web analytics

Government Inquiries – Not Throwing Light But Closing Down Debate

Written By: - Date published: 3:18 pm, July 23rd, 2014 - 8 comments
Categories: john key, national, national/act government, spin - Tags:

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

8 comments on “Government Inquiries – Not Throwing Light But Closing Down Debate ”

  1. Roy 1

    When I was young, I thought ‘Yes Minister’ and “Yes Prime Minister’ were comedies.
    Silly me.

    • Draco T Bastard 1.1

      I think it’s where National get’s its playbook from. They certainly have no idea of how to actually run a country.

      • Macro 1.1.1

        They do know how to run it into the ground though

      • cricklewood 1.1.2

        Dont be silly Draco everyone knows the play book these days has come from the New Statesman

        • emergency mike


          I see these guys as more “New Statesman” than “Yes Minister”. Come to think of it, the Australian show “The Hollowmen” might even be closest. Wasn’t there a book with the same name? Who was that about again?

  2. Tracey 2

    thanks bryan

    How expensive are these enquiries. I take your point about them being to remove the mater from the public mind. The media also serve us poorly, under any govt, of reminding people how restricted the TOR are and what they dont ask, allowing people to wrongly assume they will address the important questions when they wont.

    Mccullys actions are NOT part of the latest.

    But how much do these waste of time inquiries cost us, the pubters

  3. Tigger 3

    Very nice piece.

  4. emergency mike 4

    “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.”

    Well said Bryan, listening to John Key trying to avoid talking about this issue down with a so-called inquiry is sadly transparent.

    I think that a) Key has decided that he just can’t afford to extend the string of sacked ministers this close to the election. b) He just can’t bring himself to bow like that (apologise) to an obvious lefty who has challenged him. To him Billingsly isn’t a victim, nor citizen that he has any duty to, she is an opponent, an obstacle, and he’ll be damned if he gives an inch more than he absolutely has to to her. That’s who John Key is. And c) he rightly or wrongly thinks that apologising would make him look weak to his core voters. How can he keep the Cunliffe apologises too much for stuff meme going if he does? What’s right or wrong is not a factor for John Key.

Recent Comments

Recent Posts

  • Tokelau Language Week reminds us to stay united and strong
    Staying strong in the face of challenges and being true to our heritage and languages are key to preserving our cultural identity and wellbeing, is the focus of the 2020 Tokelau Language Week. Minister for Pacific Peoples, Aupito William Sio, says this year’s theme, ‘Apoapo tau foe, i nā tāfea ...
    BeehiveBy beehive.govt.nz
    4 days ago
  • NZ announces a third P-3 deployment in support of UN sanctions
    The Government has deployed a Royal New Zealand Air Force P-3K2 Orion (P-3) maritime patrol aircraft to support the implementation of United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolutions imposing sanctions against North Korea, announced Minister of Foreign Affairs Winston Peters and Minister of Defence Ron Mark. “New Zealand has long supported ...
    BeehiveBy beehive.govt.nz
    1 week ago
  • Pacific trade and development agreement a reality
    Pacific regional trade and development agreement PACER Plus will enter into force in 60 days now that the required eight countries have ratified it. Trade and Export Growth Minister David Parker welcomed the announcement that the Cook Islands is the eighth nation to ratify this landmark agreement. “The agreement represents ...
    BeehiveBy beehive.govt.nz
    2 weeks ago
  • Securing a pipeline of teachers
    The Government is changing its approach to teacher recruitment as COVID-19 travel restrictions continue, by boosting a range of initiatives to get more Kiwis into teaching. “When we came into Government, we were faced with a teacher supply crisis,” Education Minister Chris Hipkins said. “Over the past three years, we ...
    BeehiveBy beehive.govt.nz
    2 weeks ago
  • Border exceptions for a small number of international students with visas
    The Government has established a new category that will allow 250 international PhD and postgraduate students to enter New Zealand and continue their studies, in the latest set of border exceptions. “The health, safety and wellbeing of people in New Zealand remains the Government’s top priority. Tight border restrictions remain ...
    BeehiveBy beehive.govt.nz
    2 weeks ago
  • First COVID-19 vaccine purchase agreement signed
    The Government has signed an agreement to purchase 1.5 million COVID-19 vaccines – enough for 750,000 people – from Pfizer and BioNTech, subject to the vaccine successfully completing all clinical trials and passing regulatory approvals in New Zealand, say Research, Science and Innovation Minister Megan Woods and Health Minister Chris Hipkins. ...
    BeehiveBy beehive.govt.nz
    2 weeks ago
  • International statement – End-to-end encryption and public safety
    We, the undersigned, support strong encryption, which plays a crucial role in protecting personal data, privacy, intellectual property, trade secrets and cyber security.  It also serves a vital purpose in repressive states to protect journalists, human rights defenders and other vulnerable people, as stated in the 2017 resolution of the ...
    BeehiveBy beehive.govt.nz
    2 weeks ago
  • Ministry of Defence Biodefence Assessment released
    The Ministry of Defence has today released a Defence Assessment examining Defence’s role across the spectrum of biological hazards and threats facing New Zealand. Biodefence: Preparing for a New Era of Biological Hazards and Threats looks at how the NZDF supports other agencies’ biodefence activities, and considers the context of ...
    BeehiveBy beehive.govt.nz
    2 weeks ago
  • New Approaches to Economic Challenges: Confronting Planetary Emergencies: OECD 9 October 2020
    New Approaches to Economic Challenges: Confronting Planetary Emergencies: OECD 9 October 2020 Hon David Parker’s response following Thomas Piketty and Esther Duflo. Good morning, good afternoon, and good evening, wherever in the world you might be. I first acknowledge the excellent thought provoking speeches of Thomas Piketty and Esther ...
    BeehiveBy beehive.govt.nz
    2 weeks ago
  • Kaipara Moana restoration takes next step
    A Memorandum of Understanding has been signed today at Waihāua Marae between the Crown, local iwi and councils to protect, restore and enhance the mauri of Kaipara Moana in Northland. Environment Minister David Parker signed the document on behalf of the Crown along with representatives from Ngā Maunga Whakahī, Ngāti ...
    BeehiveBy beehive.govt.nz
    3 weeks ago
  • New Zealand and Uruguay unite on reducing livestock production emissions
    Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor and Uruguayan Minister of Livestock, Agriculture and Fisheries Carlos María Uriarte have welcomed the launch of a three-year project that will underpin sustainable livestock production in Uruguay, Argentina, and Costa Rica.  The project called ‘Innovation for pasture management’ is led by Uruguay’s National Institute of Agricultural ...
    BeehiveBy beehive.govt.nz
    3 weeks ago
  • 3100 jobs created through marae upgrades
    Hundreds of marae throughout the country will be upgraded through investments from the Provincial Growth Fund’s refocused post COVID-19 funding to create jobs and put money into the pockets of local tradespeople and businesses, Regional Economic Development Minister Shane Jones and Māori Development Minister Nanaia Mahuta have announced. “A total ...
    BeehiveBy beehive.govt.nz
    3 weeks ago
  • Health volunteers recognised in annual awards
    Health Minister Chris Hipkins has announced 9 teams and 14 individuals are the recipients of this year’s Minister of Health Volunteer Awards.  “The health volunteer awards celebrate and recognise the thousands of dedicated health sector volunteers who give many hours of their time to help other New Zealanders,” Mr Hipkins ...
    BeehiveBy beehive.govt.nz
    3 weeks ago
  • Community COVID-19 Fund supports Pacific recovery
    The Minister for Pacific Peoples, Aupito William Sio says a total of 264 groups and individuals have successfully applied for the Pacific Aotearoa Community COVID-19 Recovery Fund, that will support Pacific communities drive their own COVID-19 recovery strategies, initiatives, and actions. “I am keen to see this Fund support Pacific ...
    BeehiveBy beehive.govt.nz
    3 weeks ago
  • Community benefits from Māori apprenticeships
    Up to 50 Māori apprentices in Wellington will receive paid training to build houses for their local communities, thanks to a $2.75 million investment from the Māori Trades and Training Fund, announced Employment Minister Willie Jackson today. “This funding will enable Ngāti Toa Rangatira Incorporated to provide its Ngā Kaimahi ...
    BeehiveBy beehive.govt.nz
    3 weeks ago
  • Training fund supports Māori jobseekers
    Rapidly growing sectors will benefit from a $990,000 Māori Trades and Training Fund investment which will see Wellington jobseekers supported into work, announced Employment Minister Willie Jackson today. “This funding will enable Sapphire Consultants Ltd. to help up to 45 Māori jobseekers into paid training initiatives over two years through ...
    BeehiveBy beehive.govt.nz
    3 weeks ago
  • Ruakura Inland Port development vital infrastructure for Waikato
    The Government is investing $40 million to develop an inland port at Ruakura which will become a freight super-hub and a future business, research and residential development for the Waikato, Urban Development and Transport Minister Phil Twyford, and Māori Development Minister Nanaia Mahuta announced today. The funding has been has ...
    BeehiveBy beehive.govt.nz
    3 weeks ago
  • Appointments made to Defence Expert Review Group
    Defence Minister Ron Mark announced today the establishment of an Expert Review Group to review a number of aspects of the New Zealand Defence Force’s (NZDF) structure, information management and record-keeping processes.  The Expert Review Group’s work arises out of the first recommendation from the Report of the Government’s Inquiry ...
    BeehiveBy beehive.govt.nz
    3 weeks ago
  • No active community cases of COVID-19
    There are no active community cases of COVID-19 remaining in the country after the last people from the recent outbreak have recovered from the virus, Health Minister Chris Hipkins said today. “This is a big milestone. New Zealanders have once again through their collective actions squashed the virus. The systems ...
    BeehiveBy beehive.govt.nz
    3 weeks ago