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.

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