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Prime Minister Delivers Erebus Apology
28 November 2019
Speech Notes from the Prime Minister's Speech at the Erebus 40th Anniversary Memorial held at Government House in Auckland
E aku manukura, tēnā koutou.
He kupu whakamahara tēnei i te aituā nui i Te Tiri o Te Moana, i Erebus
I runga i tētahi maunga tiketike i riro atu rā tētahi hunga i arohanuitia
E murimuri aroha tonu ana ki a rātou. Kua titia rātou ki te manawa, mō te āke tonu. Ko te pō ki a rātou, nau mai te ao ki a tātou, tēnā tātou.
Greetings distinguished guests
In remembrance of the tragic events of Erebus
On a high mountain, those who were loved, were lost
We continue to grieve for them. They are etched forever in our hearts. The place of the departed is for them; for us, the world of light – greetings to us all.
Greetings to you all
My very warm greetings to all of you gathered here today: Your Excellency, to whom I give my very grateful thanks for hosting this event; families of the Erebus victims; members of the Diplomatic Corps, representing families from other nations; members of Operation Overdue; Hon Nikki Kaye, representing the Leader of the Opposition; Mayor Goff; representatives of the New Zealand Police and Defence Force; Dame Therese Walsh and other representatives of Air New Zealand; representatives of Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei; Rev Dr Richard Waugh; supporters and friends.
It is twelve months since I last met with many of you, and I feel privileged to be in your presence again on an occasion that is so deeply personal for so many.
In a year that has seen new tragedy for New Zealand, and for New Zealand families, your eloquence last year at the Dalmatian Cultural Centre has stayed with me. Thank you for all that you said then, and for your messages afterwards.
Today I want to speak in explicit recognition of the fact that in 1979 so much was lost; and the ramifications were immense. And time hasn’t necessarily diminished any of that.
257 people died on the slopes of Mt Erebus on 28 November 1979, 40 years ago today. Let me pause to acknowledge the enormity of that loss, and the effect it has had on the lives of the families – and also on the lives of those who took part in Operation Overdue.
That loss, in and of itself, was huge. It sent ripples across the country, and trauma that those who weren’t directly affected would probably struggle to fathom.
But that loss and grief was compounded. It was undeniably worsened by the events that followed.
While today is a day for reflection, I feel we will serve you poorly if we don’t recognise what has stood in the way, for so many years, of you all having the space to grieve, to mourn and to reflect on the lives of your family members.
Today, of all days, I hope we can say the things that should have been said.
I don’t need to tell all of you that the accident we are marking today was the subject of two official reports. The first, by the Chief Inspector of Air Accidents, Mr Ron Chippendale, was published on 12 June 1980. It concluded that the ‘probable cause’ of the disaster was pilot error. I know this finding magnified the grief of many families, particularly devastating the families of the pilots.
The second report, the product of a Royal Commission of Inquiry presided over by a High Court Judge, Justice Mahon, was presented to the Governor-General on 16 April 1981. Justice Mahon rejected pilot error as the cause of the disaster. Instead, he found that the dominant and effective cause of the accident was the airline’s actions in reprogramming the aircraft’s navigation system without advising the aircrew.
More controversially, however, the Judge went on to find that witnesses from Air New Zealand had conspired to give false evidence to his inquiry. This led to his report being severely criticised by both Air New Zealand and the then Prime Minister. When the airline took judicial review proceedings, both the Court of Appeal and the Privy Council found the Judge’s findings of conspiracy and deception unsupported and contrary to the principles of natural justice.
But what was lost in all this was the fact that no challenge was made to the Judge’s findings as to the cause of the accident. On the contrary, the Law Lords placed on record their tribute to the brilliant and painstaking investigative work undertaken by the Judge in the course of his inquiry. They said there was ample supportive evidence at the Judge’s inquiry for his conclusions about causation, and noted that his different conclusion from the Chief Inspector was based in part on new evidence before the Judge that was not available to the Chief Inspector.
In particular, the Privy Council said, and I quote, “the Royal Commission Report convincingly clears Captain Collins and First Officer Cassin of any suggestion that negligence on their part had in any way contributed to the disaster. That is unchallenged.”
Those findings stood then, and they stand now. The pilots were not responsible for this tragedy, and I stand here today to state that again.
But these were not findings accepted by the Government of the day. The Government did not table the report in Parliament. Nearly 20 years went by before the report was finally tabled in 1999.
That was wrong. It caused trauma on top of grief. And persecution on top of pain.
I want to acknowledge, as many in Parliament did when the inquiry was finally tabled, that the way Justice Mahon’s report was handled was wrong.
That mishandling was one very difficult feature of the long hard road you have travelled – in the years leading up to the tabling of the report in 1999, and through the years following. In an environment of tumultuous claim and counter claim, of public confusion and ongoing debate, it is difficult I am sure to find a clear place to set down your grief.
After 40 long years, you deserve to find that place. No one can assume to know what that requires though, or even if it’s possible. I have read many accounts from family members – letters telling stories of that day, of the weeks that followed, of the trauma that arises any time that Erebus is mentioned. All I know is that after 40 years, setting down grief will only be made harder, if we don’t acknowledge past wrongs.
If we accept the Royal Commission’s findings on the cause of the accident, which are well established, then the time has come to end the piecemeal acknowledgements.
After forty years, on behalf of today’s government, the time has come to apologise for the actions of an airline then in full state ownership; which ultimately caused the loss of the aircraft and the loss of those you loved.
This apology is whole hearted and wide reaching. We will never know your grief, but I know the time has come to say I am sorry.
In making this apology I speak also for and with Air New Zealand. I know that for many, grievances still exist with the airline. I do not comment on some of the more famous phrases of the Royal Commission of Inquiry except to note what I believe is the change in the Air New Zealand of the 21st century, a company that in form, structure and approach is very different to the Air New Zealand of 1979. I acknowledge the efforts the airline has itself made over recent years to address your grief, including bringing people from throughout New Zealand, and from overseas, to this gathering today.
I would now like to invite Air New Zealand Chairman Dame Therese Walsh to speak.
Dame Therese Walsh:
Thank you Prime Minister.
While words will never bring back those lost on Mt Erebus this day forty years ago, I would like to express regret on behalf of Air New Zealand for the accident that took the lives of 257 passengers and crew.
I apologise on behalf of an airline which 40 years ago failed in its duty of care to its passengers and staff.
And I apologise again on behalf of the airline for the way in which the families of those lost on Mt Erebus were treated in the aftermath of the accident. Better care should have been taken of you.
As the Prime Minister has touched on the Air New Zealand of today is a different airline, one which has learned many lessons from the Erebus tragedy and strives harder than ever to ensure that safety in all of our operations is paramount and non-negotiable.
On a high mountain, those who were loved were lost. Our memories of those who were lost can guide us.
Prime Minister Ardern:
Thank you Dame Therese.
Some may say that the past is the past, that we cannot change what happened. That fails to consider that our future is shaped by where we have come from. It is shaped by our response to tragedy and injustice, and by the people who stand up against it.
The past is never just the past.
As we mark the 40th anniversary of an event that remains etched in New Zealand’s psyche, we reflect on all that was lost, all that we must learn, and a future that we all must keep striving to make better.
No reira tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou katoa.