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Cultural change beyond royal commissions



Royal commissions are increasingly prompted by vulnerable people being treated badly. Recent commissions have highlighted the bad behaviour by churches, financial institutions and, in the Northern Territory, by detention officers. Forthcoming commissions will reveal bad treatment of the elderly and of people who are mentally ill.

Panopticon image used to illustrate the failure of institutions that have been subject to royal commissions. Cartoon by Chris JohnstonExperience suggests that the commissions disclose only a fraction of unacceptable behaviour committed, and that the cultural attitudes that entrench it outlast the proposed reforms. The reasons for their comparative ineffectiveness can be illuminated by reflection on reforms of the 19th century.

During that century philosophers and social reformers who turned their attention to the harsh treatment of prisoners, the mentally ill and the poor generally focused on methods of dealing with them rather than on their humanity. Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon design for prisons, for example, did away with corporal punishments and over-crowding by keeping prisoners in single cells constantly under visual and oral surveillance from a central point. This would prevent the prison from being a school for crime and encourage self-reflection.

The principles were further refined in the design of Special Prisons, of which Port Arthur was one, where solitude was intensified by systematic sensual deprivation. The technology was splendid and its benefits for people prettily described. The problem was that it made human beings worse, not better.

The 19th century also saw the expansion of institutions for the mentally ill, where patients were typically restrained. They were a response to the practice of keeping people at home. In institutions they were also subjected to intrusive medical experimentation based on bad theories.

The workhouses, too, designed to cut costs, prevent people from starving and encourage people to work, meant that families were separated, forced to wear special clothing and to work hard for poor food. As in prisons and asylums people were routinely subject to the beatings and other arbitrary punishment that the reforms strove to change. The inhumanity of the places corrupted the good intentions of their devisors.

In all these cases emphasis on technological solutions to human problems was not accompanied by a proper respect for the humanity of the people affected by them. They were the objects of policy whose responses were defined in advance, and not unique subjects each with their own history, desires, feelings and demanding of respect.


"These 19th century attitudes still govern public penal and welfare policy today. Policies and practices may be conceived with good general intentions. But they are not tested against the human dignity of the people whom they affect."


Bentham himself spoke famously of reference to innate human rights as 'nonsense on stilts', and made the criteria for ethical judgment 'the greatest good of the greatest number'. The good of people who were poor, found guilty of crimes or were mentally ill was inevitably outweighed by the perceived good of society, which in practice was defined by the good of its wealthiest and most powerful members. The damage done to human beings could then be ignored or regarded as necessary, if regrettable.

The attitude was captured neatly by the 19th century poet Arthur Hugh Clough in his satirical take on the Ten Commandments: 'Thou shalt not kill, but needst not strive / Officiously to keep alive.' 'Officiously' here means that it is not part of one's official responsibilities to preserve life.

These 19th century attitudes still govern public penal and welfare policy today. Policies and practices may be conceived with good general intentions. But they are not tested against the human dignity of the people whom they affect, but only against the practical considerations of finance and security, which are taken to determine the greatest good for the greater number.

This inevitably damages people because the heart of human flourishing and healing lies in good relationships between people and with the world. In order for people held in institutions to thrive they must be in an enriching environment where they are accompanied by sufficient well-trained staff able to relate to them.

If they are confined in a mean, concrete world designed only to be washed down and trouble free, or are chemically sedated as a matter of course by transient and poorly trained staff they will inevitably shrivel as human beings and become incapable of contributing to society. And because no one is healed, the pressure for more technological solutions will grow, inevitable abuses will be revealed, more enquiries be held, and the circle will continue.

The alternative is to make the humanity of vulnerable people the consistent focus, and to commit sufficient resources to shape the environment and encourage the healthy relationships central to their healing.

The 19th century experience tells us that this will happen only if the common people as well as the politicians and technocrats make this commitment and come together in foregoing financial advantage to provide the means. That is as big an ask now as it was then. Clough's poem continued: 'Thou shalt not covet; but tradition / Sanctions the keenest competition.'



Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, royal commission, banks, youth detention, aged care, clergy sexual abuse



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Existing comments

Reading Andrew's description of "helping" people while denying their human need for active control of their own lives immediately brings to my mind the curt rejection by both PM Morrison and his predecessor, PM Turnbull to the request of Indigenous Australians that their voice be heard in the Australian Parliament. Both leaders hold onto the nineteenth century idea that they know best what Indigenous Australians need.

Ian Fraser | 01 February 2019  

Thankyou Andy Hamilton for your compassionate wisdom " In order for people held in institutions to thrive they must be in an enriching environment where they are accompanied by sufficient well-trained staff able to relate to them. If they are confined in a mean, concrete world designed only to be washed down and trouble free, or are chemically sedated as a matter of course by transient and poorly trained staff they will inevitably shrivel as human beings and become incapable of contributing to society." I could weep for what is being done in Detention centres. Yesterday I saw footage of yet another detention incident where a man was violently seized after asking for more time to finish his meal. New rules mean strict time of 30 minutes in dining area- no food allowed to be taken away even fruit. He was seized by guards and we saw in the mob ph footage that his arm was bent painfully over a metal railing with the hand twisted backwards. The guard doing the twisting suddenly looked up and straight into the ph camera and saw that he was being recorded. He then dropped the cruel twist of the hand and arm as he raged at the detainee with the phone camera, ordering him to stop filming. He dropped his own walkie talkie in the process. This footage showed once again that the mode of operation in detention is violence first, no explanation just violence. What is this doing to the trust and humanity of the victims? What is the point of all this cruelty? I fear that inhumanity has been unleashed and we have no means to put this evil back in the bottle.

pamela | 01 February 2019  

Many thanks Fr Andrew for unveiling some entrenched inhuman features of our society. You rightly diagnose that: "The alternative is to make the humanity of vulnerable people the consistent focus, and to commit sufficient resources to shape the environment and encourage the healthy relationships central to their healing." Would that you had mentioned too that the personalities and cultural milieus of the staff (especially managers and trainers) in gaols, asylums, detention centres, etc. are even more significant than new government directions and increased funding. Where the milieu is of compassion, understanding, and patience (even faith, hope and love) the outcomes you want may be more certainly achieved with fewer rules and more economically. This precious work requires people of tangible idealism quite different to the reports we have on the dispositions of not a few of the current staff. The work of Jean Vanier and his many colleagues shows that, with the right people, this is able to be done. There's a long way to go in Australia; and you've raised a topic that merits some deep and continuing conversations . . .

Dr Marty Rice | 01 February 2019  

A great comment Ian. Here's hoping our next government prioritises a 'Healing of the heart of Australia'.

Dr Marty Rice | 01 February 2019  

Pamela, how true is that! How many of the staff employed to care for the broken and vulnerable members of our society (Jesus Christ clearly views them as like 'Lazarus' in Luke 16:19-31) could even be safely put in charge of a domestic dog? These institutions have to be opened-up and made transparent and accountable, so we are fully cognizant of all that's going on in them. Very special people are needed to properly care for the Lazaruses we have confined among us.

Dr Marty Rice | 01 February 2019  

Your article raises a profound question, Andy. That is, is Utilitarianism, or any other purely Materialist approach, the way to solve the many perceived social problems we have in this country? Jeremy Bentham came at a particular time in British History, when much of the social system which developed after the English Reformation seemed unable to cope with new conditions. I am not sure contemporary Australia is similar to late 18th/early 19th Century England: more its spiritual and cultural child in that Materialist philosophies (in many contemporary manifestations) seem to guide us. I am convinced that this purely Materialist approach, when applied to any situation, will be unsuccessful, as were so many Bentham inspired solutions in his time. We need a fresh vision of what human life and human responsibility towards the world are. There were, in the past, human societies that did have this sort of vision and lasted for centuries. We are, culturally, the impoverished heirs to a number of these societies, whose roots can still be observed in the Middle East, Europe and elsewhere. I think we need to rediscover the roots of what made these societies, with all their obvious faults, more genuinely human than ours is today and there is no simplistic or effortless solution to doing this.

Edward Fido | 02 February 2019  

Wholehearted thanks for every words You wrote on this vexed subject. We - our network and i, have been praying, trying to reason with leaders of Church Institutions, State Governments' Population Policy makers, and, most painful of all, with our people. We have been trying, with little or no success to come to a common sense understanding of our global state of affairs impacting negatively on the Family. Too many people have very little or no knowledge and understanding of the historical, cultural and techno-economic factors the consequences of which impact on our...way-of-life... today, often rather negatively. When will we ever learn? There are too many problems crying out for humane solutions. Realizing that most problems society suffers start where human life begins - in the Family! - we urgently need to address what should be done to educate and train all the little boys and girls from a tender age right through to tertiary education, while involving their biological parents or carers in the process, starting from early childhood ed. It is possible to teach them to respect themselves and each other! People's Cultures should be embraced and examined, evaluated carefully by all parties aiming at retaining the most humanely virtuous practices of any culture, and to reject the barbaric destructive ones. The Christian ethos is admirable and truly loving when the unspeakable trappings of Religions do not get in the way. To achieve a humanely loving society, the Family must be trained to be The First Spiritual Church. The First School and The First Government. The many books available to educate parents, come too late to the attention of men and women who give life to the next generation ... the most important learning years to train them in the skills needed to become Responsible Parents are too far behind them. Let us recall what the ex Prime Minister announced to the Nation following another of the weekly murders of a Mother at the hand of her current or ex sexual partner. The PM said that we should teach little boys to respect women from an early age! Hmm... Sadly, unspeakably damning is the fact that both Church and State Governments have failed miserably to train all children (while involving their parents in the process) to gain the skills needed to become Responsible Parents! Ex-Ambassador John A. McCarthy QC the Sydney Archdiocese's anti-slavery campaigner, said: "It is the Church that can nudge Australia into effectively combating slavery." We agree and cry out: - All the Churches can also nudge the State Governments into effectively educate and TRAIN children and their parents/carers to acquire the skills necessary to become Responsible Parents. Responsible Parenthood can be the title of a well researched PhD with all the necessary sub-titles heading the relevant chapters illustrating the skills needed to empower boys and girls who grow into men and women to nurture the next generation. Re. Sex and Marriage, Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Philadelphia USA, at the Synod for Youth in Rome October 2018, wisely lamented the evils of wars and poverty that undermine young people's future, and said: "There was very little discussion on human sexuality at all. But anybody who sits in the confessional knows that that's an issue especially for young people who are trying to learn how to be human and how to be Christian in a world that really promotes a wrong understanding of human sexuality." It is a natural desire for men and women to be married - It's not good for man to be alone, we have God's word on that - so that's a common issue for young adults everywhere, but the issue of marriage preparation got little attention at the synod. That should have been 98 ninety eight per cent of what we did because that's 98 per cent of what the issues are for young people, but we didn't spend much time on it at all." Regrettable indeed, to say the least! It is a grievous failure in the Church's duty of care towards young people. Archbishop of Sydney, Anthony Fisher OP, also lamented: "We are sorry for the clergy child abuse and cover-ups and for other ways Church people let you down." Bless him for saying it, but ... where to from here? Regarding the training of all boys and girls and their biological parents, or carers to become Responsible Parents who respect each other and know the power of human sexuality? That the Grace of God builds on nature? There is much talk about VOCATIONS and Pro-Life demonstrations, yet, for marriage, the vocation of 'the hands that rock the cradle' there is much a do and ceremony to tie the proverbial knot... and a lack of much needed life long preparation for the most important vocation in the world - giving life and nurturing the next generation. Q. Will the Plenary Council 2020/21 agree to 'nudge' Church and State to start training us to become responsible parents? Loving Blessings for enduring Courage to do all things well!

Luciana | 02 February 2019  

It has been an arduous process even watching the recent royal commissions, particularly the necessarily long drawn-out, emotional child sexual abuse in institutions and the shorter, but explosive, banking sector. Man's inhumanity to man was very evident in both. Change comes about when memory is fixed in many peoples' minds. And there were many memories to be brought back to consciousness in those royal commissions. Victims who changed from being victims to survivors, their tenacity and courage. A female counsel in the banking royal commission who became a media star with her withering questioning and faintly ironic mein. Thank you, survivors and Ms Rowena Orr.

Pam | 04 February 2019  

The psalmist suggests goodwill and humane strategies of themselves are insufficient for societal change: "If the Lord does not build the house, in vain do the builders labour . . . " (Ps 127:1) - an admonition applicable to both religious and secular enterprises.

John | 04 February 2019  

Culture eats strategy for breakfast. So when other nations like Norway have found more humane, cheaper and less recidivist breeding methods of punishment Australia must have other reasons for continuing inhumane teatments. Suggestion: Locking away and torturing one group suggests to the rest that they are 'not like the rest of men (sic)" And it hides the fact that the big end of town causes more pain for Australians than terrorists.

Michael D. Breen | 04 February 2019  

Thanks for a well reasoned article Fr Andrew. Royal Commissions (though why we use the word " Royal "considering its bloody history is food another debate) are indeed reviews of bad behaviour. Reviews of institutional corruption. And you are right, they discover the tip of the iceberg and 80 percent of the problem still lurks beneath the surface. The INQUISITION survived for 700 years and only ended when Napoleon conquered Spain. Corruption survives in the Church and the fact much of its been uncovered doesnt mean the Institutions will change their habits. Out of sight is out of mind with abuse. Perhaps the certain "orders of brothers" should be abolished because of what has been revealed. While we are building new prisons the Netherlands is closing theirs. 19 have closed in the past 10 years. "A decade ago they had one of the highest incarceration rates in Europe, but it now claims one of the lowest - 57 people per 100,000 of the population, compared with 148 in England and Wales." Chris Weller The Independent May 2017. This is due to an enlightened mode of dealing with offenders which we would do well to adopt here.

Frank Armstrong | 04 February 2019  

Well said Michael D. Breen. It's as if unnecessary and/or unjust afflictions repetitively imposed on the 'unlucky' make the 'lucky' continually feel even luckier . . . Is this a sort of addiction ?

Dr Marty Rice | 04 February 2019  

Well written thanks Andrew. The recommendations reveal significant governance challenges in some of Australia's most lauded corporations. At the heart of this cultural catastrophe is an opportunity for boards to model new behaviours and actions that grow sustainable longer-term development which build appropriate levels of sector and societal "wealth" that is not greed driven. Typical board strategies will incorporate common good measures, and will require a sophisticated understanding of what represents healthy organisational leadership "ecology". Some good work being undertaken by the UN https://lnkd.in/gNzJgWX

Greg Baynie | 05 February 2019  

To hear Frances Flanagan in a related conversation with Philip Adams https://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/latenightlive/future-jobs-are-environmental/10781160

Dr Marty Rice | 06 February 2019  

Royal Commissions tend to make recommendations around their terms of reference, often focused on external, institutional behaviour. So for banking reform you could, as they do in Israel, cap executive salaries at 12 times the base entry level salary; or you could replace broker commissions/trailing commissions with a scheduled fee. These and much more. In relation to RC re sexual abuse, you could recommend having women priests in the future or permit celibacy to be voluntary for Catholic priests but Vatican jurisdictional would most likely reject such proposals. Why Andrew explores 19C philosophy etc in this column is puzzling when 'metanoia' and an 'inner conversion of the heart' are richer concepts that touch upon the interior motivations that underpin the external behaviours. Justice Hayne refers to 'greed', for instance, and this type of sin is home base in the Catholic Church's repertoire. Is it the case that the Catholic traditions around spirituality and the interior life now have no effective impact curing modern manifestations of perennial sins? So that Bentham gets a guernsey after centuries of Christianity. celibacy will be voluntary for Catholic priests?

Peter Donnan | 06 February 2019  

Thank you Peter for your comment. I do think that conversion is needed, and that Christian language well describes it. Royal Commissioners could profitably use it. The problem, though, lies in the implementation of what RCs say, and the people responsible for that think in a purely instrumental way, at least when it comes to dealing with penal policy and mental health, and perhaps also with finance. If that is to be addressed, the root of it needs to be described, and Bentham's thought and instrumental practices give striking words and images for it, I think. To go beyond that and to put human beings first, of course, requires a wider conversion, and Christian words and Christian influence on public opinion will be helpful or that. I'm not sure about the relevance of Benthamite thinking leading to instrumental attitudes in the reform of the church after the RC undertaken to ensure that the sexual abuse of children will be a thing of the past. I imagine there will be a danger of focusing exclusively on protocols and governance and to fail to attend to the quality of relationships.

Andy Hamilton | 07 February 2019  

Your comments, Andrew, make sense to me. Instrumental approaches, focused on protocols - what's to be done in terms of RC recommendations, how is it to be done etc- can be observed when it comes to penal policy, mental health and finance. Quality of relationships, inner conversion and the culture within institutions are more intangible but very palpable when encountered. My mother spent her final five years in a Calvary Retirement Community and going there on a daily basis and also attending Carer's meeting, acquainted me with a deep-down, pervading sense of care for those who lived there. It emanated from the core team, leaders, and the spiritual traditions of the religious order. I have encountered it in Catholic schools and in all of the parish communities where I have been. At its deepest levels, this powerful Christian ethos inspires people, generates morale, teats people with dignity, promotes fulfilling relationships, basically makes people's lives happier. The antithesis of it - self-serving, competition, greed, concealment, focus on profits etc - is arid. So the deepest Christian traditions of service, spirituality and inner conversion are more valid now than ever. But it's a complex phenomenon - sharing this living water.

PeterD | 09 February 2019  

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