of the very crown that claimed sovereignty over a land and a people over 40,000 years old be able to right a wrong that it might need for its own legitimacy?

Is this just another deferral to a disinterested power? What can we hope will come of moves like this from leaders whose own legitimacy feels so craven and thin? I suspect not much. There are already claims the royal commission into the protection and detention of children in the NT is on shaky ground.

As public inquiries with far-reaching powers that report to the nation's highest authority, royal commissions do important moral work in Australia. They represent an attempt to reckon with systemic failures in leadership.

As an exercise of moral authority they say something forceful about what is right. This is why they are called for so strenuously (e.g. the Liberal Party's keenness for the royal commission into trade unions), and why they are resisted in the same register (think the same party's refusal to back a royal commission into the finance industry).

But whether or not they punish perpetrators, recompense victims, or catalyse systems changes, it's the spaces in between symbolic and functional authority where things fail; where those who have power in our society — white people, police, prison staff, church leaders, classroom teachers — act with impunity, and nobody who could hold them accountable will do so.


"In the end, there is just us — people living alongside each other, unequally subject to systems which can have unjust ends, who are the only ones who can make them better."


So, where will justice come from after a process like a Royal Commission?

The phrase 'There is no justice, there is just us' might be a good way to think about royal commissions in Australia, at least among those of us who are not directly affected by the abuses they investigate. With the knowledge of horrific, institutionalised abuse, I keep hoping for some grand, empowered authority to sweep in and right the wrong that I recognise but don't think I can change.

For French philosopher Michel Foucault, 'in political thought and analysis, we still have not cut off the head of the king'. We still seem to need the seal of authority that a monarch used to occupy in real terms, and royal commissions provide an exercise of that symbolic power, buttressing the institutional changes that may result in their recommendations. Justice might sweep in in the form of a royal commission but it can't guarantee accountability, healing, or that the things it investigates will never happen again.

In the end, there is just us — people living alongside each other, unequally subject to systems which can have deeply unjust ends, who are the only ones who can make them better. For those who hold structural power in this unequal society, we have to hold each other accountable, and understand our own power to do so.

Indeed, the term 'commission' itself refers in some way to the delegation of trusted authority. And, unless we want to bring back the absolute rule of a monarch, we are the receivers of that trusted authority, and must rise to it.


Ann DeslandesAnn Deslandes is a freelance writer and researcher from Sydney. Read her other writing at xterrafirma.net and tweet her @Ann_dLandes.



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Submitted comments

One thing I heard recently about Indigenous life is that the government is constantly setting up programs and then defunding them. Surely that is no accident. Constant change that ensures that nothing good happens. What if we were to apply the Benedictine principle of stability - to begin to do something and then to continue to do it? This is related to the other article today, on the banks. The banks keep urging us to get "new" - a loan for a new car, a new boat a new house, and we lap it up. Where I live old, solid, smaller houses are being demolished and replaced with fantasy palaces than provide a View. We are addicted to change, to new, and to never getting anything done that really benefits the CommonWealth (the Common that includes us all). The systemic problem is that we are undermining so well what I understand indigenous life to be about, that is, communal life close to the rhythms of nature. Can any Royal Commission reveal that basic evil or provide salvation from it?

Janet 12 October 2016

We had such hopes from that first Royal Commission but at this date there are still hanging points not removed from the old cells in Yatala Labor Prison, let alone funding for rehabilitation. Prisoners in SA are only allowed to study basic numeracy and literacy, and believe it or not, Theology. Tertiary study, even paid for by prisoners or their families, is not accessible. There is no real commitment, but I struggle with how to make any movement towards change.

Pauline Small 12 October 2016

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