A public inquiry into the Whakaari/White Island eruption is a "necessity" but government documents show "an unhelpful approach" to the issue, a disaster law expert says.
Professor John Hopkins' comments follow calls from one of New Zealand's most experienced criminal lawyers, Nigel Hampton QC, who said this week that a Royal Commission of Inquiry needed to be launched "immediately".
Nineteen tourists and two tour guides died from their injuries after the volcano exploded on December 9 2019, and more than a dozen others were left with severe burns and blast injuries.
WorkSafe, police, the Civil Aviation Authority and Maritime New Zealand launched investigations eight months ago but central government is yet to decide whether to hold a public inquiry or not.
Internal Affairs Minister Tracey Martin has said a decision won't be made until other investigations are completed.
Documents released under the Official Information Act show Department of Internal Affairs advisers told Martin it would be "highly undesirable" to have an inquiry coinciding with other investigations, even though this has been the case for Royal Commissions of Inquiry into the Pike River mine disaster, and those into the Canterbury earthquakes and Christchurch mosque shootings.
Professor Hopkins, director of the Institute for Law Emergencies and Disasters at the University of Canterbury, told NZME a Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Whakaari/White Island eruption was a "necessity" considering the "magnitude" of the situation.
He suspected a Royal Commission of Inquiry would expose "much bigger issues" regarding the management of disaster risks and adventure tourism in New Zealand, with "lots of different agencies doing things and not necessarily doing them well together".
Hopkins said in his view: "On the face of it there were complex and multi-faceted failures" at Whakaari/White Island he said, but the current investigations are "quite narrow" and wouldn't get "to the bottom of what happened and what went wrong".
Documents released to NZME this month include an aide-memoire prepared on December 12, by Internal Affairs staff for Martin, that said: "it is highly undesirable to set up an inquiry in parallel to regulatory/criminal investigations".
"Until the investigations are completed I urge that we manage down calls for an inquiry."
That same day, a department staff member wrote in an email: "An inquiry is beneficial when the highest levels of independence and impartiality are required."
"Not clear if that is the case here."
On December 17 the staff narrative changed, with one email saying advice to the minister "should not present an argument that an inquiry is not desirable, rather not at this time".
"Indeed if we cannot use the inquiry word at all that would be best."
The email also acknowledged that the Department of Internal Affairs may itself be subject to the Royal Commission of Inquiry.
It said: "If the scope includes some of the administrative and local government arrangements for the island, Department of Internal Affairs might be too conflicted."
This is because under the Local Government Act, the Local Government Minister is the territorial authority for some offshore islands such as Whakaari/White Island.
The Department of Internal Affairs supports the minister to fulfil this role and earlier this year NZME reported the eruption had spurred an internal review of the Department of Internal Affairs' responsibilities for offshore islands.
In Hopkins' opinion: "Generally, officials don't like [public] inquiries."
"Who does? Who wants somebody poking around in what you do?"
"But I'm surprised they wrote it down," he added when reviewing the advice to the minister.
"That's not healthy ... It concerns me. That seems quite an unhelpful approach."
He disagreed with the aversion to an inquiry running concurrently to other investigations saying: "I don't think that's right."
Hopkins believed it was more important that fact-gathering happened promptly, because "as time goes on, it's less easy to find that information".
"People need to be fresh, they need to remember."
He acknowledged there was "money at stake" if an inquiry recommended sweeping changes in volcanic tourism in New Zealand.
However, he said there was a lot more at stake "if we have another incident [like Whakaari / White Island]".
The Department of Internal Affairs declined the opportunity to respond to Professor Hopkins' comments but earlier this week it stood by the advice given to Minister Martin.
A spokeswoman said it was "potentially more difficult and sometimes more time-consuming" to conduct a Royal Commission of Inquiry as other investigations took place, because of potential overlaps and prejudices.
"For example, having to delay or reschedule inquiry information requests, witness interviews or hearings because the same evidence or people are needed in another investigation."
Martin said "comments in departmental emails don't have much influence on the Government's decision-making".
"More importantly, it's wrong to suggest the Government isn't prepared to look at itself and the role of agencies. The current Royal Commissions into Abuse in State Care and into the Christchurch mosque shootings are precisely about that.
"But holding a Royal Commission is not the only way to find out what has occurred around events and there are practical issues around them ... If, after other investigations are complete, the Government decides it needs to know more about what happened at Whakaari/White Island, a Royal Commission is one option."
In another statement earlier this week, the minister said any decision made about holding an inquiry would be done by ministers in Cabinet, not officials, and there was "no current deadline".
"We will have a lot more information when, for example, WorkSafe and the police have finished their work."
WorkSafe's investigation is expected to take a year.
What is a Royal Commission of Inquiry?
• A public inquiry is normally decided upon after discussions between ministers and officials, with advice from Crown Law and the State Services Commission as required.
• A Royal Commission of Inquiry is the most serious type of public inquiry available to the New Zealand Government.
• They involve matters of great importance and difficulty, focusing on fact-finding how a situation came about and recommending policy or legislative changes to prevent it happening again