Commissions of Sin

Commissions of Sin







There are occasions when a society, environment or business community is threatened by the action of others. I’d like to consider three cases where an official commission – a centrally funded body to protect human interests – has intervened, in order to understand something of the dynamics involved. Why for instance, when a government agency is established to remedy a commonly accepted problem that affects everyone, are there those who publicly turn against that same agency?

Environmental Protection

The California Coastal Commission (CCC) was established in 1972 to protect the ravishing state coastline from private development. Four years later, California gave the Commission indefinite authority over all construction along the 1100 kilometres of coastline and for up to five miles inland. Since then, the administration has gained a reputation for ruthless decision-making, litigation and street-fighting bureaucracy in the cause of limiting coastal construction. This didn’t win either the late Peter Douglas (the long-time boss of the agency and a determined environmentalist) or the Commission many friends, but it has created and safeguarded thousands of acres of parkland and trails.

There have been legal cases and harsh criticism, including an indictment in 1987, that improper methods were used to enforce the Commission’s will, but one accusation that’s unfounded is that of unrestrained growth of the agency itself. We’re all familiar with the pattern of government departments set up in response to an urgent demand, yet when the office gains independence (and the public are looking the other way), the agency mushrooms, losing both money and effectiveness as it does so. A Chicago union representative once said, when asked “How do you motivate a politician to take action on your behalf?” he responded “You keep your foot firmly up their arse.” This has not been necessary at the CCC, who have continued a vigorous campaign despite a decline of staff numbers from 212 in 1980 to 125 today.


Despite the British public handing over £133bn to the their financial services industry in the first five years from the global financial crisis in 2008, British SME’s have been damaged by a shortage of loan capital from the finance sector, thus hobbling their ability to extend their businesses. The banking industry has thus come under the scrutiny of a Banking Commission, originally intended for six months and protracted to two eyars, which includes peers, members of parliament and an archbishop. Together they made significant proposals for reform of the system.

Their recommendations include the restriction of proprietary trading (where a bank buys their own debt or equity to make a profit), control of bank leverage rates (so they maintain sufficient capital to protect consumers’ interests) and the separation of banks that repeatedly breach new rules that split retail banking from investment activities. These reforms are particularly generous to the industry as they won’t be implemented until 2018/19. Yet even so, the Government continues to drag its heels and has incurred a warning from the Commission that they are being closely watched. Once again, personal criticism has been aimed at the leading members of the Commission, but so far this appears only to have hardened their resolve. Since 2009, UK banks have paid almost £30 billion in fines for their misconduct.

In the past, work has also been undertaken on a global scale to address commonly recognized threats from business interests, acting in the name of ‘economic growth’, to the planet’s ecosystem. The World Commission for Environment and Development (aka The Brundtland Commission, named after its chair Gro Harlem Brundtland) was set up in 1983 in response to two powerful trends. One was the damage to the environment caused by rapid growth and industrialization in developed countries. The other was a response, by many undeveloped countries who were desperate for the same levels of growth enjoyed by their wealthy neighbours, that included cheap production methods (and harm to the environment) together with unethical labour practices. By identifying the shared problems of 21 countries worldwide and focussing on solutions, the Commission made specific strategic recommendations. Perhaps the most significant was the promotion of the concept of sustainable development. This is broadly defined as ‘putting in at least as much as you take out’, so that the ability of future generations to get what they need isn’t compromised by actions taken today. Within this is an understanding that our priority is to meet the necessities of life for the poorest; and that we must also recognize the limitations of our environment, the technology we can safely use and the conduct of the society we find ourselves within.

Successful commissions in a healthy democracy are therefore established on the firm ground of popular need, with a clear vision and strong leadership in response to evident violation of public interest. This can be a bruising process. When an enduring threat is tackled by a commission, those who are confronted due to their special interests are likely to retaliate and perhaps make matters worse for those people the commission seeks to protect. The process therefore needs to be managed diplomatically and have the authority of a publicly recognized and well respected institution to persevere.

Nevertheless the purpose is served best when the commission acts with rigorous respect, transparency and an ethical framework, because these are the very values that cause healthy individuals, communities and wider society to thrive; when every member of a community supports freedom of choice and responsible actions, there is no need of a commission, as challenges to good order in public will be resolved before they become major disputes.

As Nelson Mandela said: “to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.” This is surely a covenant that everyone one of us has the power to live up to.

© orlando kimber, all rights reserved


Image: Central Californian Coastline, Big Sur – May 2013 by David Iliff. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0