This paper discusses the role of public inquiries as an instrument of public policy-making in New Zealand, using mental health as a case study. The main part of the paper analyses the processes and outcomes of five general inquiries into the state of New Zealand's mental health services that were held between 1858 and 1996.
The membership, form, style and processes used by public inquiries have all changed over time in line with constitutional and social trends. So has the extent of public participation. The records of five inquiries provide periodic snapshots of a system bedevilled by long-standing problems such as unacceptable standards, under-resourcing, and poor co-ordination. Demands for an investigation no less than the reports and recommendations of public inquiries have been the catalyst of some important policy changes, if not immediately, then by creating a climate of opinion that supported later change. Inquiries played a significant role in establishing lunatic asylums, in shaping the structure of mental health legislation, establishing and maintaining a national mental health bureaucracy within the machinery of government, and in paving the way for deinstitutionalisation. Ministers and their departmental advisers have mediated this contribution.
Public inquiries have helped shape New Zealand's mental health policy, both directly and indirectly, at different stages of evolution. In both its advisory and investigative forms, the public inquiry remains an important tool of public administration. The inquiry/cause and policy/effect relationship is not necessarily immediate but may facilitate changes in public opinion with corresponding policy outcomes long after any direct causal link could be determined. When considered from that long-term perspective, the five inquiries can be linked to several significant and long-term contributions to mental health policy in New Zealand.