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Government by Enquiry

March 1st, 2013 by Viv

Viv Forbes
Written 1991

Gough Whitlam once boasted that he had a hundred expert committees hard at work on Australia’s problems.

This probably represented the high water mark of Government by Enquiry.

However the Goss government looks set to challenge Gough’s record.

Expert committees are already at work on the QIDC, Fraser Island, the Queensland Tourist and Travel Corporation, the ports, the financial institutions, land tenure, daylight saving, road safety, economic development and over-regulation.

Getting named to head a royal commission is a sure way to fame and wealth in Australia. Names such as Jackson, Crawford, Campbell, Vernon, Matthews, Costigan, Coombs, Henderson, Rae, Muirhead, Fox, Woodward, Williams, Sackville and Wilenski are remembered more for their enquiries than for anything else.

Less publicity is given to the fortunes accumulated by those to whom the politicians pray – the Fitzgerald enquiry and its offshoots cost about $24 million and will create several legal millionaires. The small fry are not forgotten either – the Costigan Enquiry at one stage had a staff of 100 people.

Nothing is safe from the prying eyes of the government committees. There have been five enquiries into the Administration of the Australian War Memorial, three simultaneous enquiries into drugs, regular enquiries into Telecom, public hearings into the price of imported cherries in brine from Italy, and an enquiry by the Human Rights Commission into sexual discrimination in the sporting activities of children under twelve. And, of course, the Paddington Bear Enquiry and the Committee of Enquiry into Australian Folk-life.

Despite the archives of paper, the armies of witnesses and the academies of experts it is hard to identify any benefits for the industries concerned. The housing enquiry did not help the housing industry, the education enquiries have not improved student literacy, the four enquiries into the dairy industry did not produce new markets for milk and the recurring enquiries into the taxation system have not curbed the growth in taxes or restored public faith in the tax system.

What has caused the epidemic of enquiries? To some extent politicians use the “CSR technique” for defusing controversial issues –

  • C – Commission an enquiry.
  • S – Sit on the report.
  • R – Reject the main recommendations.

In other cases, governments have carefully chosen their enquiries to embarrass political enemies or to soften up the public to accept key elements of their hidden agenda.

The Mungana Royal Commission of 1930, the Petrov Royal Commission of 1954 and the Fitzgerald Enquiry of 1989, illustrate the political destruction that can be generated by an enquiry that hits political pay-dirt. For a politician, heaven is to find a doggedly zealous commissioner and set him on the scent of his political enemies. Given sufficient scope, power and time he is sure to unearth a scandal which can be fanned into a public sensation by the media.

A more deep-seated cause of the rash of enquiries is a loss of guiding principles. For example, a government dedicated to freedom of choice has no need for an enquiry into trading hours – the answer is clear – repeal all restrictions.

Nor should a government which supports an open competitive economy be subsidising the Royal Commission industry with recurring enquiries into small business, agriculture, manufacturing, mining, telecom or the airlines. All firms and industries should face the same taxes, tariffs, subsidies and quotas (zero or close to it in all cases). All politicians need do is to minimise taxes and to repeal all laws and regulations which discriminate in favour of or against any sector or firm.

Even if we eliminate the enquiries which are stupid, unnecessary or politically motivated, there are still many genuine attempts to discover the philosopher’s stone. They assume there is a single answer which can be discovered if only sufficient data is collected and enough people are interviewed. And should the right answer not appear, the failure is explained by “not enough money or time was available”.

There is no single answer to the problems of air fares, road freight, petrol marketing, bus subsidies, or the future of the tourist industry. The number of options is huge and each producer and consumer must make his own decision. Those who succeed will prosper and be given more resources to manage. Those who fail will be penalised and forced to rethink their position. Their constant trial and error is the discovery tool which will always outperform the industry plan of any single committee of experts.

The benefits of government enquiries are hard to find but their costs are numerous – they are a burden to the taxpayer; they encourage the growth of a whole class of professional busybodies whose attitude is generally hostile to business; they discourage innovation and add to uncertainty; and their tendency to encourage trial by media poses a dangerous threat to some of our most valued concepts of justice.

If there is no correct answer to many of the questions referred to expert committees, what then do the taxpayers get for their money?

Sir Garfield Barwick once said – “Many of the matters into which commissioners are asked to inquire are completely divorced from the law and all too frequently involve the formation of opinions on matters which are truly political.”

Thus for a couple of million dollars, taxpayers get the opinion of one or two men – usually the chairman and/ or the secretary of the committee.

Mr Gallup can surely do it cheaper and quicker.

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