: Royal Commissions & Public Inquiries: Practice And Potential

Royal Commissions & Public Inquiries: Practice And Potential

Eric Windholz

Royal-Commissions-Public-Inquiries-Practice-And-PotentialScott Prasser and Helen Tracey (Eds); Connor Court Publishing, 2014; 410pp; $49.95 (paperback)

Royal Commissions and other forms of public inquiries are an important feature of modern government. Executed well, they contribute to rational policymaking and improved accountability and integrity. However if executed poorly, they can be wasteful and costly, and risk undermining public confidence both in the inquiry process itself, and in government more broadly. They are therefore an important topic warranting greater understanding.

Royal Commissions & Public Inquiries: Practice and Potential represents a significant contribution to achieving this increased understanding. The book’s editors, Scott Prasser and Helen Tracey, and its other 22 contributing authors are to be congratulated for producing what is overall an impressive collection of writings that succeeds in analysing a large and diverse cross-section of recent commission and inquiry activity.

The 21 chapters of the book are organised around five sections: history, trends and issues; types of public inquiries; what inquiries do and how they do it; assessing inquiry effectiveness; and other countries’ inquires. Listing all 21 chapters is not possible in this review let alone making comments on each. I will therefore limit myself to sharing my thoughts on the book as a whole so that readers can get a feel for the work and, in so doing, make a few comments on some of the chapters that captured my attention.

The strength of the book lies in the variety of different perspectives it brings together. Contributors are drawn from academia, the public service and private industry. They include people who have conducted inquiries, and a journalist who has reported on them. Disciplines represented include political science, law, public policy, public administration and economics. The case studies presented also are diverse, ranging from corruption and political wrongdoing to natural disasters, through to government administration and broad and complex policy areas such as human rights, national security, defence and the media. By drawing on multiple perspectives and case studies, the book provides a much richer learning environment than viewing the phenomenon through one disciplinary lens or case study alone.

A multi-disciplinary collection risks a lack of coherence. This is not the case with this collection, however. The editors do an excellent job bringing coherence to this broad collection. There is useful commentary introducing and linking each section. There also is a thoughtful conclusion chapter in which the editors synthesise the material covered in the book into a series of observations about inquiries’ durability, benefits and costs, risks, effectiveness and success factors.

As to be expected in a work of this size, the quality of the individual chapters vary (although quality, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder). In this reviewer’s eye, some chapters could be criticised for being too general. It is therefore not surprising those that especially captured my attention tended to be the longer more detailed pieces. These include: Ransley’s (Ch 4) examination of public inquiries into political wrongdoing; Sampford’s (Ch 5) examination of the role royal commissions play within integrity systems; Wettenhall’s (Ch 6) analysis of the contrasting styles and forms of inquiries into bushfires; Tiffen’s (Ch 9) look into the failed Finkelstein inquiry into the media; and Gourley’s (Ch 12) retrospective on the Coombs inquiry into government administration. The perspectives of former Productivity Commission Chair Banks (Ch 7) also are particularly interesting, as are the international contributions (UK, NZ, Canada and the USA).

In the Preface, the editors note ‘that public inquiries make an important contribution to the business of government in Australia.’ This book, in turn, makes a valuable contribution to our understanding of public inquiries — what they are, how they work and how they can be improved upon. It should have a place on the bookshelves of those interested in the area.

ERIC WINDHOLZ teaches law at Monash University.

(2014) 39(4) AltLJ 279
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