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Cannings Purple's Karen Brown provides insights into how to deal with Royal Commissions.

Negotiating the ‘new normal’ of royal commissions

The emergence of royal commissions as “everyday events”, the evolution of a clear commission “template” and the dire perils for businesses and organisations found by a commission to have acted dishonestly – those were some of the key takeaways from a joint event held in Perth this week by Cannings Purple and leading law firm Gilbert + Tobin.

Against the backdrop of an ongoing Aged Care Royal Commission and a Federal Budget allocation of $528 million towards a royal commission into the mistreatment of people with disabilities, a lunchtime audience of business leaders heard from Cannings Purple National Director Karen Brown and G + T Disputes and Investigations Head Richard Harris.

The disabilities royal commission, terms of reference for which were announced on Friday, will be the country’s seventh in the space of six years.

The media spotlight

Ms Brown, who alongside colleague Carina Tan-Van Baren has helped aged care clients navigate the current royal commission, said such inquiries were not only becoming increasingly common but also more sophisticated and media-friendly than they had ever been.

“Dedicated media rooms, live feeds, electronic access to documents and dedicated media staff to support journalists and respond to their inquiries – all have contributed to achieve consistent and high-profile coverage of the proceedings,” Ms Brown said.

“From a journalist’s point of view a commission is rich with stories – every day there is a ready-made selection of stories to choose from.

“Witnesses come to you, transcripts are made available in a timely fashion and film crews are provided with a constant feed.

“Personal case studies are used to ensure there is a human face given to a complex policy issues  –indeed, a personal case study can elevate and amplify what might otherwise be seen as mundane procedural errors. Putting a human face on the issue makes it personal and the impact real.”

Gilbert + Tobin's Richard Hariss addresses the event.
Gilbert + Tobin’s Richard Harris addresses the event.

Lessons learned from the banks

Mr Harris advised a major Australian trading bank through the high-profile, Kenneth Hayne-led Financial Services Royal Commission.

He described royal commissions as “blunt instruments” but said the Hayne inquiry had highlighted two major organisational risks for those facing commissions to avoid.

“One is to be found to have been dishonest or to be shown to have been dishonest in front of the Royal Commission,” he said.

“The other is to have known about a problem, to have been shown to have had a problem and to have done nothing about it.

“Saying sorry isn’t enough, even Hayne said he was sick of people that kept saying ‘sorry’…he wanted to know what they were doing about it.”

Mr Harris said the Financial Services Royal Commission and the reputational damage that resulted for banks and other financial institutions demonstrated that actions did not have to be intentional to have serious consequences.

“The bulk of the problems looked at were not a result of intentional conduct,” he reflected.

“Fewer still were a result of dishonest conduct. In fact, most of the incidents were already known to ASIC.”

Cannings Purple’s Warrick Hazeldine and Karen Brown with Gilbert + Tobin’s Richard Harris and Michael Blakiston.

Getting prepared

While Mr Harris said increased penalties would do little to grow or rebuild trust in individual operators or industries, Ms Brown said there were simple steps businesses could start taking to address possible concerns from staff and other stakeholders and prepare for a Royal Commission.

“If your sector is about to be the subject of a Commission then the time to act is now – get your house in order ahead of any potential inquiry,” she explained.

“Do a clear-eyed review of the risks you confront. Review your complaints register, audit your compliance measures and ensure you are implementing best practice responses to any concerns.

“The ability to acknowledge wrong doing is one thing – the ability to demonstrate that you have taken action to address and resolve the problem is another.

“And even if your organisation is not called to give evidence, be alive to the critical need to communicate clearly and constantly with your staff and stakeholders – it should be your number one priority.”

Jean Perkins is a communications expert with more than 20 years’ experience in media, government and public relations, stakeholder engagement, large-scale events and project management

Cannings Purple has had significant royal commission experience and is currently providing advice and assistance to a number of aged care providers regarding the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety. For more information about the support we provide, contact Jean on 0438 886 954 or jperkins@canningspurple.com.au

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