24 Apr 2021

Royal Commission's rising costs may hit compensation for victims

7:25 pm on 24 April 2021

By David Cohen*

Analysis - In the department of predictable news, the disclosure that the Abuse in Care Royal Commission of Inquiry has blown its financial budget probably deserves a place all to itself.

Close up caring African American mother holding child hands, showing love and support, black mum comforting, caressing kid, children protection concept, family enjoying moment together

Photo: 123RF

Can anybody who has been following the process have been surprised by the new evidence showing that what was already the country's most-expensive ever inquiry has received millions of dollars in emergency funding after ploughing through a $56 million kitty that was meant to last it through until 2023?

On the face of it, the commission - a scourge of the managerial incompetence that in many state institutions for youngsters ran unchecked for decades in the last half of the 20th century - has fallen victim to some of the same administrative issues it exists to excoriate.

Officials have been quick to defend the commission, saying that the ballooning expenditure simply reflects the unforeseen scope of the inquiry.

Tracey Martin was the former internal affairs minister in 2018 who signed off on the initial budget to cover operational costs, including lawyers and employees. Martin said the original sum had always been a "best guess" calculation of what the commission might need.

Member of the board

Tracey Martin says the Royal Commission's initial budget was always a "best guess" calculation. Photo: RNZ / Nate McKinnon

Nevertheless, the warning signs have long been there to see.

With the experiences of thousands of former wards spread out across more than two dozen residences that operated in New Zealand for the better part of 50 years to consider, the fact-finding work was always going to be huge. But the decision to greatly expand the original terms of reference to include other forms of institutional care, including some schools and faith-based operations, the brief became almost insurmountable.

It was for this reason that the prime minister initially opposed broadening the scope.

"This for us is about the role that the state played," Jacinda Ardern told RNZ at the time. Ardern said the focus had to be about the harm successive governments had direct responsibility for.

"We haven't even done that yet," she argued.

The government lost that argument, at which point a spiralling overspend was indeed a foregone financial conclusion.

Other avenues

But other factors hastened the process. Even within the significantly expanded broad terms of reference, the inquiry has widened to other potentially costly avenues of investigation.

The commission believes, for instance, that there is a specifically a "Pacific story" to be told within the general narrative - even though little evidence has been produced to confirm that Pasifika communities were disproportionately affected by the old state-run system.

This is not to make light of the statistical claim, which is serious and dispiriting, but to note that it's anecdotal at best.

Certainly, when this writer extensively researched the muster of thousands of kids at one of the country's flagship residences, children and young people with ties to the island nations of the South Pacific were relatively few and far between.

At the same time, the commission has created its own muster of employees - there are now around 200 - whose services have presumably not come cheap. Add to that a retinue of contractors, external agencies and independent lawyers, each with a clip to make on the burgeoning ticket.

Also in the mix have been commissioned studies whose findings have been long on newsworthiness but sometimes a little short of verifiable data.

The wonder might be not that the inquiry's barons needed to recently approach the government cap in hand for another $20m in emergency funds, but why it took this long for the process they oversee to bust the piggy bank.

Yet if these problematic financial issues persist, you have to wonder, as well, what will be left to divvy up in any - that word again - financial compensation to the true victims of the ramshackle old system receiving such gold-plated scrutiny.

*David Cohen is a Wellington journalist and the author of Little Criminals: The Story of a New Zealand Boys' Home. He supplies regular analyses of the Abuse in Care Royal Commission for RNZ.

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