Story: Commissions of inquiry

From the Erebus air disaster to the collapsed buildings in the 2011 Canterbury earthquake, from Auckland city governance to contraception and abortion – commissions of inquiry have covered a host of different subjects. The recommendations of these independent inquiries can be highly influential.

Story by Alan Simpson
Main image: Making a submission to the royal commission on Auckland governance, 2008

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What are commissions of inquiry?

Commissions of inquiry are one way that the government can look into important issues. They report findings, give advice and make recommendations – which are not binding, but can be very influential.

Commissions may be set up to:

  • investigate accidents where many people died
  • consider social policy initiatives
  • adjust the structure of the government
  • examine a sensitive issue independently.

Statutory commissions of inquiry are set up by the governor-general. Some are termed royal commissions, which are seen as having higher status, but are otherwise the same. Both types operate under the Commissions of Inquiry Act 1908.


Topics of commissions of inquiry have included:

  • workers’ compensation
  • the 1979 air crash on Mt Erebus, Antarctica
  • contraception, sterilisation and abortion
  • Auckland city governance.

Conducting inquiries

Commissions gather information from a wide range of sources, then report back and make recommendations. Some suggest major changes, such as the 1966 commission that led to setting up the Accident Compensation Corporation (ACC), and the 1986 commission that looked at the electoral system, which recommended adopting mixed-member proportional representation (MMP).

The number of commissioners has ranged from one to 12, with an average of three.

Commissions of inquiry in the 2000s

Since the 1980s there have been fewer commissions of inquiry. Government departments are now able to undertake their own inquiries, and the Waitangi Tribunal (set up in 1975) can also consider issues relating to the Treaty of Waitangi. However, in the 2000s commissions of inquiry were still set up. They included a commission looking at the explosions in the Pike River coal mine, which killed 29 miners in November 2010, and another looking at the buildings that collapsed in the Christchurch earthquake of February 2011.

How to cite this page:

Alan Simpson, 'Commissions of inquiry', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 2 October 2023)

Story by Alan Simpson, published 20 Jun 2012