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Responsibility for royal commissions' effectiveness lies with us

  • 11 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.

Finally, 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'