OPINION: Important ideas often stumble on the detail, something the Royal Commission of Inquiry into historical abuse in state care is fast finding out.

A potentially life-changing concept that would hear survivors’ stories without fear nor favour, is finding itself hobbled by the near impossible task of keeping all comers happy and safe.

Published in Stuff

This week I spoke to Julie*, a rape survivor I know pretty well, who was gathering her courage to sit down in front of the inquiry and tell of being assaulted at a DHB mental health unit. She’s not fooling herself that giving deeply personal details of her rape in care to a stranger would be an easy thing to do; but she’d hoped it would help her heal. I wouldn’t be overstating it to say, she was counting on it.

She’s now too scared to attend.

“People are messaging me and telling me, don’t even do the Royal Commission now, it’s not safe.”

That Mongrel Mob member Harry Tam held a pivotal role in the inquiry, may mean Julie simply can’t risk it.

Julie’s fear of the Mongrel Mob reaches back more than 30 years. She says she was snatched off a Christchurch street in 1985, taken to a Mongrel Mob base, gang raped and beaten, then dumped from a car outside hospital. Most of the details of the rape are much too graphic to list, but Julie still remembers the rank taste of the sweat on the bandanna they used to gag her.

She was 16.

That rape is not the story that Julie was to tell the commission, but it nevertheless has all her details: full name, current address, phone number. She says she’s had to divulge “a huge amount” of her story already in emails to the commission, and it has access to her medical files. She was part of the Confidential Listening and Assistance Service in 2012, and knows once she’s in the room, the commissioner will expect her full story.

The thought that a Mongrel Mob member was part of the inquiry is terrifying.

“I would understand it if he’d left the gang a long time ago and had lots of counselling and treatment since.”

Julie is concerned by the claims by Charlotte Mildon, Tam’s ex-partner, that Tam had been violent in their relationship, and more recently displayed “Mongrel Mob stand-over tactics” towards her, prompting her to take steps to increase her security. She said she warned the Commission about him for months.

Tam was appointed to the inquiry in early 2019 and back then, his appointment will have made perfect sense. Survivor advocates agree he’s done good work defusing gang disputes and tackling violence and meth use. He had the contacts and the authority to reach people that need to be heard – the men and women, mostly Maori, whose lives were derailed by their experiences of brutality in state care and who have found belonging in the gangs.

But since then, Tam moved roles to become facilitator of the inquiry’s Survivor Advisory Group, authorised to help choose its appointees, and by some reports, potentially privy to survivors’ personal details.

Tam has his defenders, including the researcher and journalist who started it all. Aaron Smale, whose reporting over the arc of four years pushed hard for the commission’s establishment, says Tam is an experienced policy analyst whose 20 years experience cannot be ignored.

He makes the point that survivors need to trust the people and the process. The gangs trust Harry Tam, and without him, they’ll be gone.

And so the inquiry finds itself here; having to decide whether to keep an accused abuser on its books (which sounds like a nonsense), and with him the community whose trust he holds; and keeping the trust of women who have suffered at the hands of the gangs.

It looks like it will lose one of those groups – but which one?

This is just the latest hurdle for the inquiry secretariat. It has been peppered with accusations since it was established. Many felt the timeframe was wrong (it will mostly hear only from people abused in state-ordered homes and institutions between 1950 and 1999), others were gutted it left faith-based institutions out of its remit. A Government back-down on the faith issue came in November, when the inquiry’s terms of reference were finalised.

Since then there have been claims that inquiry head Sir Anand Satyanand was unsuitable for the role because of his Catholic faith; that he repeatedly fell asleep while survivors told their stories; and that early hearings were “mock” sessions that would not be included in the commission’s reporting.

Not exactly trust-enhancing headlines for participants.

Aaron Smale says he’d love to think survivors will focus on what brings them together; the rare chance to have their say after a lifetime of being ignored and not believed.

“They have something in common. They’ve all been abused by the state and that’s pretty powerful.

“If you want an inquiry that is broad and talks to everyone, it has to include the Mongrel Mob and has to include Black Power.”

It may not be that simple for people like Julie, who says there is now no safe way for her to participate in the commission’s work, even with Tam gone. While you could say she shares the experience of abuse by the state with the gangs, she has none of their power.

“Who’s to say he hasn’t contacted his bros down in Christchurch? This was supposed to be a big part of my healing, and I want the Royal Commission to work, but not on these terms.”

By Alison Mau
Published in Stuff
14 July 2019