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28 Apr 2018

A fish rots from the head down

After years of pressure from various consumer groups and political parties, the Federal Government reluctantly relented and we finally have a Royal Commission into the financial sector.

With prominent Government members now claiming to be shocked and disturbed, even appalled by the findings to date, we are entitled to ask why they were so determined not to have a Royal Commission in the first place. It could be that Royal Commissions often discover scandals and coverups that go far beyond their terms of reference and lead to the very top, or heads of our corporations, institutions and even governments. As the old saying goes, “a fish rots from the head down”, so why would politicians unleash a Royal Commission to sniff out the source of a smell if they weren’t sure where the investigation could ultimately end?

There are many recent examples of how Royal Commissions can uncover unpleasant truths, such as the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse which was supposed to make recommendations which would either prevent sexual abuse from occurring in secular and religious institutions or ensure that effective responses were made. The totally unexpected result could lead to the former head of the Catholic Church in Australia, Cardinal George Pell being put on trial for historical sexual offences.

In similar fashion the Costigan Royal Commission was set up by the Fraser Government in 1980 to deliver a good dose of union bashing by uncovering criminal activities associated with the Painters and Dockers Union. The Commission soon discovered however, that sophisticated tax evasion schemes were being operated in Australia and in classic “rotting head” fashion, found that some of Australia’s biggest corporations and best-known identities were heavily involved in tax dodging schemes.

The young barrister who represented one of these famous names at the Costigan Royal Commission was Malcolm Turnbull. He has personally witnessed the way that Royal Commissions look for rotten heads even though that was never the original intention. It is also possible that this may have motivated his attempts to prevent the holding of the current Royal Commission into the financial services sector.