Federal Politics

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Short-changed by money and politics

ALL those expecting Parliament's six-member family and community development committee to exhaustively investigate the sexual abuse of children in Victoria by members of the Catholic clergy are going to be disappointed.

It may be the first time such an inquiry has been announced in Australia. It may go some distance towards exposing the horrors of abuse. And it may provide victims with a level of comfort.

But the investigation - by a relatively inexperienced committee already working on two other inquiries and which has been given just 12 months to report back - is unlikely to result in fresh prosecutions or pave the way for financial restitution as the nine-year Ryan inquiry did in Ireland.

Why? Because that is not the intention. The thinking by senior members of the government is that it is not the role of the state to conduct such investigations. Layered over this are concerns that the royal commission demanded by many victims would be too expensive, given the government's determination to keep the budget in surplus.

Floating above all that is the politics. You won't hear it publicly, but the government is wary of turning the blowtorch specifically on the Catholic Church, which has been lobbying behind the scenes against a full-blown commission of inquiry.

The blunt reality is that the Coalition is governing by a majority of just one seat in tough circumstances and can ill afford to lose the support of senior members of influential organisations.


All of this raises interesting questions. Attorney-General Robert Clark argues it should be up to police to investigate allegations of criminal behaviour, and up to the courts to make assessments on guilt, culpability and punishment.

If the government has a role, so the argument goes, it is to consider whether legal, bureaucratic or other changes are needed to prevent abuse in the future. Hence the inquiry's terms of reference to examine whether past abuse was allowed to occur because of ''systemic'' failings, and how these failings might be corrected.

The focus is not on the specifics of the abuse itself, but rather on how laws and processes might be amended.

Victims will have an opportunity to appear before the committee to tell their stories, and the inquiry will have the power to compel witnesses to give evidence and to obtain documents. But the focus will be on the law, policies and protocols. It is a ''broad brush'' approach.

The committee has been directed to ''be mindful of not encroaching upon the responsibilities of investigatory agencies or the courts in relation to particular cases or prejudicing the conduct or outcome of investigations or court proceedings''. In other words, steer clear of police and court business.

Clark insists the parliamentary approach will be less confronting, adversarial, legalistic and intimidating than a royal commission. Rules of evidence will not apply. Hearings might, on request, be held in private to protect individuals. And, unlike a royal commission, people appearing before the committee will have no need for legal representation.

There is no reason why such an inquiry could not be conducted in a sensitive way, as was the Bushfires Royal Commission.

But such arguments seem to be an insufficient explanation of why the government opted against a truly independent investigation that could have been undertaken by a retired judge such as Philip Cummins, who has already done a vast amount of work investigating child welfare issues. There is no reason why such an inquiry could not be conducted in a sensitive way, as was the Bushfires Royal Commission.

Clearly, political and financial considerations were paramount. Royal commissions are expensive. The Bushfires Royal Commission cost almost $100 million. With the government struggling to keep the budget in surplus as the state economy slows, using the ''in-house'' legal and bureaucratic resources already available to Parliament was seen as a necessary compromise.

Most importantly, the government is keen to avoid singling out the Catholic Church, which has been the focus of the bulk of allegations in past decades. Instead, it has directed the committee to examine ''religious and other non-government organisations''. Interestingly, this seems to exclude government institutions, which have also been the focus of allegations.

It would not make sense to limit the investigation to the Catholic Church. (There are also, for example, allegations of abuse within the ultra-orthodox Jewish Yeshiva College.)

But when you add it all up - the tight timeframe, the constricted terms of reference, the fact that an inexperienced parliamentary committee has been given the job, the lack of independence from politics - there is a danger that this could be seen as a whitewash. This, given the extent and nature of the crimes, would be a tragedy.

Josh Gordon is state political editor.

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