"An insult to those who died".
That's how former National Party leader Simon Bridges describes ministerial advice suggesting calls for a public inquiry into the Whakaari eruption be "managed down".
The Tauranga MP and former Crown prosecutor's criticisms follow those of high-profile criminal lawyer Nigel Hampton QC, who said last week a Royal Commission of Inquiry needed to be launched "immediately", and disaster and law expert Professor John Hopkins who said an inquiry was "necessary".
The December 9 eruption claimed the lives of 19 tourists and two tour guides and left more than a dozen others with severe burns and blast injuries.
Documents released to NZME reveal the advice given to Internal Affairs Minister Tracey Martin about a possible public inquiry, after the tragedy last year, included a statement urging: "that we manage down calls for an inquiry."
Bridges, National's Justice spokesman and party leader at the time of the eruption, said this week: "It is deeply concerning, and in fact an insult to those who've died as well as their surviving loved ones, for the official advice to Tracey Martin to urge managing down calls for an inquiry."
"I sincerely hope Minister Martin has disregarded that awful advice."
He had "an open mind" about a potential inquiry being "a Royal Commission or a level below that".
"What is critically important is that it has independence from the Government so that its findings cannot be criticised as self-interested or based on expedience in any way."
WorkSafe, police, the Civil Aviation Authority and Maritime New Zealand launched investigations eight months ago but central government was yet to decide whether or not to hold a public inquiry.
Internal Affairs Minister Tracey Martin has said a decision would not be made until other investigations were completed but Bridges disagreed with this approach.
"We don't need to wait until agencies such as police and Worksafe have done their jobs; we haven't in regard to the March 15 Terror Attacks Royal Commission of Inquiry," he said.
The documents included an aide-memoire prepared for Martin on December 12 by Internal Affairs staff which said 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.
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.
The Department of Internal Affairs has stood by the advice given to Martin.
A spokeswoman said last week 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."
She declined the opportunity to comment on Bridges' statements.
Martin also declined the opportunity.
She said last week "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."
"Comments in departmental emails don't have much influence on the Government's decision-making," she added.
Martin also 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