The good people of Victoria have had Royal Commissions much on their mind recently. The Bushfires Royal Commission has been running for most of the year and high-profile figures have fallen under its scrutiny. The CFA chief Russell Rees resigned last week, ostensibly to make room for a new chief before the next fire season. I’m not alone, I’m sure, in seeing it as a part of a clearing of the decks prior to the state election.
Then in the last few weeks the Police Commissioner Christine Nixon was subjected to a searing examination of her actions on Black Saturday. Responses to her testimony vary with, I suspect, something of a gender factor at play (although not exclusively). I do find the extent of her delegation is puzzling – while I understand and applaud delegation to other trusted, highly skilled staff, does she actually ever take a hands-on role for anything? Perhaps not. But this was a fire emergency and she correctly deferred to the expertise of the fire services. If there is blame to be apportioned, then it lies in the CFA’s managerial failure to use its own expertise that, while not stopping the fires, could have resulted in better warnings that could have saved lives. For Nixon to have demanded briefings throughout the day- a day when she had delegated her role as State Emergency Response co-ordinator to her deputy- would have been a distraction. The CFA leadership themselves did not understand what was happening. Pulling rank, undercutting and doubling-up on Assistant Commissioner Fontana, and demanding briefings would not have provided useful information that would have made any difference at all to the final outcome. The same cannot be said of the CFA.
Then we had the killing in prison of Carl Williams. Again, there were calls for a Royal Commission, deflected crudely by the premier. While I think a Royal Commission is unnecessary, I am troubled by an inquiry headed by the police themselves, albeit led by a “Sir” Deputy Commissioner Jones who is going to bring a fresh pair of eyes and clean hands to the investigation- the whole thing is ripe for being turned into a Friday night BBC cop show. Meanwhile, I think that I must be the only person in Australia who hasn’t watched a single Underbelly episode. I hope this doesn’t make me a prime candidate for jury duty in one of the many trials spawned by the whole unhappy episode.
But I’ve also been thinking about Royal Commissions lately because last Thursday I heard Zoe Laidlaw speaking at Melbourne University about the enquiries into empire conducted by the British government between 1815 and 1840. I’ve often cited Laidlaw’s work, especially her book Colonial Connections and I didn’t realise that first, she is Australian and second that she is so young (although that probably says more about me than her). It was an excellent presentation. Most of the enquiries she discussed were government sponsored, although some were conducted under the auspices of missionary and religious groups. Some were conducted in the colonies themselves, for example the Bigge Commission which visited New South Wales between 1819-21, the Quaker Mission that visited the Australian colonies, Mauritius and the Cape Colony, or the ten-year Commission of Eastern Inquiry that visited Cape Colony (South Africa), Mauritius and Ceylon (Sri Lanka). Others were sedentary, based in London, and were often chaired by Thomas Fowell Buxton, the anti-slavery backbencher. Such enquiries included the Select Committee on Aborigines (British Settlement) 1835-7, the Select Committee on the Extinction of Slavery throughout the British Dominions (1832), or the Select Committee on Negro Apprenticeship.
What was common to these commissions and enquiries was a desire to reform empire. They were often impelled by evangelism and the politics of free trade and the laissez-faire state, underpinned by the desire for “liberty”. They were paternalist, and imbued with a sense that Britain, compared with the other empires of the world, was uniquely fair. The different parties had their own, often conflicting, expectations and agendas for these commissions of enquiry. Governors saw them as hostile; settlers saw travelling enquiries in particular as means of making their demands heard at the centre; humanitarians in the colonies often saw local governments as complicit in settler crimes. The actual voices of the focus of the enquiry- the aborigines, the slaves, the convicts themselves- were rarely heard, but where they are, they are a rich source of information. For example, only three indigenous people travelled to London to appear before the Select Committee on Aborigines. The voices of missionaries, officials, military officers, settlers and reformers predominated.
The paradigm of commissions and enquiries was driven by a new approach to information-gathering and policy formation. As David Eastwood points out, during the first decades of the nineteenth century there was increased centralization of information and heightened professionalism as the gentlemen administrators, elderly statesmen, token churchmen and amateur investigators were replaced by lawyers and men of business.
Although there was concern that an enquiry could be hijacked, there was not necessarily the cynicism we have about royal commissions today. They were obviously expensive and lengthy – ten years for the Eastern Inquiry!!- and there was a merry-go-round of personalities who seem to be permanent fixtures of the commission circuit. As another of Laidlaw’s articles “Aunt Anna’s Report” showed, evangelical families involved in commission work often relied on the unrecognized work of their sisters and daughters.
Just as commissions can turn into witch-hunts today, so too could the nineteenth century commission turn feral. She gave an example of the treatment of Aboriginal witnesses at the 1835-7 Select Committee on Aborigines that made Christine Nixon’s treatment fade into insignificance.
Commissions were not necessarily expected to provide closure, and there was often the expectation that issues would be revisited in succeeding years. But most importantly, enquiries acted both to drive reform and were agents of reform in themselves and they often came to act as turning points in the historiography of the colonies on which they focussed. I’m not really sure that they play the same role now.
Zoe Laidlaw “Slavery, Bondage and Dispossession: Investigating Empire in Britain’s Age of Reform” presented at University of Melbourne, April 22, 2010.
David Eastwood “‘Amplifying the Province of the Legislature’: the Flow of Information and the English State in the Early Nineteenth Century” Historical Research Vol 62, Issue 149, 2007 pp 276-294
Zoe Laidlaw “Aunt Anna’s Report”: The Buxton Women and the Aborigines Select Committee Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, Vol 32, Issue 2, pp 1-28