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What can we learn from royal commissions?

What can we learn from royal commissions?

Lady Justice statue with red background

Royal commissions often promise to be the panacea for policy and systemic issues that have let people and communities down. But how effective are they in providing the changes needed to improve people's lives? This question is even more pertinent given the federal government's recent announcement of a royal commission into Australia's bushfire crisis.

We spoke to Human Rights Law Centre Legal Director Ruth Barson and DVRCV CEO Emily Maguire about their personal involvement in two separate royal commissions. Here they reflect on their lessons learnt and provide some suggestions on how to achieve the best outcomes for those whose lives have been affected.

Campaigning for change


A royal commission is a process not an outcome. It's good to be clear about that. Getting a royal commission is not the win, it's about getting the changes you want.

Royal commissions should deliver three main things:

  • truth telling
  • accountability
  • reform

Have these in your mind from the beginning and always ask these questions:

  • "is this royal commission set up to deliver these three things?"
  • "what are we going to put in place to ensure each of these deliverables are given the space and ventilation they deserve?"

Royal commissions are about accountability so always ask the government to commit to the outcomes from the outset. If reform and change are the goals, then keep them on the agenda.

In saying that, the history of royal commissions shows us you can have a perfect process, one that delivers everything a sector could ever want but a government may not commit to implementing the recommendations. It's important you connect with the relevant ministerial office before the recommendations are put on paper to ensure the government is bound by the agreed outcomes.


One of the biggest lessons we learnt was the importance of being clear about the purpose of a royal commission – 'what is it you want to achieve?'

It's a campaign that's unknown in the early stages but there are things you can put in place to achieve your goal.

Think about who you'd like as commissioners.

Governments rarely choose those with a lived experience, which means an immediate educative task needs to be undertaken about the realities of the lives and experiences of the people the royal commission will impact.

Collaborate and work strategically in the early evidence gathering period.

For example, think about how to frame your recommendations as well as the non-negotiables so all sectors benefit. Be clear about how your evidence might conflict with, adhere to or support evidence from other sectors. It's very important to think about how to frame what your sector or organisation brings to the royal commission process.

The royal commission and implementation process taught us so much. We were fortunate to have a government commit to implementing every recommendation from the outset. In saying that, no process is perfect and no two royal commissions are alike. Even if you get that commitment you will still have to advocate around governance, whole of government approaches and reform implementation.

Because there are many ways to interpret a royal commission report, my final advice is to have a clear position, present your evidence with that position in mind, and advocate consistently to achieve your vision.

This article features in the December 2019 edition of The Advocate.