Less frequently used
The use of commissions of inquiry has changed since the late 1980s. While many issues demand the government’s attention, its capacity to address issues has also developed considerably. A wide range of issues previously referred to commissions are now no longer the subject of formal inquiries, but are dealt with directly by government organisations.
Commissions of inquiry can be very costly. The most expensive up to 2011 was the 1997 Commission of Inquiry into Certain Matters Relating to Taxation (often called ‘the winebox inquiry’, as MP Winston Peters brought key documents to Parliament in a winebox). The commission ran for nearly three years and cost taxpayers over $10 million. Wider costs, including legal expenses, added millions more to the bill.
Since the mid-1980s major policy developments have been driven by a succession of strong and determined ministers. With the economic and governmental reforms of the 1980s and 1990s came legislation enabling government departments to undertake their own inquiries. In the 2000s the government had an extensive array of devices to embark on inquiries other than through the formal commission-of-inquiry process.
Local-government reforms in the 1980s gave local authorities the capacity to address the issues of their communities rather than await the report of a commission of inquiry.
The introduction of the mixed-member proportional representation electoral system in 1996 led to a greater reliance on negotiating policy issues with coalition or affected parties rather than embarking on a commission of inquiry to remove a troublesome area from a government’s agenda.
The establishment of the Waitangi Tribunal in 1975 was another of the major changes affecting the use of the commission of inquiry. An extension of its powers in 1985 enabled the tribunal to consider alleged Crown breaches of the Treaty of Waitangi since 1840, allowing it to deal with many issues that were earlier considered by commissions of inquiry.
A valuable tool
Commissions of inquiry are a valuable mechanism in a government’s arsenal of public, independent, structured bodies to use at the appropriate time. Issues can arise at any time and be referred to commissions of inquiry, such as the methane explosions at the Pike River coal mine in November 2010, which led to a royal commission of inquiry being established in December 2010. A royal commission was also established to look into building failure in the Canterbury earthquake of February 2011.
Commissions of inquiry are political and administrative devices that governments will continue to use, especially when they need an independent view.