Inquiry addiction: the delicate art of delaying decisions

There are benefits in seeking advice from outsiders but governments can't put off decisions forever.

All governments and oppositions have their heads in a wet paper bag at times trying to work out how they should deal with a difficult issue or a journalist's awkward question. The answer can often be: "We'll hold an independent inquiry!"

"Canberra to hold an inquiry into X, Y or Z," the media shouts. That's fixed the headlines for the moment. But what happens next?

This trend to have an independent expert "look into it" has grown in recent decades and I don't think we have ever had a period where so many inquiries are being held at the same time. The recommendations from these inquiries will either be:

  • an endorsement for what a government was going to do anyway;
  • a useful addition to public debate;
  • a wonderful source of new solutions for ministers;
  • an effective way to delay making a final decision;
  • a real pain in the backside that no political enema will fix; or
  • a politically naive waste of time that is ready-made fuel for a bonfire in the prime ministerial courtyard.

With most sections of the community demanding instant solutions nowadays and the modern media's short attention span, it is increasingly difficult to have a sensible policy discussion about a difficult decision in the Parliament and in public forums. Prime Minister Tony Abbott used a recent evening function to call for a "sensible, mature" debate on the vexed questions of remodelling the federation and modernising the tax system. The next morning, federal Opposition Leader Bill Shorten and Labor's South Australian Premier, Jay Weatherill, screamed "we oppose, we oppose". How long does a "sensible and mature" public discussion last nowadays? One sleep!

No wonder difficult issues are sent off to inquiries, commissions, experts, committees, the Productivity Commission, white papers, green papers, etc – because in the appropriate debating forum itself, the Parliament, political self-interest, tribalism and stupidity gazump sensible debate and the ability to introduce many big changes for the better.

Meanwhile, the Abbott government has already received some reports but has yet to formally respond to them; it has many inquiries under way and has announced many more that are yet to begin. Industries, companies, individuals and government departments are having trouble keeping up. Many peak bodies and interest groups wonder which ones to focus on, how much of their resources they should allocate to take part in the inquiries, and whether the outcomes will be valuable or a waste of space.

So what does this government – or any government for that matter – do with all those reports? Each is worthy of a sensible discussion and each will produce ideas for improvements: some politically palatable, some politically borderline and some politically naive. And anyone who thinks politics shouldn't come into this either: (a) has never stood for public office and asked 50 per cent of 12 million voters to support them at the ballot box; or (b) should re-enter Earth's orbit sometime soon.

Between now and the next election, it makes a lot of sense for senior staff and departments to wade through each report's recommendations and to try to get ministers to say "yes", "no", "maybe" or "over my dead body". A sensible opposition should do the same.

A sound case can be made that, where possible, governments should declare early which recommendations are unacceptable. That won't stop opponents saying, in the heat of an election campaign: "It's a recommendation to government so they must be still considering it." However, a government spokesperson can then point to the previously issued "no-go" statement, allowing credible journalists and enthusiastic social media users to question the opponents' motives and integrity. Leaving hot policy potatoes out in the glare of sunlight often produces rotten results.

On the positive side, the government's inquiries have already suggested many attractive ideas, which the Coalition can add to its own ideas for its second-term agenda, ensuring it can paint a wholesome policy word picture for voters at the next election.

Politics is still mainly about a battle of ideas. Each day of an election campaign is a battle to control the news media, which tells the public about those ideas. And news means new. The best way to control a campaign is to have 33 days' worth of new credible policy announcements. Any void will be filled by opponents, critics or journalists – and what the hell would they know?

However, there will always be awkward, unanswerable issues, which no doubt means most future governments will continue to hit the ground inquiring.

Grahame Morris is the federal director of Barton Deakin Government Relations and a former chief of staff to prime minister John Howard.