The short answer is that virtually nobody opposed the royal commission.
However, many changed their views, the most notable being the Prime Minister Julia Gillard herself. On the Friday before the announcement on the following Monday, while she was visiting Bali, the PM was asked about her views on the growing calls for the royal commission. Her spokesman referred the National Times to comments she made in August, in which she said she did not intend to hold a royal commission. “I don’t have an intention of having a royal commission” she had declared then.
At the time, Bill Shorten (the Governor-General’s son-in-law and hopeful future PM), a cabinet member, had been specifically told by the PM’s office that the “line” was not to have a Royal Commission. As the Australian reported, Shorten dutifully went on radio to declare his misgivings about such an enquiry.
Mr Shorten said a priest at the church he attended as a boy, Sacred Heart in Oakleigh, had encouraged him to become an altar boy, but his mother talked him out of it. Fr Kevin O’Donnell was later jailed for sexual abuse. ”I always wondered if I didn’t have a very lucky escape because of the wisdom of my mother because that priest there went to jail. And he had been a shocking abuser,” Mr Shorten said.
Clearly Shorten had a problem in that he apparently favoured the enquiry but chose to toe the party line. Shorten had gained international ridicule before about this type of loyalty. When asked on television about his opinion on a particular matter, he responded that he agreed with the PM’s position. When pressed, he had to admit he did not know what the PM’s position indeed was, but said “I support it nevertheless, whatever it is”, thus taking toadyism to a new level.
When the PM returned from Bali, she surprised everyone, not least her cabinet and caucus, by announcing a royal commission would be held. As the Sydney Morning Herald reported, ”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.”
On the other side of the political fence, Shadow Treasurer, Joe Hockey (pictured above), a Catholic, expressed doubts about the need for a royal commission on the basis largely that it would be too traumatic for victims. He said it would be ”ridiculous” to have a royal commission into the Catholic Church, and that sexual abuse was much broader than the church. He was soon overridden by the Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott, also a Catholic, that he favoured the enquiry provided that it was not limited to the Catholic Church. The Greens and Independents in the parliament and the Senate also gave support. Now, support was truly bi-partisan, even multi-partisan, so no-one else in politics was game to express opposition.
There is one factor that might have something to do with this level of support. An Age-Neilsen opinion poll had indicated that a whopping 95% of Australians were in support of the royal commission. On-line polls reflected these findings consistently. Never before had the people been so united behind an issue, which should give heart to people in other countries with similarities to Australia.
While no serving politician got into the debate when this fact became apparent, it did not stop Alexander Downer (Foreign Minister under the former Howard government) putting in his two cents worth in an opinion piece for the Adelaide Advertiser.
Mr. Downer began by trivialising the problem by claiming that it was common in the community and “it always seems to be with us.” He then goes on to indirectly discredit victims. Under the guise of professed concern he claims “studies” show abused children, when adults, become much more likely to “ be arrested for criminal behaviour”, “arrested for violent behaviour,” “delinquency, teen pregnancy, low academic achievement, drug use and mental health issues,” and to “ smoke cigarettes, abuse alcohol and take illicit drugs.” Finally, he admits that “No one can be sure of the accuracy of these sorts of studies. And these are American studies, so there may be variations in Australia, though I somehow doubt it.”
After a bit of a ramble about how problems could be solved by better parenting education, he goes on to state the core argument that “Of course, it sounds like a good idea, but I wonder what it will achieve.” Then there comes the weasel words spoken by so many apologists for the Catholic Church.
“Finally, royal commissions can be used to make allegations with impunity. Make no mistake; they can be abused by people who want to make vexatious complaints. It’s a huge risk. I remain to be convinced that this royal commission will be the crucial vehicle for change.” Plus “It’s been an excuse for atheists to let loose against Christianity and sectarians to attack the church’s beliefs and traditions.” Then comes the crunch with “And I know of an Anglican church in SA where sexual abuse of children occurred.”
Downer became infamous with his response to the issue of domestic violence with the comment that it was about “ things that batter.” The comment cost him the position of Opposition leader and saw John Howard go on to become Prime Minister instead. At the time of the royal commission announcement there was great speculation that he might return to politics as the Premier of South Australia, but it didn’t eventuate. Again, he was probably out of sync with the general public when he grandiosely declared that “So let’s just cut out the trashing of the whole of the Catholic Church. That’s just dividing society. Anti-Catholicism was rife in Australia in the first half of the last century. And it is rife still in Northern Ireland.”
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TOMORROW: Media opposition
That’s all I can say
Lewis Blayse (né Lewin Blazevich)