Simon Collins

Simon Collins is the Herald’s social issues reporter.

Why abuse project broke down in tears

It was meant to produce a world-leading solution to violence in the home, but Sir Owen Glenn's $2 million inquiry has imploded. Simon Collins investigates what went wrong.

Ruth Herbert (right) and Owen Glenn. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Ruth Herbert (right) and Owen Glenn. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Sir Owen Glenn should know by 6pm tomorrow whether his $2 million inquiry into family violence has a credible future.

That's when most of the 38 members of the expert "think-tank" are due to decide whether to walk out in sympathy with the former director, Ruth Herbert, or stay within the inquiry's new "corporate" structure.

Three of the inquiry's four co-chairs plus operations director Jessica Trask, one think-tank member lawyer Catriona MacLennan and three part-time contractors have already quit since Ms Herbert decided concerns about the inquiry's integrity made her position untenable.

One of the remaining think-tank members, Waikato University psychologist Neville Robertson, said members expressed their concerns in a joint email on Wednesday to former Supreme Court judge Bill Wilson, who has been appointed to chair a new governance board, and Mr Wilson replied late on Thursday.

"Think-tank members are thinking about the response. I think that will emerge on Monday," he said.

"People are scattered around the world and there may not be a total consensus, but I would expect that, broadly speaking, a consensus will emerge."

It is a tragic irony that an inquiry set up with high hopes that it could tackle family violence in a way no government-funded inquiry could, because of its complete independence from the state, has foundered because of a clash between the ethics of its passionate staff and experts and the expectations of its sole private backer, Sir Owen.

Sir Owen put up the money - part of an $80 million pledge he made last July "to raise attention to New Zealand's family violence and child abuse statistics and his commitment to reverse them".

He found Ms Herbert through his Auckland public relations agent Niki Schuck. The well-connected operator heard that Ms Herbert had just finished a term managing the Ministry of Social Development's family violence unit and might be available.

Ms Herbert jumped at the chance, and by the time the inquiry was announced in September its focus had broadened from child abuse to include domestic violence - the issue she has campaigned on for much of her life.

"Seventy per cent of the child abuse cases also have domestic violence happening, mostly the father abusing the mother," she explained.

The original plan was to appoint a panel of three to six people to travel around hearing evidence from survivors of family violence, frontline workers and professionals, backed by a think-tank of local and international experts.

The panel was expected to come up with a "blueprint" setting out "what works and what doesn't work" to reduce family violence.

Nine months later, there is still no panel. Instead, Ms Herbert persuaded an impressive list of 25 local and 13 overseas experts to join the think-tank, and eventually decided small groups of think-tank members could hear evidence from people directly.

Instead of being driven by a small expert panel, the new idea was that the process would be a "people's inquiry" driven from the grassroots experiences of survivors. An initial hearing was held in Tauranga in mid-April.

On May 5, four new "independent chairs" were unveiled to chair the hearings: former Race Relations Conciliator Gregory Fortuin, Auckland lawyer Denese Henare, Waitangi Tribunal member Joanne Morris and former Chief Human Rights Commissioner Rosslyn Noonan.

But tensions were already building.

Unlike the state, Sir Owen did not have unlimited money. In February the chief executive of his family foundation, former Auckland University business school dean Barry Spicer, and an assistant, Mattie Wall, left because of a cash squeeze.

Money started flowing again after an investment matured, and Sir Owen said funding was unaffected.

But Ms Herbert was concerned that Weekend Herald coverage of the squeeze undermined public confidence in the inquiry. When this writer quoted her saying "Sir Owen had given her a budget for the inquiry", an indirect quote taken from an off-the-record conversation, she felt the breach of trust was a matter of principle for an inquiry into family violence - that building non-abusive relationships depended on trust.

Other media coverage also caused problems. Ms Schuck encouraged local media to publicise hearings in their towns, but Ms Herbert insisted precise dates or other details should not be published so survivors of violence could give evidence safely.

In April, Ms Schuck and Ms Herbert helped the Weekend Herald to interview a survivor of domestic violence for a story about Family Court reform, but Ms Herbert and the survivor withdrew their comments the day before publication because the story also included comments from a men's group activist who was alleged to have abused his partner.

Ms Schuck, who was in the United States, tried to mediate at long distance, but appears to have left Ms Herbert feeling unsupported on an issue she saw as central for the safety of survivors' evidence to the inquiry.

On May 9, Ms Herbert and Ms Trask gave Sir Owen four weeks' notice of resignation. They expected this to lead to a negotiation that might have dealt with their concerns. But Sir Owen, who was due to go overseas a few days later until late July, moved swiftly to replace them.

Wellington tax lawyer Geoff Harley, who had represented Sir Owen at a select committee inquiry into his donations to NZ First, suggested Mr Wilson, a colleague in the same legal chambers, to chair a new governance board. Sir Owen offered Mr Wilson the post over coffee when he was in Wellington for a Warriors game on May 11.

Another governance board member Donna Grant, who regards Sir Owen as an "uncle" because of his lifelong friendship with her father, the late Sir Howard Morrison, suggested Kirsten Rei as a new chief executive. Mrs Grant, who runs Rotorua's Manaakitanga Performing Arts Academy, had worked with Mrs Rei in tertiary education and helped to welcome her as the first regional children's director in Rotorua.

Sir Owen invited Mrs Rei to the first meeting of the new governance board in Auckland a few days later.

"She was introduced as a potential chief executive. Clearly with Ruth having resigned, it was very important to get a new chief executive in position as quickly as possible," Mr Wilson said. "The decision was made at that meeting to appoint her."

But the new corporate structure has upset the experts. All the co-chairs except Mr Fortuin resigned on May 31 citing concerns about the "people's inquiry" being squashed by the new structure.

Dr Robertson still hoped the inquiry would continue, but "in a way that allows free and frank discussion about the systems, that is not afraid of taking on the hard issues about the role of state institutions".

"If that can be done, great."

- NZ Herald

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