When Sir Owen Glenn announced he would finance an inquiry into child abuse and domestic violence, it was hard to know what he expected from the exercise. Private philanthropy is usually directed to practical projects, such as the women's refuge in Otara that he also pledged to assist. Public inquiries into causes and solutions of social problems are normally commissioned by governments and protected by law. Perhaps that is why Sir Owen's exercise has run into difficulty.
The departure last month of its director, domestic violence campaigner Ruth Herbert, and others who had joined the inquiry on her account, is said to have resulted from a rift over the safety of women who could testify to their experiences. Without official standing, the inquiry might not be able protect their identities, at least not to the extent that Ms Herbert thinks necessary.
Former High Court judge Bill Wilson, QC, who has taken over the chair of the inquiry, believes confidentiality has been assured. He calls suggestions to the contrary "defamatory and highly offensive ... a vendetta by disaffected former employees and contractors", which shows how heated the tensions have become.
The dissension sounds deeper than a disagreement over procedure.
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Ms Herbert and operations director Jessica Trask evidently hoped that by giving notice of resignation their witness confidentiality concerns could be addressed. But Sir Owen replaced them with a board under Mr Wilson and a new chief executive, Kirsten Rei. Others recruited by Ms Herbert dislike the "corporate" structure Sir Owen has set up in her place and more of them may quit.
It is hard to believe that personal disagreements or a dislike of corporate culture could be more important to these people than the cause Sir Owen has sponsored. They would surely persevere despite those differences if they believed the inquiry had much to achieve.
It is not encouraging that Dame Catherine Tizard, while she has agreed to continue as patron of the inquiry, suggests it make itself known by some other name. Sir Owen says he would be happy with that, and he might be. As a sponsor of more conspicuous projects - the Auckland Warriors and the university business school whose building bears his name - he hardly needs his name on this one. But as its sole funder, he cannot escape the association. It would continue to be the Glenn inquiry in common reference.
He gave a great deal of money to good causes in this country for years before his name become well known - through a political contribution he made public only because its beneficiary, Winston Peters, had denied receiving it. Sir Owen had been been a major contributor to the Labour Party too.
A wealthy man with an urge to tackle social problems should not be discouraged by those accustomed to working with public finance. Sir Owen is doubtless taking a close interest in how his money is spent - before it is spent, not afterwards as the Treasury does.
He is probably less interested in academic papers and statistical research than in getting to grips with the psychology of child abuse and domestic violence. Like most men, he will be unable to fathom how any self-respecting male can do violence to a woman or child. He knows it should not be happening in his own country. He wants to know why it happens, what the police and social agencies are doing about it, and how it can prevented. So do we all.
Innumerable previous inquiries have set out to find answers. His might be no more successful but it would be wrong to write it off.