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Ken Hayne: Government fails are triggering a Royal Commission-a-thon

Kenneth Hayne, the Royal Commissioner to the Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services Industry. (AAP Image/The Australian Pool, David Geraghty)

Banking Royal Commissioner Kenneth Hayne has come out swinging against the “structures of government” in his first public comments since the inquiry wrapped up in February.

In a speech delivered to Melbourne Law School on 26 July that has only been published now, Hayne – who headed the Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services Industry – said that royal commissions were called in to do the work when “existing government structures” had failed.

“The increasingly frequent calls for Royal Commissions in this country cannot, and should not, be dismissed as some passing fad or fashion,” he said.

“Instead, we need to grapple closely with what these calls are telling us about the state of our democratic institutions.”

Royal Commissions pick up the pieces

Major inquiries were called to investigate issues when there was a need for independent, neutral, transparent, and reasoned reports, according to Hayne – questioning whether the government was delivering in these areas.

Reasoned debates about issues of policy are now rare. (Three or four word slogans have taken their place.)

These characteristics were in contrast to modern political practice that emphasised “party difference” that had “decision-making processes that not only are opaque but also, too often, are seen as skewed, if not captured, by the interests of those large and powerful enough to lobby governments behind closed doors”.

In the view of the banking Royal Commissioner, reasoned debates are now rare, and political commentary is focused on division rather than unity.

“Trust in all sorts of institutions, governmental and private, has been damaged or destroyed,” he said.

“Our future is often framed as some return to an imaginary glorious past when the issues that now beset us had not arisen.”

Government structures ‘cannot deal with larger issues’

He attacked the current political environment for failing to facilitate “reasoned debates about policy matters”.

“Three or four word slogans have taken their place,” he said.

“Policy ideas seem often to be framed only for partisan or sectional advantage with little articulation of how or why their implementation would contribute to the greater good,” he said.

Hayne pointed to the number of inquiries called into particularly complex issues of public policy, such as aged care, mental health, and more esoteric areas such as the deflection of criminal justice.

“Does reference of matters of these kinds to Royal Commissions suggest that our governmental structures can deal effectively only with the immediate spot fire and cannot deal with large issues?”

At the heart of rising demand for Royal Commissions are “issues about the way our democracy is operating and the premises that underpin the structures of our government”.

The Banking Royal Commission was officially called in December 2017 and finished in February this year, when Hayne presented a report in February to the government that had a total of 76 recommendations.

The Coalition government has agreed to implement all 76 recommendations, but only seven have been legislated so far, according to the ABC.

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