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Cultural change beyond royal commissions

  • 31 January 2019


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.

Experience 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