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Tova O'Brien interviews Mervin Singham

Tova O’Brien: So, a disappointing start for the Royal Commission of Inquiry into historical abuse. Is it too late to regain the trust of survivors? The executive director for the inquiry, Mervin Singham joins me now. Thank you very much for being here. Thank you, Mervin. Does the commission think it’s done anything wrong?

Mervin Singham: I think the commission is a learning curve process, but firstly, Tova, I want to thank Aaron, Tyrone and Tanya. They have been advocating for this inquiry for a very, very long time alongside many other survivors, and this Royal Commission would not have been in existence if not for them. So I want to thank them for that, and also for the feedback that I just heard on screen before.

And so hearing that, hearing their experiences of the commission, are you shocked about how they’ve been treated, how they feel they’ve been treated throughout this process?

Look, I’m sorry that the experience they feel they had was one that was less than satisfactory. We’re on a learning curve. This is a major inquiry – the biggest inquiry New Zealand’s ever seen. It is major, so we have to learn to do things differently than it has been done before.

What are your takeaways? What are you going to change based on what we heard here today?

I think, in the process we’ve just gone through, with 70 people who’ve gone through a process of meeting with the commissioner, described the account of abuse they’ve gone through, we’ve asked them questions about venue, things that we can learn to improve. And 95 per cent of those people who we talk to told us that they had a positive experience with the commissioner. They’ve also given us valuable feedback, some of which that I heard before. For example, people waiting in the waiting room without being told what’s coming up next. We want everyone who comes to us to feel respected, cared for, we want to treat them with compassion.

End-to-end care, not leave them waiting in waiting rooms.

That’s exactly right.

Did you think that those mock sessions – some of those sessions are being called mock sessions – risked re-traumatising survivors for no real reason because the evidence wasn’t actually being heard.

Well, I want to make very clear that these were not mock sessions by any means.

That’s how some survivors felt they were being treated.

And this needs to be explained clearly, because that would be traumatising, and we wouldn’t want that. These sessions were the first 70 sessions, and they are exactly the same approach that we will be taking for the rest of the inquiry. In other words, the accounts they gave us go towards the assessment and information that we’ll be assessing for the future. The only part that was different is we asked focus questions about their comfort with the content of information we gave them, their interaction with the commissioner, logistics, venues.

So you’ll continue with those sessions because you feel like they are-

We will be continuing with those sessions.

But you’ll be clearer with survivors about what those sessions are and the purpose of them off the back of what you’ve heard today?

Indeed we will. The approach we’re taking, it’s a mirror approach they’ve taken in Australia, Scotland, England and Wales. In those sessions, in those jurisdictions, I mean, people share their accounts with the commission, and those stories are then assessed for themes. But there will be public hearings, in which evidence may be called for. And I heard Tanya speak about that before – her lack of clarity about the session she had, and then how that will interact with the public hearing, so we will need to explain those things a lot more. But we want everyone who comes to us to have a positive experience, because they’re giving us the gift of their story, and we understand they would be dredging up memories, painful things that emerge, as we saw before. We want people to feel cared for, we want them to feel supported.

So, feeling cared for and feeling supported is not having someone nodding off in the room. That’s a base level respect. Did Sir Anand fall asleep during these sessions?

Look, I have to say that our record shows that he did not fall asleep. Having said that, we have to remember Sir Anand is an eminent New Zealander. He was the governor general, as you just reflected. He was an ombudsman and a district court judge. All of these roles require careful listening skills.

So we should listen to the voice of a powerful man saying he didn’t fall asleep in those sessions, versus the voices of these survivors who say he did fall asleep?

I think Sir Anand would be really disappointed to think that people felt less than satisfied with the session they had with him. What we want to do is make sure that every person that comes to us feels respected, listened to, heard, and we show them compassion and kindness.

Yeah, at the very least staying awake for those sessions. Do you recognise the damage done to the survivors and the commission by having the chief commissioner fall asleep?

Well, I have to say that our record in this instance shows that he did not fall asleep.

Did you ask him? Did you follow up with him?

I did ask him myself.

And what did he say?

He said that he reflects on information in different ways, like he sometimes closes his eyes. That might have been interpreted as sleeping.

Yeah, contemplation.

You know when you listen to the accounts of survivors, they’re really full-on – the things they share. It’s very hard to fall asleep in the middle of it unless you’re completely devoid of any human compassion, which he is not.

We’ve known about this issue for decades, and there’s a lot of criticism about how long the commission took to get off the ground and then get started. People want- Survivors want people to be held accountable, don’t they? So if the evidence establishes that prime ministers, ministers, heads of departments knew about this and did nothing, will you haul them in to give evidence to explain why?

Absolutely. That is exactly what this inquiry is for – it’s to hold people to account, to put a torchlight on the truth. It’s a big inquiry. We need to plan it carefully; we need to make sure it’s fair and impartial to everyone, so it withstands scrutiny, and that’s the only way the recommendations we make will be implemented. People are not going to implement things that we say, if they don’t have confidence that it’s got the weight of evidence behind it.

Do you anticipate that there could be prosecutions against those who have abused or covered up abuse?

That is possible. If we look at what’s happened in other jurisdictions, referrals have been made to police, prosecutions have followed. We’ve already made some referrals to the police.

In 2016, Jacinda Ardern, the now Prime Minister, she was in Opposition at the time, she called the then-government, John Key, to make a state apology. Does the government need to make a state apology now?

Look, I think the important thing about this inquiry is to make sure we uncover the truth first. To make an apology in the absence of information that says what actually happened, I think would actually rob survivors of a meaningful apology. So I would suggest that we need to wait for the inquiry to reach its findings and to show New Zealand what actually happened.

We know some of those stories, though, and at the time, I think, Jacinda Ardern was making the point that we know there were egregious abuses of state power to these children who’d been taken out of their homes, so is there not recourse for an apology now before the inquiry is complete just to address what has gone on and what we know has gone on.

Well, that would be a matter for the government obviously… In my thinking, this Royal Commission has to complete its inquiry, make its findings, and then say to the government what we think is required. The government may, of course, choose to implement that then, or mmay choose to apologise now.

Ok, all right. Mervin Singham, thank you so much for joining us.

Thank you very much, Tova.

Transcript provided by Able. www.able.co.nz


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