Week in Politics: Inquiry announcements give government kudos

11:51 am on 16 November 2018

By Peter Wilson

Analysis - The Pike River re-entry decision and a move to widen the inquiry into state care abuse were public relations coups for the government.

Andrew Little announcing that re-entry to the Pike River Mine drift will go ahead.

Andrew Little announcing that re-entry to the Pike River Mine drift will go ahead. Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

The government has kept a campaign promise and achieved a public relations success. Re-entering the Pike River Mine was pledged by all three coalition partners before the election.

There was no shortage of political will, and they followed through.

This week's announcement was also a personal triumph for Andrew Little, the justice minister and former Mineworker's Union leader who was in charge of it.

He's achieved something the former government didn't, despite promising to do all it could for the families of the 29 men killed in the 2010 explosions.

It's been a long and costly process, $36 million all up, and that has come in for criticism.

It has been pointed out, however, that National spent $26 million finding out whether voters wanted to change the flag - which they didn't.

Mr Little chose one of three options put up by the experts commissioned to find a safe way into the 2.3km drift, the tunnel leading into the mine.

He decided the safest and most simple way would be to use the existing tunnel after it has been cleared of methane gas and nitrogen has been pumped in, after which it will be filled with fresh air.

Other safety measures are planned, and re-entry will be in careful stages.

The twin objectives are to look for bodies, which the families have been fighting for over the last eight years, and to seek evidence of what caused the explosions.

Police have said the drift will be treated as a crime scene and haven't ruled out the possibility of charges being laid.

Bernie Monk, a spokesperson for the families, said the battle was just beginning: "I want justice, I want accountability and I want truth."

He said he would like to see manslaughter charges.

The re-entry announcement dominated political news and it wasn't the only favourable outcome for the government.

It won praise for extending the inquiry into historical child abuse to include church-run institutions.

The Royal Commission's brief had been limited to 26 state-run institutions that cared for children between 1950 and 1999, and the government had previously resisted widening its scope. It bowed to a chorus of complaints from victims and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said "We had to listen".

People who had been abused in state care voiced concern that their inquiry would be diluted by the widened brief. Ms Ardern assured them it wouldn't and said the first interim report would deal only with state care victims.

The inquiry, headed by former Governor-General Sir Anand Satyanand, has a four-year budget of nearly $80 million.

The draft terms of reference drew more than 400 submissions. Children's Minister Tracey Martin said extending the inquiry to include church-run institutions was the most sought after change.

The first interim report is due to be in by the end of 2020.

The government was also pleased, or perhaps relieved would be a better word, when the inquiry report on the promotion of Wally Haumaha to deputy police commissioner was released.

It found the appointment process was "adequate and fit for purpose". All relevant information had been available before the appointment was made.

The inquiry was ordered after victims' advocate Louise Nicholas raised concerns about comments Mr Haumaha made in 2004 in defence of three men she accused of raping her.

She didn't think he was suitable for the high position. When she first raised her concerns, Mr Haumaha said he deeply regretted them.

"I have reflected deeply and often on what it means to live the values that New Zealanders expect from their police," he said.

The inquiry report's author, Mary Scholtens QC, said Ms Nicholas' concerns had no verifiable basis.

Neither Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern nor Police Minister Stuart Nash would comment on their attitude to Mr Haumaha because the Independent Police Conduct Authority is still investigating bullying complaints against him raised by women who worked with him in 2016.

During the week striking teachers drizzled on the government's parade, pushing for better pay and conditions despite being offered what ministers consider to be a generous settlement offer.

Education Minister Chris Hipkins told them "there's no more money" and announced about 500 teachers had been recruited from overseas to help meet next year's 850 shortage.

It didn't take long for concerns to be raised about that.

Auckland Secondary School Principals Association's vice president Richard Dykes told RNZ there were worries about how they would deal with cultural issues.

"The proportion of Māori and Pasifika students is increasing and we want teachers who are going to be suitably responsive to that," he said. A planned two-week culture course wouldn't be sufficient.

Most of the teachers are from the UK, South Africa, the US and Canada.

The only minister taking any heat this week was Shane Jones. He was forced to correct 20 answers to written parliamentary questions from the National Party, and had failed to disclose 61 meetings.

The regional economic development minister told RNZ the mistakes were due to "a transcribing error" but he wasn't going to throw his officials under a bus.

"I, as the robust, Tai Tokerau, Dalmatian, Māori politician shall take it on the chin," was his brave response. He got away with it.

*Peter Wilson is a life member of Parliament's press gallery, 22 years as NZPA's political editor and seven as parliamentary bureau chief for NZ Newswire.