Story: Commissions of inquiry

Page 1. Functions, power and legal status

All images & media in this story

A commission of inquiry is one of many bodies available to the government to inquire into various issues. Commissions report findings, give advice and make recommendations. While their findings are not legally binding, they can be highly influential. Commissions of inquiry have been a feature of New Zealand’s governmental processes since the mid-19th century.

Commissions of inquiry are independent of the government. They must act strictly within their terms of reference and ensure their processes are within the law.

Commissions are a remarkably flexible means of looking into a wide range of situations. As part of the governmental process they provide a unique channel through which interested parties can directly participate in making public policy.

Commissions may be appointed to:

  • investigate accidents where there has been major loss of life
  • consider social policy initiatives with a big public impact
  • make adjustments to the institutional structure of government
  • take a sensitive or moral issue out of the political arena in order to get non-partisan, professional advice on it and build a consensus on how to proceed.

Forms of inquiry

Various forms of inquiry have developed over the years for different parts of government. These include:

  • statutory commissions of inquiry (such as the 2011 Royal Commission on the Pike River Coal Mine Tragedy)
  • ministerial inquiries (such as the inquiry into the Auckland power-supply failure in 1998)
  • standing statutory bodies (such as the Waitangi Tribunal, established in 1975)
  • parliamentary committees (such as the Primary Production Select Committee in 2011).

Commissions of inquiry

Statutory commissions of inquiry are appointed by the governor-general on the advice of the government. They operate under the Commissions of Inquiry Act 1908, and are independent of government, but receive administrative assistance from the Department of Internal Affairs. They are the highest level of inquiry available to government.

Independent advisors

A formal inquiry was held in New Zealand in the 1860s to decide the best site for the capital on the shores of Cook Strait. The members of the inquiry were all members of Parliament from the Australian colonies – New Zealanders apparently agreed that they themselves were all too biased on the issue of the appropriate place.

Commissions and royal commissions

Royal commissions and commissions of inquiry are virtually the same thing and there are no differences in their purposes, functions, procedures and effects. The main difference is that a royal commission begins with a greeting from the sovereign. Royal commissions are commonly seen as having greater prestige and standing than commissions of inquiry, but both are appointed under the Commissions of Inquiry Act 1908.

The term ‘royal’ may add some prestige to a commission, and the government may use it to give weight to an inquiry. It may also be used to encourage prospective commission members to participate. The distinction between royal commissions and commissions of inquiry appears to be unique to New Zealand.

Governments are not bound to follow the advice and recommendations of a commission. However, if a government disregards a commission’s report it risks voter displeasure, reluctance of prospective commissioners to be involved in the future, and public distrust.

Committees of inquiry (ministerial inquiries)

Committees of inquiry are appointed by ministers and are also called ministerial inquiries. They have been used regularly, and for substantive issues, such as education in 1962, taxation in 1967, urban passenger transport in 1970, treatment of cervical cancer in 1988, and many others.


Tribunals are permanent committees appointed under their own legislation – for example, the Copyright Tribunal, set up under the Copyright Act 1994. Tribunals consider issues and disputes that arise from the application of legislation.

Attitudes towards commissions

Some people take a cynical view of commissions of inquiry, seeing them as an excuse for the government to do nothing. Others think that governments do not pay much attention to commissions anyway, and that commissions are appointed to delay action or to recommend a course of action that the government plans to follow anyway.

However, commissions of inquiry are generally seen in a positive light. They allow major interests to take part in the inquiry process and so help secure acceptance of the outcome. They allow relatively novel proposals to be made in a form that the government can decide to accept or reject, depending on public reactions. They help educate public and group opinion through continuing dialogue that takes place while the inquiry proceeds, and through their reports.

How to cite this page:

Alan Simpson, 'Commissions of inquiry - Functions, power and legal status', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 20 July 2024)

Story by Alan Simpson, published 20 Jun 2012