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Rare point of political unity as justice proved unstoppable

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Australian Financial Review chief political correspondent

View more articles from Phillip Coorey

When Prime Minister Julia Gillard walked into cabinet at 4pm on Monday, she had already decided to hold a broad-ranging royal commission into the sexual abuse of children.

Her decision crystallised earlier that day after consultations with senior colleagues, including Treasurer Wayne Swan and Environment Minister Tony Burke.

Inside cabinet, there was no resistance. The Minister for Workplace Relations, Bill Shorten, was a little put out, according to cabinet sources, only because he would be embarrassed.

On Friday, with Gillard in Indonesia, Shorten had wanted to back calls for a royal commission after revelations about the systemic abuse and cover-ups by the Catholic Church in the Hunter Valley. But the ''line'' from the Prime Minister's office that day was to dead-bat calls for a commission until Gillard returned home.

''Bill had the shits because of how he might look after knocking back a commission on Friday,'' a minister said. ''But he backed the decision, 100 per cent.''

Indeed, everyone was in furious agreement. Although the trigger for the commission was the events in the Hunter, it was agreed the commission had to be far wider than just the Catholic Church. There were three reasons.

First, confining the commission to one organisation would expose the government to claims it was conducting a witch-hunt against the church and its most senior member in Australia, Cardinal George Pell.

Second, a minister explained, ''if it was just about the Catholic Church, we would have been flooded with complaints the next day from victims who had been abused by other institutions''.

Finally, any inquiry must look at the authorities who were supposed to protect victims. So many victims say no one believed them when they complained.

Before her 5.40pm press conference, Gillard informed Pell and assured him the commission was not a witch-hunt. She also rang NSW Premier Barry O'Farrell and Victorian Premier Ted Baillieu, both of whom had initiated inquiries into alleged abuses in their states.

By then, the momentum for a royal commission was unstoppable, but it appears there was no collusion and no one was pushed.

It was a rare moment in politics in which all players, independently, came to the same conclusion.

From Sunday, there had been an avalanche of calls from Labor backbenchers and independent MPs for a commission.

On Monday morning, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott had decided to back a commission if it extended beyond the Catholic Church. Abbott, a friend of Pell's, did not ring him to discuss the matter until Tuesday.

Abbott released his statement calling for a royal commission at 3.33pm on Monday, before cabinet met but after Gillard had made her decision. The two did not discuss the matter.

Also joining the fray on Monday was Kevin Rudd, who issued a statement from Dubai at 3pm, saying there should be a royal commission if the various state inquiries failed to get to the bottom of the problem.

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