Inquiries in the Westminster System

  Use of Inquiries in Australia  
  Use of Judges  
  Royal Commissions  

Inquiries in the
Westminster system

“It has long been common practice in British government and administration to establish formal means by which Ministers and governments can seek opinion and advice and information from outside the Civil Service on the formulation and administration of policy.”

(Smith 1969: 2)


Use of inquiries in Australia

 “Royal commissions and similar inquiries were a growth industry in Australia during the 1970s and1980s.”

(Ransley 1994: 22)

“A further source of diversity in policy advice has been the increasing use of public inquiries in various formats … Increasingly, governments sought to diversify their sources of advice by the use of ad hoc inquiries by high profile individuals, usually with a business background, to review particular policies and programs.”

(Dent 2002: 109)

“The use of specialist commissions and committees of inquiry serves a number of valuable purposes. These include: immediate action on a wider range of issues than would otherwise be possible ... availability of specialised skills ... providing a … channel of communication between Parliament and the people.”

Prime Minister E. G. Whitlam, Garran Oration 12 November 1973 , 10

“The time has come to decommission Australia ...The nation is weighed down by a mass of commissions...and we must seriously question whether they are all necessary. In some cases they are useless, if not damaging.”

Doug Anthony, MP The Australian, 8 August 1975

“The rabbit like growth of committees of inquiry and advisory bodies over the past three years is costing the Australian taxpayer millions of dollars…”

The Australian , 8 December 1975

Public inquiries “can no longer be seen as aberrations from the so?called ‘normal’ institutions of government. Rather, public inquiries have become an essential part of the political system in general, and the policy making process in particular.”

(Prasser 1985: 8)

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Use of judges

“that the misuse of judges to inquire into administrative matters frequently involving issues of deep political controversy or suspected breaches of the criminal law, which was perhaps worse, would in the long run inevitably draw the judiciary into the realm of public controversy and criticism with danger of loss of public esteem and respect.”

(Sir William Irvine 1922)

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Royal commissions

“The royal commission stands at the apex of a neatly designed set of advisory committees ... they are the highest ranking of all advisory bodies and are usually reserved for the most important problems …”

(Hanser 1965:35, 37)

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Views about why governments appoint public inquiries

“Many citizens today are speculating as to why royal commissions are necessary – why they last so long…appear so costly…why should government have to appoint a commission, when they themselves are elected to solve such problems? On all sides one hears such remarks as, ‘Why should government have to appoint a Commission when they themselves are elected to solve such problems.”

(Walls1969: 365)

“A common allegation is that commissions are set up merely to get politicians off the hook on a current embarrassment. Once out of the way, the issue can…be forgotten and the report …shelved.”

(Bulmer 1982: 97)

“I’ve been around long enough to know that the prime function of politics is to win elections, and the function of commissions of inquiry is to throw enough dust to cover the facts…”

Dr Colin McLachlan, quoted in regard to the Estens Inquiry, on Telstra services to regional Australia (Sydney Morning Herald, 9 November 2002 )

Inquiries “are the confessions of governments of the inadequacy of normal institutions to cope with extraordinary situations.”


“usually, (not always) commissions are established because more conventional measures have failed; breakdown in proper procedure have occurred, and propriety in public life has failed; such circumstances call for unconventional measures”.

(I.D.F. Callinan, “Commissions of Inquiry: A Necessary of Evil?,” Paper given to Tasmanian Bar Association Conference, Hobart 1988, 5)

“Royal commissions reflect the limitations and incapacities of governments. They are created to undertake tasks that governments themselves are either unwilling or unable to do.”

(Weller 1994: 259)

“Why for example, do governments sometimes announce a change in policy without first appointing a committee and sometimes insist in apparently similar circumstances that it first necessary or desirable to appoint a committee.”

(Rhodes 1975:19)

“royal commissions and similar investigations are in the first place political instruments used by the government of the day for its own ends. Be that to exculpate itself, to nail political enemies … or to clean up an Augean stable in a government bureau or department.”

(Borchardt 1991: 55)

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Impact of public inquiries on public policy

“The failure to respond effectively to recommendations and revelations of commissions of inquiry has not been confined to any one government or one political party.”

(Moffitt 1985: 119)

“a royal commission is generally appointed, not so much for digging up the truth but for digging it in; and a government department appointing a royal commission is like a dog burying a bone, except that the dog does eventually return to the bone.”

(Herbert 1961: 263-4)


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