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Launch of ‘Royal Commissions and Public Inquiries’

Prof John McMillan, Canberra, 30 July 2014, launching Scott Prasser & Helen Tracey (eds), Royal Commissions & Public Inquiries: Practice and Potential (2014, Connor Court Publishing Pty Ltd).

Talk of inquiries and investigations is pervasive in the daily media. In just the first three days of this week, media reports have covered independent external inquiries into union corruption, children in immigration detention, alleged bullying in a government agency, the operations of Australian opera companies, discrimination against working parents, restructuring the electronic health records system, privacy threats posed by aerial drones, naval shipbuilding in Australia, the structure of the Defence Department, and the National Commission of Audit.

To that activity we could add another one hundred current inquiries listed on the Australian Parliament’s committee website, and probably an equally large number being conducted by permanent or standing commissions, ombudsmen and similar oversight and regulatory bodies.

Independent public inquiries are, in short, an institutional feature of the way that government administration and policy formation is undertaken in Australia. Inquiries are regularly used to investigate allegations of wrongdoing, examine the impact of natural disasters, shape public policy, build support for new initiatives — and also, at times, to deflect attention from an issue or postpone the need for government action.

Each inquiry presents an individual story. But together they illustrate something different about how Australia is governed, and throw up a host of questions that invite scholarly analysis. When is an inquiry needed and what reasons motivate government to establish to them? What is the legal and constitutional setting for inquiries, and should it be clarified or improved? What works best — ad hoc inquiries or permanent standing commissions? How should inquiries be grouped or classified, and should this influence the choice of inquiry for a particular purpose? And what can Australia learn from public inquiries conducted in other countries?

Scott Prasser and Helen Tracey have taken up that daunting scholarly challenge. The first issue they tackle is the question of delineating what inquiries to include within the scope of their study. They chose to study royal commissions (a clear enough and named category) and public inquiries appointed at the national level.

Their definition of a public inquiry is one that is appointed by the executive government, for a specific and temporary (or ad hoc) inquiry purpose, with clear terms of reference, constituted by external appointees, and with the task of consulting and reporting publicly.

The range of national inquiries that come within this field is extensive. The figure given in the book is 132 royal commissions and over 600 public inquiries. The inquiry subjects covered in the book range through political wrongdoing, corruption, intelligence services, human rights, media regulation, primary industry, international trade, defence, public service administration, natural disasters, and fiscal stimulus.

The inquiries into those and other subjects were diverse in the way they were constituted and structured, their powers, the conduct of their proceedings, how they gathered facts and received evidence and submissions, their duration, and the government response to their reports.

Merely to describe this landscape is to emphasise an important theme of this book. The tradition of royal commissions is important, but inquiries are now an institutional feature of government that need not be see through the royal commission lens. Indeed, as the editors of this volume comment, public inquiries are ‘a major instrument of accountability and rational policymaking … an indispensable tool for governments immersed in the difficult and messy business of solving complex policy problems’.

This development throws up deeper issues discussed in the book. One suggestion is that inquiries are more frequent because central departments employ more generalists and no longer have the specialist research expertise that may be required to administer complex and technical programs or to understand what went wrong. Rapid social and technological change can likewise throw up the need for external expertise or perspective.

On this view, ad hoc reviews and permanent bureaucracy now co-exist and complement each other’s strengths. They are an exercise in ‘co-production’.

Many other themes run through the chapters in the book. What elements contribute to a successful inquiry? Not surprisingly, the contributors comment differently according to the nature of an inquiry. As to investigative inquiries into serious allegations of political wrongdoing, elements that are stressed by contributors include independence (actual and perceived), statute-based inquiry powers to compel evidence, and scrupulous adherence to principles of procedural fairness and impartiality. By contrast, as to policy advisory inquiries that may influence political choice, elements that are stressed include timing, selection of the right research team, and building support for the inquiry report in advance of its presentation.

There is general agreement on other success elements. Terms of reference that are clear and tailored — not too narrow, not too ambitious — is stressed. So too is the calibre and impartiality of the inquiry chair, and the quality of the inquiry team. Transparency — fulfilling the commitment to a public inquiry — is another recurring theme. The public character of an inquiry should be reflected in transparency surrounding the proceedings, the receipt of submissions that are published where possible, and publication of the inquiry report promptly after it is delivered to government.

How to measure the success of an inquiry is a related theme. A dominant focus will always be whether the inquiry recommendations are accepted and implemented by government. Indeed, some chapters discuss the need for a better legislative and administrative framework to ensure that government responses are timely and accessible on the public record. Some chapters equally point to inquiries that achieved success in other ways — giving added prominence to an issue in public debate, clarifying evidence on a disputed and contentious issue, or publishing a legacy report that is drawn on for decades following.

The chapters of the book enable useful comparisons to be drawn as to the inquiry model that works best in a particular setting, and the lessons we might draw from flawed or failed inquiries. The ACT firestorm in 2003 was examined by both an inquiry established by government and a coronial inquiry, and similar bushfire catastrophes in Tasmania and Victoria were examined by royal commissions. Other topics that have been examined successively by different types of inquiry were defence operations and administration, and droughts in Queensland. Other chapters, sitting side-by-side, contrast the success of the inquiry into Australian intelligence agencies with the failure of the inquiry into media regulation.

There are other perspectives too. A journalistic angle in the book features whether an inquiry provides a good story — even better if the inquiry proceedings highlight gory accidents, shocking crimes, sexual peccadillos, or scandal, incompetence or corruption. That journalistic perspective is provided in a chapter, engagingly entitled — ‘Royal commissions and the press — seagulls at the lawyers’ picnic’.

Colourful examples and anecdotes in the book remind us that the work of commissions and inquiries is entwined with a history of Australia. There are tales of governments that lost office after a damning inquiry or report … royal commissions that wounded the governments that established them … the recurring pattern of natural disasters being quickly followed by independent inquiries … inquiries that went off the rails, but not before damaging the careers and reputations of leading public figures … inquiries appointed in the first days of colonial settlement in the 1820s, to shape a new system of constitutional government … the Royal Commissions Act 1902, enacted as the 29th statute of the new Commonwealth Parliament … and that we wouldn’t be here today at a book launch on the shores of Lake Burley Griffin in Canberra had government accepted a royal commission recommendation in 1903 to site the national capital at Albury or Tumut!

The twenty-two contributors who have been assembled to explore those and other issues are a diverse and experienced group of practitioners, scholars and commentators. They include senior academics and researchers from eleven educational institutions in Australia and abroad; prominent Australians with backgrounds in public service, the judiciary and community service who were appointed as the chairs of public inquiries; and public policy commentators and journalists.

Their experience is unrivalled and their research is impressive. Many chapters provide a list of about ten or more inquiries that are discussed in the chapter.

The co-editors, Scott and Helen, add enormous value to this book in six separate chapters. They have written a separate chapter to introduce each of the five segments of the book, defining the issues and explaining how the individual chapters illuminate those issues. They conclude with a valuable chapter that covers all the major issues — the reasons for inquiries, their relationship to political context and culture, the risks and benefits of inquiries, and key factors such as independence, expertise and procedure that underpin successful inquiry practice.

All in all, this is an excellent book — fascinating to read, a valuable body of research, and a practical manual for those establishing or conducting inquiries.

I finish by commending Griffith University and the Institute for Ethics, Governance and Law for supporting the ‘Government, Policy and Politics Series’, to which this publication contributes. I commend the 22 contributors for their highly readable, well-researched and reflective chapters on the role of royal commissions and public inquiries in Australian government and public policy.

Lastly I commend the editors, Scott and Helen, for their foresight and energy in bringing this collection together. This builds on Scott’s earlier book on Royal Commissions and Public Inquiries in Australia (2006), and on another publication by Scott and Kate Jones on Audit Commissions: Reviewing the Reviewers (2013). These works demonstrate that a story of public inquiries — a story of the stories — tells us something profoundly important about the institutions and practices of Australian government. May this provide a basis for heightened scholarly interest and continuing research.