Authority derives from legitimacy. Credibility derives from transparency. By these definitions, the Royal Commission has fair authority but lesser credibility, for a few reasons, which should be addressed.
Established, under public pressure, by former Labor Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, the commissioners have the backing of the full force of government authority. There were some legitimacy problems, mostly coming from the rushed nature of the commission’s establishment.
This meant that there was no debate on who should be appointed as commissioners. Government has the authority to merely make the appointments. Legitimacy derived from authority, but this is not a democratic principle when it occurs this way round. Dictatorship has authority but no legitimacy.
Another aspect of the rush to set up the Royal Commission, which caused concern, was that less than a week was given for submissions as to the Terms of Reference. This meant, in reality, that only the large organisations with most to lose from revelations, entered submissions. Public debate on issues such as which categories of abuse were to be considered did not occur. There were many other issues of concern to many people, but time constraints were invoked to limit the enquiry to institutional responses and to child sexual abuse within institutions.
Again, the government had the authority to do this, but at the expense of the legitimacy that comes from wider consultation.
The commissioners have continued the line of authority. Yes, they have the authority to decide what will, and what will not, be covered, so long as they have the government’s backing. They have the authority to determine who will be interviewed and who will not, and so on. Consultation, in the form of calls for responses to Issues Papers, is a one-way process which undermines legitimacy, yet again.
There has been no explanation of some recent decisions. One of the most prominent has been to grant a hearing to less than half of those who requested one. There was no explanation as to why the first hearing will involve government and secular organisations, not religious organisations.
No one from the commission has explained the allocation of matters to particular commissioners. No commissioner has answered questions at a media conference or public forum. There has been no comment as to why hearings will be in a setting with very limited public gallery seating, rather than being televised live. Etc. Etc. Etc.
Authority, if forcefully enough applied, achieves an acceptance which can pass for legitimacy. Commissioner Fitzgerald, despite having outrageously close connections to the Catholic Church, is accepted by most players as legitimately a commissioner. Other appointments may have attracted criticism if debate had been permitted before appointments were finalized.
Dictatorship often leads to this form of accepted legitimacy, but what it can never achieve is credibility, because of the total absence of transparency. People in the former Soviet Union may have accepted the authority of state television to announce a record wheat crop, but no one really believed it.
For the moment, suppose we accept the authority of commission decisions as legitimate because we have no choice but to do so. Does this also mean we should accept them as credible? To become credible, they need to be more than merely announced in a press release. They need to be substantiated with credible reasons and arguments.
Basically, what is being sought is the answer to the question “Why was the decision made?” In democracies, people expect an answer to this question from anyone in a position of authority. Sadly, the commissioners do not appear to accept this fundamental principle of democracy – transparency.
It is perhaps not a surprising attitude given the backgrounds of most of the commissioners. The chief commissioner, Peter McClellan, is on record in his previous life as a judge, as having doubts about the jury system (see previous posting). This was because “ordinary people” are not as qualified as selected “experts”. In our past history, people have died for the right to be judged by their peers. McClellan’s attitude, legitimate though it may be in his own eyes, could lead to listening to “experts”, such as church officials, over “ordinary” victims.
In the absence of answers to the “Why?” questions, Mr. McClellan and his fellow commissioners do not have credibility for their decisions. The transparency which comes from a willingness to explain, and justify, their decisions, is currently lacking. One way to achieve transparency, if this is indeed the government’s goal, is to have public meetings where decisions are not only explained, but under questioning from the public and media, are justified.
As things presently stand, and at the risk of sounding overly-negative, the only thing Mr. McClellan’s organization has going for it, is authority. If left as it is, the present situation can only lead to disillusionment, and add to the already great suffering of victims and their loved ones.
It may be too late to have full legitimacy, but it is never too late to have some credibility.
TOMORROW: On the eve of battle
That’s all I can say
Lewis Blayse (né Lewin Blazevich)