Last week we discussed the importance of parliamentary committees as a way of holding the government to account, investigating public policy issues and providing the public with the opportunity to directly engage with members of Parliament.

This week we look at what committee inquiries can achieve.

Public debate and shining a light on government actions

The ability to conduct public inquiries into government actions allows committees to shine a light on government decisions and ensures the public is informed. It also allows for the public discussion of systemic problems within our society. Generating this public debate is an important aspect of committee work, and the media reporting of inquiries ensure that more people are informed about an issue.

Influencing members and government and changing public policy

Just by publicly discussing issues, committees can bring about change. This change can be swift or take many years.

Committee inquiries often have a lasting impression on members of Parliament, so even if reform cannot be achieved immediately, working on an inquiry greatly increases members’ knowledge and understanding of issues which can be used to initiate or support change in the future.

Governments have been known to fix problems during the course of an inquiry following public evidence. This can include government departments writing to the committee outlining how they plan to address a concern.

As noted in last week’s blog, committee reports include recommendations for the government to take action. It is a requirement that the government respond to each report recommendation within six months. If an inquiry highlights significant concerns it can however prompt an early government response so that the government can show that it is actively taking steps to address community concerns.

Occasionally the government also provides government response updates a number of years after an inquiry to further inform the committee about how it is implementing reforms based on recommendations.

Alternatively, change can take time. Sometimes acting on recommendations requires a change in government or public opinion. The most extreme example of a delay in implementing a committee recommendation is in relation to the 2001 report into past adoption practices in New South Wales. The committee recommended that the government should issue a statement of public acknowledgment that past adoption practices were misguided, and that, on occasions unethical or unlawful practices may have occurred causing lasting suffering for many mothers, fathers, adoptees and their families. This recommendation took many years to implement and culminated in a government apology in 2012 in both Houses of the NSW Parliament.

Case studies

The following are two inquiries where Upper House committees achieved policy and law reform following compelling evidence that was received from the public and presented to the government with recommendations for action.

Medical use of cannabis

The 2013 inquiry into the medical use of cannabis formally considered the issue of law reform in respect of cannabis in a policy and legal landscape in which all use of cannabis was criminalised and discouraged. The committee’s unanimous report concluded that cannabis has potential as an effective treatment for some medical conditions with appropriate safeguards in place, and called for a compassionate approach to this emerging area of medicine.

The committee’s recommendation that people with a terminal illness using cannabis and their carers be protected from arrest and prosecution led to the establishment of the NSW Government’s Medical Cannabis Compassionate Use Scheme in 2014. The inquiry also paved the way for state and Commonwealth reforms enabling legal access to cannabis based medicines, and to substantial investment and support for medical cannabis research.

Murders in Bowraville

In 2014, the Standing Committee on Law and Justice inquired into the family response to three murders that took place in the North Coast community of Bowraville in the 1990s, murders for which no one had yet been convicted. This inquiry was tasked with giving “the families the opportunity to appear before the committee and detail the impact the murders of these children have had on them and their community.” Central to the inquiry were questions relating to the operation of double jeopardy laws in NSW, which prevent a person who has been acquitted of a crime from being retried for the same crime in the future. The committee visited Bowraville on a number of occasions, following careful planning and training to ensure the most effective communication with members of a community who had been repeatedly let down by the criminal justice system.

In addition to providing a forum for the families to tell the story of their experience over the past 23 years, the report made a series of recommendations that prompted or contributed to several significant milestones in the case:

  • The report was debated in parliament, including a formal acknowledgement of ‘the pain and suffering experienced by the families of the three children over the past 23 years; pain and suffering that have been significantly and unnecessarily contributed to by the failings identified in this report’.
  • A range of measures from the construction of a memorial for the victims to the rollout of funding for various support programs were acted on by government.
  • A formal review of the law of the double jeopardy laws operating in NSW was undertaken.
  • An application was made to the NSW Court of Criminal Appeal and ultimately the High Court to retry a person of interest for the murders. However, these applications were rejected by the courts.