• Using Ministerial Inquiries to Close Down Debate

    As a young MP in the British House of Commons in the late 1970s, I rapidly became aware that half the political stories in Fleet Street originated with the Press Association’s indefatigable political correspondent, Chris Moncrieff. I was regularly button-holed by Chris as I crossed the Members’ Lobby and asked to comment on the latest mess made by the government.   “So you’re calling for an inquiry?” he would demand, pen poised above notebook. I would say “yes, I suppose so” and there was the next day’s headline – “Opposition Demands Inquiry”.

    Calling for an inquiry into a matter that embarrasses the government is always a favourite Opposition tactic – in New Zealand as in the UK. But, in New Zealand at least, the tables have recently been turned. Here, it is a government keen to run for cover that increasingly resorts to setting up an inquiry as a means of escape.

    It is more and more often the case that, under pressure, John Key will kick for touch by setting up a government (formerly called a Ministerial) inquiry. Leaks of a report about the GCSB, the government’s security agency? A government inquiry will calm things down. The long drawn-out and hugely expensive mess made by Novopay of paying teachers’ salaries? An inquiry will take it out of the headlines.

    A government inquiry is a strange beast. It operates in practice only with the approval of the Prime Minister but under the aegis of the Minister whose difficulties are the subject of investigation. The person conducting the inquiry will be selected by the Minister and will be someone who can be trusted to stick to the brief and not to embarrass the government unduly.

    Some Ministers, it seems have a greater predilection for setting up such inquiries, perhaps reflecting a greater tendency to get into trouble; Murray McCully, for example, has been responsible for two inquiries into his department over the last year or so – the first into the leaks concerning his proposed restructuring of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the second into the bungling of the diplomatic immunity claim by a Malaysian diplomat accused of a criminal offence.

    Government or Ministerial inquiries are often described as the “poor cousins” of the inquiry family. They provide the illusion that something serious is being done to address an important issue, but all too often they are merely a means of burying an issue far from public scrutiny in the hope that, by the time a report is made, that issue will have dropped out of the headlines and the public will have lost interest.

    The reports themselves have often been unsatisfactory, to the point of being positively harmful. The inquiry into the MFAT leaks provided no answers, other than to imply without any justification that two senior and well-respected officials had been responsible. And in the case of the leaked GCSB report, the inquiry failed to address, let alone answer, the question that most people wanted answered – did Peter Dunne leak the report to his journalist friend?

    Yet in both cases, the setting up of the inquiry served its – or at least the government’s – purpose; it took the heat off the Minister involved and directed it somewhere else, usually onto a hapless official or two. We can almost write the report now of the inquiry into the handling of the Malaysian diplomat; it will solemnly find that the fault lay with officials and that Ministers were blameless.

    These manoeuvrings might be dismissed as merely the stuff of party politics, but there is a more serious point involved. It has, until recently, been a primary feature of parliamentary government that Ministers are accountable to Parliament for the policies and actions of the departments for which they are responsible.

    Today, however, Ministers duck out from under any such responsibility. Murray McCully, for example, can assert – as he did in respect of the calamitous restructuring proposals for MFAT – that he had no responsibility for the plan that was eventually abandoned. His responsibility, it seems, was limited to setting up an inquiry into who had leaked it. Parliament, and Ministerial responsibility, did not get a look in.

    The trend towards using inquiries to cover tracks and save embarrassment has reached ludicrous proportions, however, with the Malaysian diplomat case. John Key, recognising the bungling that had taken place, promised that he would apologise to the unfortunate victim of the alleged assault by the diplomat, if only he knew who she was.   It now seems that he had no intention of actually doing so, and had never expected that she would have the courage to reveal her identity.

    We now understand that an apology is not required, because the matter was not important enough, and that it is in any case inappropriate because the matter is the subject of an inquiry. The benefits of such an inquiry apparently have no limits; they extend even to saving the Prime Minister from having to apologise, not just to the victim, but for not keeping his word.

    Bryan Gould

    23 July 2014

    This article was published in the NZ Herald on 24 July 2014

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