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The tragedy of the National Erebus Memorial project

The author (pictured ) with Dame Naida Glavish, in front of Te Ha  Photo credit: John Crawford


Regular LG contributor Vaughan Winiata speaks his mind about a contentious project that has united an eclectic Auckland community and is proving a telling case-study in Government-local community relationships.

On the morning of 28 November 1979, Air New Zealand Flight TE901 flew on a sightseeing flight to Antarctica and crashed into Mt Erebus killing all 257 passengers and crew on board. The tragedy remains the country’s worst civil accident.

Some 39 years later on November 28th, 2018, the Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, in her role as Minister for Arts, Heritage, and Culture announced that a National Erebus Memorial would be completed in time to mark the 40th anniversary of the tragedy. At the time a site had already been selected for the memorial and that is when things took a turn for the worse, and sadly the National Erebus Memorial project lingers on as a victim of what has been an appalling mismanagement of the site selection process.

The budget to build the memorial is $3.5 million and information sought through an Official Information Act request reveals that $1,065,216, has already been spent (or 30 percent of the original budget) on the likes of consultants and reports, without a sod-turning ceremony in sight.

Key the words ‘National Erebus Memorial’ into a search engine and it reveals an ongoing dispute that dates back to 2018 and the site selection process. The current plan is to build the memorial in Auckland’s Dove-Myer Robinson Park on Gladstone Road in Parnell.

This park is well-known as home to the popular Parnell Rose Gardens and a significant pohutukawa tree that dominates the proposed memorial site. Just as important as the gardens are the site of the old Mataharehare Pa site with deep cultural and historical significance for Ngati Whatua.

A missed deadline

The 40th-memorial target of 28 November 2019 set by the Prime Minister has long gone and a National Erebus Memorial has still yet to be built because of multiple objections over the site and the selection process.

I think the blame rests solely with the Government through an appallingly flawed process that has been fraught with incompetence, and disrespect for both the Erebus victim families and local iwi.

The government ministry responsible for the project is The Ministry for Culture and Heritage, and, I have to say, the ministry appears to have made a total pig’s ear out of this. The worst of the bungling is the weak consultation with Erebus families, local iwi and the Parnell community. When it comes to consultation with local Maori interests, this is the very ministry that is supposed to be the gold standard for adhering to protocol.

A lack of community communication has resulted in a long-running protest by Parnell locals on the site and a rahui (a form of tapu restricting access to, or use of, an area or resource by the kaitiakitanga of the area) over the Dove-Myer Robinson Park.

I have had the opportunity to scrutinise documents used to brief the Prime Minister on the site selection process. In November 2019, the PM said she was “very comfortable” with an Erebus memorial being built in Dove-Myer Robinson park, despite the controversy surrounding it.

I have no idea how anyone could be at all “comfortable” when there is a whole bunch of supporting facts as to why the site selection process is a total disaster.

There are too many facts to digest in one sitting let alone fit into the space allocated for this article, so I will focus on three key areas: The 180-year-old pohutukawa; the Resource Management Act; and the Flawed Consultation process.

The venerable Te Ha

Standing very stately in Dove-Myer Robinson Park is a magnificent 180-year-old pohutukawa tree named Te Ha, which is probably as old as the Treaty (Te Tiriti) and is the country’s largest urban specimen, and has been the subject of protests to protect it in the past.

The meaning of Te Ha is ‘the breath’ and represents the life and health of our Earth Mother (Papatuanuku). Site plans require a path to be cut into the root system of this venerable tree to access the eight metre-high, 17 metre-long, 95 cubic metre memorial structure. Construction includes 534 cubic metres of earthworks excavations. Pohutukawa trees of this vintage can live for up to 1000 years so, at 180 years of age, and Te Ha is pretty much at the teenage stage of a life spanning 10 centuries. Being our largest pohutukawa specimen it will also get a heck of a lot bigger over the next 800 years.

With no disrespect to the Erebus families, Dove-Myer Robinson park has no connection at all with the Erebus tragedy and Te Ha is more significant to this site.

An unusual argument in favour of the site connects the memorial to the tree as representing ‘life’. Anyone knowledgeable about Maoritanga knows it is the puriri tree that is held deeply sacred and associated with birth and death.

The Resource Management Act

To understand how The Ministry for Culture and Heritage has got itself into such a pickle, it’s helpful to look at how a ‘Non-Notified Resource Consent’ works under the Resource Management Act (RMA).

A non-notified resource consent application does not need to be publicly notified – ‘no one needs to know’. Councils are required to determine whether a resource consent application will be either Notifiable or Not Notifiable. The final decision is made by a commissioner, in this case an Auckland Council appointed commissioner approved the consent to proceed on a non-notified basis with no public notice.

It is also worth noting that a non-notified consent application must be processed within 20 working days, very useful if there is urgency or in a hurry. It is important to note that the Non-Notified Resource Consent was granted even though expert advice, and submissions had already been received highlighting major issues over the site.

Weak consultation process

Our Government is famous for its infatuation with reviews, reports, committees, advisory panels, and focus groups.

So, I find it hard to believe a project involving the Prime Minister, The Ministry for Culture and Heritage, and the Auckland Council could have such a weak consultation process. Every which way you look at the consultation process, there are flaws.

That, however, has not stopped The Ministry for Culture and Heritage repeatedly claiming in writing that its process has been “robust”. If the process was so “robust’ why didn’t it include consultation with all immediate families of the 257 passengers and crew lost in the Erebus tragedy?

The Ministry for Culture and Heritage has also, inadvertently I hope, created division among the Ngati Whatua community including Dame Rangimarie Naida Glavish, one of our most prominent Maori community leaders and former president of the Maori Party.

Naida tells me she got involved in the protest over the site after realising the extent of incompetence around the engagement and consultation with local Iwi.

An Official Information Act request reveals that the only reason Ngati Whatua-o-Orakei was  consulted was because it raised the issue as a problem at a Waitemata local board meeting in October 2018, after it became clear there had been no consultation with the iwi over the memorial site.

Also revealed in the same Official Information Act request was that, following the local board meeting, an internal email was circulated around the Ministry for Culture and Heritage asking for a contact in Ngati Whatua-o-Orakei and said; “we will initiate discussions with the aim of securing agreement ahead of the meeting”.

Thorough iwi consultation would have required a lot more than a ‘discussion’ before the meeting as such processes in Maoridom take considerable time. My own experience in these situations tells me a timeframe of at least 90 days would have been a more realistic. There are 35 marae with an interest in the rohe (region) of Tamaki Makaurau, and it would have been impossible to achieve unanimous agreement with all 35 marae by way of one ‘discussion’ prior to a meeting.

Documents obtained under the Official Information Act also reveal that the Ministry for Culture and Heritage did not inform our Prime Minister of a report by consultants Boffa Miskell in August 2018 that assessed the park as a poor location, stating that it was noisy and would struggle to “develop a new memorial identity”.

A united stand

What we can take a lot of heart from here is the fact that a community has come together, galvanising many representations, to spell out to the Government what should be obvious. The memorial site is not fit for purpose and is not wanted by the Parnell community.

If the Government had done what it said it would do and followed the “robust process” it claims to have done, none of this would have ever happened.

Where do we go from here?

We all need to work together on this one; the Erebus victim families, local Maori, the community of Parnell – in fact the team of five million as the National Erebus Memorial deserves.

I am confident that with ‘rangimarie’ (peaceful) minds and ‘mahaki’ (respectful) hearts we will take the National Erebus Memorial to its proper home.


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