2nd May 2021
It is a familiar routine.
Something horrible has happened and somebody is to blame, and so the demand is made that there is a public inquiry.
There is nothing wrong with this demand.
Indeed, this blog yesterday averred that the the inquiry into the Post Office scandal should be placed on a formal basis, with powers to compel evidence.
Similarly, all sensible people want an inquiry started as soon as possible into the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
There are also many other subjects that would benefit from the focus and dedication of a public inquiry.
Many public inquiries, and most demands for public inquiries, are also implicit admissions of failure.
The admission of failure is that the other elements of the state – primarily the executive, the legislature, and the judiciary – have failed in their roles.
That there has been insufficient control and transparency within the government, and/or that there has been insufficient scrutiny by or accountability to parliament, and/or a sense of general injustice lingering after attempts to litigate specific matters in the courts.
Of course, there are certain discrete issues where inquiries are appropriate and do work which could not have been done otherwise – for example, the Cullen inquiries.
But if the other elements of the state had performed their proper constitutional functions, key issues of transparency and accountability – that are the stuff of many inquiries, and of most demands for them – could be addressed more directly and immediately by elected politicians.
This, I know, is wishful thinking and no doubt the counsel of constitutional perfection – yet each demand for an inquiry is, like the ringing of a bell, often an indication of wider state failure.
Politicians are comforted and protected by this habit of thought – as they can say and nod solemnly that there should be (or may be) an inquiry whenever something goes wrong.
Lessons will be given and then learned by having an inquiry – but we will never learn the lesson that perhaps we should be catching problems at an earlier stage of the political process.
How can we shift exercises in transparency and accountability back to earlier in the political process?
To be dealt with parliamentarians, holding the executive to proper account?
There is no easy and obvious answer.
Perhaps we should have an inquiry…
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