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The Walter Sofronoff inquiry tells us it's time for real reform

By Scott Prasser - posted Monday, 14 August 2023

The ACT government's initial decision to delay the public release of the report of its Sofronoff Board of Inquiry into the criminal justice system until the end of the month while awaiting a "proper cabinet process" was a textbook example of how not to manage a public inquiry and turn it into a major scandal.

Certainly, under the ACT Inquiries Act, Chief Minister Andrew Barr was entitled to decide when to release an inquiry report and to explain any delays.

Nevertheless, the usual practice across Australia is for public inquiry reports into scandals and allegations of maladministration to be released almost immediately.


After all, the essence of inquiries is their public proceedings: to hear witnesses give evidence, observe a rigorous process of cross-examination and then to produce a report with sound recommendations released to the whole community.

Of course, governments should consider reports carefully, but rightly or wrongly, delays in releasing public inquiry reports, no matter how justified, can be misconstrued by the public as a government buying time to develop blame minimisation and shifting strategies to get themselves "off the hook".

Public inquiries make a refreshing contrast to executive government decision making, so often behind closed doors, and tailored consultancy reports.

Even in Queensland the National Party government released the famous Fitzgerald Report into corruption as soon as it was presented to then premier Mike Ahern, despite its damaging findings which he accepted unequivocally, "lock, stock and barrel". No delay would have been tolerated by the public.

Similarly, no delay should have been contemplated by the ACT government.

Alert governments have resolved this problem and responded quickly to an inquiry report by closely monitoring its proceedings and having an implementation team at the ready.


Of course, the chair's pre-emptive actions in sending embargoed copies of the report to selected media outlets before submitting it to government, as is normal practice, caused the government to recant and to release the report on Monday.

This made the government appear reactive - succumbing to media pressure, rather than being committed to tackling the issue honestly.

Unsurprisingly, it also unleashed, with some justification, the government's wrath on the chair. His actions unintentionally distracted attention from the most important issue - the report and its recommendations - and threatened to undermine the integrity of the whole public inquiry process.

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This article was first published in the Canberra Times.

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About the Author

Dr Scott Prasser has worked on senior policy and research roles in federal and state governments. His recent publications include:Royal Commissions and Public Inquiries in Australia (2021); The Whitlam Era with David Clune (2022) and the edited New directions in royal commission and public inquiries: Do we need them?. His forthcoming publication is The Art of Opposition reviewing oppositions across Australia and internationally. .

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