The first New Zealand commission was appointed in 1855 by the Nelson Provincial Council, and recommended a system of secular primary education. The Canterbury Provincial Council appointed a similar commission in 1863. The first central government commission was in 1864, and in 1867 the Commissioner’s Powers Act was passed. It applied to boards or commissions appointed by the governor. Commissions of inquiry had the power to summon witnesses, examine them under oath, pay their expenses and require them to produce any relevant documents. Perjury (lying) was punishable. These powers were expanded by 1872 amendments.
Commissions of Inquiry Act 1908
Earlier legislation was repealed by the Commissioners Act 1903, which for the first time specified what commissions of inquiry could be set up for. A 1905 amendment empowered judges appointed as commissioners to exercise the powers available to them as judges of the Supreme Court. All this legislation was consolidated in the Commissions of Inquiry Act 1908. A century later it had been amended seven times and was seen as out of date. In 2008 the Law Commission reviewed the 1908 Act and recommended a new inquiry act to replace it. However, in 2011 commissions still operated under the 1908 act.
Use over time
Commissions of inquiry were used extensively for a wide range of issues in the 1910s, 1920s, 1950s and 1970s. However, few were appointed in the 1930s, 1990s and 2000s.
1930s to 1950s
From 1932 to 1941 there were only two commissions of inquiry and two royal commissions appointed, as the government wrestled with the economic depression and high unemployment, and moved to introduce the welfare state.
In the post-war period a higher number of inquiries were appointed – 18 in the 1940s and 23 in the 1950s. The country dealt with matters that had been deferred during the war, addressed the return to economic activity (including the waterfront labour dispute of 1951) and developed plans for the future.
Litany of lies
One of the country’s highest-profile commissions of inquiry was that into the Air New Zealand flight which crashed on Mt Erebus in Antarctica in 1979. Judge Peter Mahon, the single commissioner, claimed that the Air New Zealand management had conspired to whitewash the inquiry and mislead investigators through 'an orchestrated litany of lies'.
1960s to mid-1980s
In the 1960s there were fewer inquiries. There was a relative low of 14 during the 1960s, but by the late 1960s and early 1970s more inquiries were being appointed. In his nine years as prime minister from 1975 to 1984, Robert Muldoon made extensive use of inquiries – 25 commissions of inquiry were established under his premiership.
The fourth Labour government, elected in 1984, initially appointed a number of commissions of inquiry but soon shifted its focus to major legislative and government machinery changes. Economic policy, rather than the commission-of-inquiry process, was the preferred vehicle for the wider reforms, including cuts to the welfare state.
Fewer commissions of inquiry have been appointed since the mid-1980s. The 2008 Auckland governance royal commission and the 2011 Pike River coal mine tragedy royal commission are two very different contemporary examples. Both issues fell beyond the scope of normal parliamentary and governmental provisions. There needed to be an opportunity for full public participation.