Overview of Public Inquiries  
   
 
To better understand public inquiries it is important to place public inquiries in a historical context both in Australia and internationally and to identify key trends in their use. Public inquiries have a long history in Commonwealth and Westminster democracies such as the United Kingdom , Australia , Canada and New Zealand and other related countries such as the United States.

United Kingdom

In the United Kingdom , public inquiries, most notably in the form of royal commissions, have been used extensively, initially as a means by which the Crown could obtain advice or inquire into specific issues and wrong doings outside of other institutions such as parliament. The origin of royal commissions may be traced back to eleventh century England with William the Conqueror’s appointment of an ‘inquiry’ to prepare the Domesday Book of land ownership During the nineteenth century over 400 royal commissions were appointed by governments as a means of obtaining expert advice on a wide variety of issues such as health, education, labour reform, public administration, welfare and factory legislation . Such extensive use of public inquiries has continued in the during the twentieth century.

In addition to royal commissions the other form of ad hoc public inquiry used in the United Kingdom has been the departmental committee of inquiry. These bodies are appointed by the minister rather than the Crown and in practice are not seen to be in distinguishable from royal commissions in terms of their activities and roles.

Use of public inquiries remained consistent up until the Thatcher Conservative Government (1979-1991). Since then, inquiry numbers, especially royal commissions fell. The Thatcher Government appointed no royal commission. The subsequent, major Conservative government only appointed one. Greater reliance was made on policy support located in or near the Prime Minister’s office. The Blair Labour Government has followed in this direction, though there was an initial increase in the more informal inquiries.

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Canada

In Canada , public inquiries, again mainly in the form of royal commissions, have been used in considerable numbers since confederation in 1867. Indeed, during the latter half of the nineteenth century their use exceeded that of the United Kingdom . Public inquiries have been prevalent throughout the twentieth century and been seen as having major impacts on pivotal events in Canada ’s history.

In recent times the use of such public inquiries has declined sharply in terms of both numbers and the importance of the issues they have been asked in to investigate. Some have lamented this decline.

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New Zealand

Inquiries, mostly royal commissions, have long been used in New Zealand . Appointed under the Commissions of Inquiry Act 1908, their numbers have been fewer than Australia or Canada . Between 1868 and 1981 thirty-seven royal commissions were appointed, compared to 350 in Canada and 130 in Australia . The topics have been at times significant and on controversial issues. For instance, there have been royal commissions to review the social security system, birth contraception, the electoral system and nuclear power generation, and most recently, into genetic food modification. This latter royal commission reported in 2002 and was an important issue during the national elections that year.

One New Zealand royal commissions deserving attention was the 1981 Royal Commission into the Mount Erebus Airline Crash. It generated considerable controversy as the basis of its findings was successfully challenged by Air New Zealand in the British Privy Council. This scuttled a major thrust of the royal commission, and lead its chair, Mr Justice Mahon, to resign from his New Zealand Supreme Court position.

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United States

In the United States , the most predominant form of external public inquiry at the national level outside the extensive Congressional committee system has been the presidential commission or task force. These have been compared to the British royal commission in terms of status and importance. While presidential commissions may be traced back to the early days of the Republic, their present and modern form originated with President Theodore Roosevelt. Since then, both Republican and Democrat administrations have used presidential commissions extensively.

Presidential commissions are established by presidential executive order under the under the Federal Advisory Committee Act that confers on these bodies limited powers of investigation. It also requires the President to give a formal response within twelve months of a presidential commission report being submitted.

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Australia

Australia too has a long history in the use of ad hoc public inquiries. Indeed, while still a penal colony Australia’s first inquiry was the appointment by the Secretary of Colonies of J.T. Bigge in 1819 to report on the state of new colony and in particular the administration of Governor Macquarie.

As each of the colonies gained self government, public inquiries, mainly in the form of royal commissions, were regularly appointed. The topics they investigated included native police, charities, civil service (New South Wales), defence, local government, sugar industry, mining accidents (Queensland); education, factory regulation, Murray River (Victoria) and so forth. The States continued to appoint royal commissions after federation.

At the Commonwealth level the first public inquiry following federation (see other services) was a royal commission established in 1902 concerning the transportation of troops from South Africa . Other royal commissions and more general inquiries followed (see other services).

Under Non-Labor governments during the post World War Two period, the number of Commonwealth public inquiries declined.

This changed with the election in 1972 of the Whitlam Labor Government (1972-75) that saw a large increase in public inquiries in wide variety of forms and providing advice on a numerous topics.

Subsequent Coalition and Labor governments sustained this increased use of inquiries. The Howard Coalition Government too, has appointed many public inquiries, but at a rate that less then its predecessors.

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Public Inquiries – An important, but neglected arm of executive government

This extensive and ongoing use of public inquiries in United Kingdom , United States , Canada , New Zealand and Australia suggests that these bodies, despite their ad hoc character, temporary tenure and lack of formal constitutional standing, are not an aberration of government. Rather, such bodies have played significant and ongoing roles in modern governments. They have investigated a wide range of topics, some of which have been pivotal to major policy developments. They have involved extensive consultation.

Nevertheless, public inquiries have been a neglected area of study. In discussions about policy advice, the role of public inquiries as an important instrument, has been overlooked, neglected and in some cases rejected.

Too often attention has focussed on individual inquiries rather than assessing inquiries as a distinct institution of executive government with particular characteristics that gives it a certain advantages over other advisory mechanisms.

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