Australia: Royal Commissions – a brief background

Carroll & O’Dea Lawyers

Published 23 Nov 2015
Mathisha Panagoda

Former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam famously described Royal Commissions as a channel of communication between Parliament and the people. We currently have two ongoing Royal Commissions at the federal level: the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse and the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption. Both these Royal Commissions have tackled controversial and complex issues, had political implications and provided forums for members of the public to tell their story.

This article will provide a brief summary of some of the key features that give Royal Commissions their unique and important place in contemporary Australian society.

What is a Royal Commission?

Royal Commissions are independent public inquiries created as instruments of the executive government.

The “Royal” part of it is more a historical reference that we have retained today to reflect the prestige and seriousness associated with this form of inquiry. Technically speaking, a “Royal Commission” is actually the document signed by the Queen or her representative appointing a person to a position, in this case, the position of a Royal Commissioner. A judge, for example, is also appointed by way of a “Royal Commission”. Nonetheless we use the term Royal Commission to identify this form of public inquiry that is created for a specific purpose, with a limited life span and that aims to investigate and report on pre-determined issues.


The Royal Commission’s origins can be found in the United Kingdom as early as the 11th century when William the Conqueror appointed Royal Commissioners to investigate land titles for publication in the Domesday Book. Since Federation in Australia there have been over 130 federal Royal Commissions (the full list can be found here) into an extraordinarily vast range of issues including crime (Royal Commission of Inquiry into Drug Trafficking, 1983), indigenous affairs (Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, 1991), employment (Royal Commission into the building and Construction Industry, 2003) and even technology (Royal Commission on Television, 1954).

While the States and Territories each possess legislation to establish their own various forms of public inquiries, the statutory mechanism for a federal Royal Commission is the Royal Commissions Act 1902 (Cth). The process of establishment usually involves the Prime Minister recommending to the Governor-General (as the Queen’s representative) that a Royal Commission be established. Letters Patent are then issued by the Governor General that formally appoint the Royal Commissioner and outline the terms of reference for the inquiry. Those terms of reference outline the scope and specific issues to be addressed.

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