Child sex abuse: why didn't governments act earlier? Photo: Max Mason-Hubers
It was with some relief that Australians learnt that the federal government had agreed to a wide-ranging inquiry into institutionalised child abuse in Australia over a number of decades.
The reaction of the head of the Catholic Church in Australia, Cardinal George Pell, served to confirm that decision in the minds of many.
Equally, the ICAC inquiry into corrupt practices by members of the NSW Parliament has been welcomed, not only by NSW residents but by everyone concerned with honest and clean government in Australia.
But is there something lacking, something weak at the heart of Australia? Do we lack moral courage? It was always open to state and federal governments to assert compliance with the law on the Catholic Church and other religious organisations in relation to members of those organisations engaging in child abuse and those seeking to cover and protect the abusers. This might have been done decades ago. Why wasn't it?
A royal commission has finally resulted from the courage of a senior police officer in NSW speaking out and the public pressure and demands that followed. Of course, many others have spoken out over the years but their calls and those of the victims were suppressed, although it must be admitted that media pressure, particularly from the ABC, contributed to an environment in which there was ready acceptance of what a figure in authority, namely a senior police officer, was prepared to divulge and acknowledge. Interestingly, and as an insight into police culture, other colleagues have apparently condemned him so that he feels he cannot return to the police force.
It was always open to the NSW branch of the Labor Party not to re-endorse Eddie Obeid as a candidate for election to the NSW Parliament. Knowledge about Obeid's methods of doing business have been abroad in NSW for at least several decades and were certainly known to members of the Refugee Review Tribunal, where Obeid sought positive outcomes for certain Lebanese applicants for asylum that he supported. Bob Carr and other former senior members of the NSW Parliament doth protest too much. The NSW Parliament House, or for that matter any parliament house in Australia, are hot houses of information and rumour. They are small ships adrift on the fearful sea of opinion polls. Politicians of all persuasions cling to each other, they feel perpetually under threat. Like it or not, they become part of an exclusive club, replete with privileges enjoyed by few others in the community and as a result, and as is the way with clubs, they get to know an awful lot about each other, depressingly so at times.
However, inquiries into child abuse and corruption are but the tip of the iceberg. Were it possible, which it is not, there should be inquiries with powers to compel witnesses under protection into the following mishandled, ignored and outstanding issues.
For instance, there needs to be a wide-ranging inquiry into the treatment of refugees by both sides of federal parliament with particular reference to role and advice tended to government by the Department of Immigration, the AFP and ASIO.
There ought to be a commission of inquiry into the sustainable use, conservation, storage and catchment management of water in Australia. Obtaining a deal on the Murray-Darling Basin is only a part of seeking a sustainable solution to the use of water in Australia. Such an inquiry should include an examination of sustainable land use, the conservation of soil and biodiversity resources. It would need to examine the impact of mining, particularly for gas.
There should be an inquiry into the long term planning for climate change and our capacity to handle the resulting natural disasters. As well as inquiries into infrastructure renewal and development, education starting with the findings of the Gonski report, middle-class welfare, the empowerment of Aboriginal people and defence, which should focus on procurement, training and policy. An inquiry, already announced by the minister, into abuse suffered in defence training institutions, appears blocked. The royal commission on child abuse may well embarrass Defence by addressing issues that senior defence officers appear keen to keep from public scrutiny. There are other issues, for instance in the field of health, professional sport and policing, that need the benefit of scrutiny.
Which prompts the question, should we be examining the nature of our governance, the failure of the political process and its professional practitioners to deliver satisfactory outcomes on a broad range of issues?
The Westminster system might be examined as to whether it is the most appropriate political model for Australia. Particularly that it has given birth to and continues to nurture a two party system which increasingly has failed to deliver satisfactory outcomes. Might we not examine other models, including a republic, or at least see where the current system might be improved and made more responsive, including throwing up better candidates for election?
Bruce Haigh is a retired diplomat and political commentator.