Royal Commission or royal mess?

This should have been a heroic first year for the $80 million inquiry.

It wasn’t, unfortunately, and there were rather a few too many occasions when it seemed as if – adapting the words of the 18th century English essayist Horace Walpole – everything has been at sea except the fleet.

While striving to get their heads around an admittedly sprawling subject, the commissioners have also had to deal with defections, bickering behind closed doors over terms of reference, allegations of poor management and the surprise resignation of their chair, Sir Anand Satyanand.

In the latest, a couple of members of a survivor advisory group have quit over the handling of particular concerns by the incoming chair, Judge Coral Shaw.

This was supposed to be a royal commission, not a royal mess.

National Party leader Simon Bridges says that confidence in the commission has been “badly broken”, which may or may not be true, but the actual problems are of a different order to the recent run of lousy headlines.

What ought to be keeping the five-member team awake at night are the nuts and bolts, the seemingly little details, assumptions and definitions.

They are currently reviewing the evidence presented at the recent two-week-long contextual hearing, which was the first of a series of tri-monthly public hearings that resume early next year with another public session looking at the vexatious question of “redress”.

Ironing out exactly what was said at the first public session will be challenging. The contextual hearing didn’t always provide a lot of context. While much of the testimony was compellingly visceral and informative, some of it seemed a little aimless and lacking in much-needed specifics.

Did anyone following the discussion come away any the wiser on, for instance, the actual number of kids who were in these state-run institutions?

The figure of 120,000 often got slung around, but who can trust round figures? This one is obviously misleading because most of children and young people during the period were admitted multiple times to many institutions with a new clip on the ticket each time.

So the real number of “unique visitors” must be significantly lower. But how much lower? Nobody seems to know.

The commission has also issued its own dubious ethnic information, as it did in an early media release summarising remarks made by ex ward Arthur Taylor about how the old system housed “thousands of children, the vast majority Māori and Pasifika”.

That’s flat-out incorrect, too: as far as can be told, the “vast majority” of children and young people affected were, in fact, Māori or Pākehā. Continue reading

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News category: Analysis and Comment.