Two months after the awful events of March 15 left 51 people dead, a Royal Commission of Inquiry is beginning to seek out evidence showing how it happened and whether it could have been stopped. David Fisher explains how the process is likely to work, based on information made available by the Royal Commission and the legal background.

The Royal Commission into the Christchurch shooting begins its inquiries next Monday - can the public attend?

There are no scheduled public hearings planned at this stage. The commission is currently considering whether it will hold one or more public meetings to allow it to hear the experiences and views of the public.

Why aren't the hearings being held publicly?

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There are a few reasons. The first is to make sure the fair trial rights of the alleged shooter aren't harmed. It would be difficult for the trial to proceed if an alternative forum was hearing testimony about his background through to what he allegedly did leading up to the attack.

Other reasons include the sensitivity of much of the information to be collected. If the inquiry seeks to find out if he slipped through the cracks, then providing a road map to others isn't a positive outcome. Also, the inquiry is under orders to serve the public good, so information or material which could be used by others in adverse ways is not going to be given a platform.

So it's a secret inquiry?

Well, it's not public anyway. There will be monthly updates posted to its website, and eventually the report will be made public. Even then, there are likely to be two versions of it - one classified version for those with the appropriate security clearance, and another for public consumption. It also has a website .

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How does a Royal Commission of Inquiry work?

It is the most powerful means by which the Government can seek answers to a question. It is overseen by two inquiry "members" who are supported by "officers", the legal and administrative staff hired to help with the workload. It has wide-ranging powers and can issue orders to parties to produce documents or issue a summons to compel attendance at a hearing or interview.

A Royal Commission inquiry produces a report at its conclusion, which is presented to the Governor General. Recent examples include the Royal Commissions into the Pike River disaster and the damage caused by the 2011 Christchurch earthquake.

Where will the inquiry be based?

The inquiry will have two offices. One will be in Christchurch, the home of the community most directly affected by the attacks. The other office will be in Wellington, where the state sector agencies are based. The inquiry is expecting to move about the country, as needed.

Sir William Young, Supreme Court judge and currently head of the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Attack on the Christchurch Mosques. Photo / Natalie Slade
Sir William Young, Supreme Court judge and currently head of the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Attack on the Christchurch Mosques. Photo / Natalie Slade

Who is running the inquiry?

Supreme Court Justice Sir William Young was the first member of the inquiry announced about a month ago. Young's background is Christchurch - his high school, university and first law job were in the city, and it was where he was appointed to the judiciary.

The second person, Jacqui Caine, was announced this week. She trained as a lawyer but became a career diplomat, most recently as New Zealand's ambassador to Chile, Colombia, Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia between 2015 and 2018. She was worked for Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu since February this year.

Career diplomat and Ngai Tahu special projects director Jacqui Caine, currently leading the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Attack on the Christchurch Mosques. Photo / Supplied
Career diplomat and Ngai Tahu special projects director Jacqui Caine, currently leading the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Attack on the Christchurch Mosques. Photo / Supplied

Who is collecting the evidence?

Documentary evidence will be collected and sorted by staff then made available to the members. Interview subjects will meet with and speak to the members, or delegated staff, with evidence transcribed.

Who is being spoken to?

A number of state agencies have already been approached. Expect to see extensive evidence produced from police, who were apparently contacted about the gun club and who oversaw the issue of a firearms licence to the alleged killer.

The inquiry will also speak to the Government Communications and Security Bureau and NZ Security Intelligence Service. Information from the intelligence agencies will be critical, but will be jealously guarded to preserve any hint of how they operate.

There is also a Muslim Community Reference Group being established to ensure the community has the best pathway to engage with the inquiry, and vice versa. Other groups or communities who feel at risk can also seek meetings with the inquiry.

Flower tributes at Christchurch Botanic Gardens in the week of the massacre. Photo / Michael Craig
Flower tributes at Christchurch Botanic Gardens in the week of the massacre. Photo / Michael Craig

What is the Royal Commission going to investigate?

In short, they seek to answer the question of how the massacre happened and whether it could happen again. It will ask what state agencies knew of Brenton Tarrant's activities before March 15, 2019, what they did with that knowledge and what they could or should have done.

The inquiry will also ask how to stop such an attack happening again, which means studying Tarrant's life in Australia and New Zealand, his travels around the world, how he got his gun licence and the weapons he used, what his activities on social media were and who he was connected to or possibly influenced by.

What sorts of things might they study?

One of the issues raised after the attacks was whether our intelligence priorities had focused too much on threats from Islamic terrorist groups and not on the rising threat of the far-right.

The inquiry seeks whether information collected wasn't used but also whether there was information which existed and was never collected or shared between agencies in a way which could have triggered an alert.

A police escort to the cordon near Hagley Park, Christchurch, in the days following the attacks. Photo / Michael Craig
A police escort to the cordon near Hagley Park, Christchurch, in the days following the attacks. Photo / Michael Craig

What can't it investigate?

The questioning stops at the point the alleged killer opened fire - the police and emergency services response is not part of the inquiry.

It is also unable to probe the guilt or innocence of anyone charged in relation to the attacks - that's what the courts are for. The changes to firearms law is also out, as is the actions of non-state agencies - Facebook, for example.

How long does it go on for?

The findings of the Royal Commission must be presented by December 10.