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Public inquiries and research studies requested by government

Where policy issues to be addressed by the Commission require extensive public consultation and exposure — either because they may have a significant impact on different groups within society, or are otherwise contentious or complex to assess — they are typically handled through formal public inquiries.

Once the Australian Government agrees on the focus and scope of an inquiry (often in consultation with other governments and community groups), the Treasurer sends a 'reference' to the Commission. The terms of reference outline in writing what the inquiry covers and how long the Commission has to report.

In order to allow participants time to prepare submissions and respond to a draft report, including through public hearings, most inquiries specify a duration of 9 to 12 months. But more pressing matters can be dealt with in 6 months or less.

Public inquiries give the opportunity for different points of view to be heard and considered, and are widely advertised. Participating in an inquiry means having a say in Australia's public policy formation, and the success of an inquiry can depend upon the active involvement of the community. For example, during its inquiry into Disability Care and Support, the Commission visited 119 organisations and individuals, received 1062 submissions and conducted 23 days of public hearings involving more than 237 participants in all.

People can register their interest in an inquiry by various means, including online, and can monitor other participants' reactions in submissions which are also posted on the Commission's website. Transcripts of public hearings are available online.

The Commission is often required to provide the Government with policy options representing alternative means of addressing the issues, as well as a preferred option. It may also make recommendations on any matters it considers relevant to the inquiry, consistent with its statutory policy guidelines.

Final inquiry reports must be tabled in Parliament within 25 sitting days of the Government receiving the report.

Public inquiries range widely: A selection

  • Childcare (2014)
  • Access to justice (2014)
  • Public infrastructure (2014)
  • Tasmanian shipping and freight (2014)
  • Australia's automotive manufacturing industries (2014)
  • Resource exploration (2013)
  • National Access Regime (2013)
  • WTO 'safeguard' investigations: SPC (2013)
  • Electricity networks (2013)
  • WTO 'safeguards' investigations (2008)
  • Climate change adaptation (2012)
  • Disability care and support (2011)
  • Aged care (2011)

It is up to governments to make decisions in response to the Commission's recommendations. This is usually accompanied by debate in Parliament as well as within the wider community.

Governments are not obliged to follow the Commission's advice, although in practice more recommendations have been accepted than rejected. Even when the Commission's recommendations are not adopted, government policy-making is usually well-served by the information gathering, public participation and scrutiny of different proposals and ideas that the inquiry process stimulates.

Sometimes proposals that were not accepted initially have been implemented after an interval.

Stages in the inquiry process

  1. The Australian Government decides to initiate an inquiry.
  2. The Treasurer or Assistant Treasurer sends a reference to the Commission.
  3. The Commission advertises the inquiry and calls for parties to register their interest.
  4. The Commission visits interested parties, distributes an issues paper to focus attention on the matters it considers relevant and invites written submissions.
  5. Depending on the reference, hearings or other consultative forums will be held.
  6. The Commission publishes a draft report or position paper and invites further submissions.
  7. Hearings are usually held on this preliminary report.
  8. A final report is sent to the Government. Briefings consultations are held and the report is considered by relevant Ministers.
  9. The Treasurer tables the report in Parliament. The Government may announce its decisions on the report at that time or at a later date.

Research studies commissioned by Government (Commissioned studies)

In some cases, the Government may ask the Commission to conduct research on a topic which, while important, is seen as requiring less formal public consultation than a full public inquiry.

In recent years, commissioned research of this kind has become more common, swelling the number of commissioned projects being undertaken at any one time.

Some recent examples of such commissioned research studies include an assessment of geographic labour mobility in Australia; benchmarking major project development assessment processes against international best practice; a review of regulator engagement with small business; a benchmarking study into regulatory impact analysis; a review of carbon emission policies in key economies; and advice on several education and training workforce sectors.